June 4, 2003
Nabeel Uwaydah stood before a group of fellow Baylor students one evening in mid-April and said, "I'm of Arab descent, I'm not a terrorist, I've never ridden a camel in my life and I don't know how to wrap a turban."
He immediately had the attention of the room of about 75 students -- mostly minorities -- who had gathered for a student-led forum on racial diversity sponsored by Student Activities, Student Congress and Student Government.
"We're going to sit and talk about things we normally don't get a chance to talk about," said Uwaydah, a sophomore and member of Student Congress who helped coordinate the forum and facilitated it. "We're going to start by debunking some myths about different races and religions."
Others quickly joined in, standing to call out the stereotypes they encounter:
From a white male: "I really can jump."
From an international student: "When I go to Nigeria, I do not see lions."
From a black male: "I'm awful at basketball."
From a Latino male: "I don't mow your yards."
From a black female: "I'm not the dumbest person in my class."
From a white female: "I'm a white Baylor student and I'm not rich and snobby."
David Ortiz, director of Student Activities and Student Congress adviser, said the forum was student-driven by those "so passionate about these issues that they were tired of just sitting within their small circles of friends talking and wanted to move to a larger circle of friends. As Baylor students, they live and breathe diversity every day."
Baylor's racial and ethnic numbers are comparable to other private colleges in Texas (see chart) and are improving. Between fall 1995 and fall 2002, black student enrollment increased from 529 to 771; Hispanic from 956 to 1,078; Asian from 777 to 883; and American Indian from 60 to 75.
"I know the numbers are significant enough that you can't walk too far on campus without seeing an ethnically mixed student body," Ortiz said.
The idea for the diversity forum began in fall 2002 when Brad Pierce, student body internal vice president, received approval from Student Congress to form an ad hoc diversity committee, which met during the spring semester. Its goals were to identify the issues involved with diversity and create opportunity for discussion.
"On this campus, there's a lot of self-segregation of groups," said Pierce, who was re-elected to his student government position in April. "We wanted to try to find out why that's the case."
The dialogue at the forum did not wane during the two-hour meeting. Topics included how to increase interaction among Panhellenic and minority Greek organizations; diversity in residential facilities, faculty and administration; and minority groups' access to and knowledge about University resources.
Noting how few white students were present at the event, one black female student said, "What we don't have here tonight are those people who truly don't understand and don't see a problem. We need to not just reach out to each other, but to those who don't even know there is a problem."
Cori McCusker, a white female student Community Leader in Kokernot residence hall, challenged the group: "There's just so much blame against whites. Educate us, because we don't know. Don't put us in a box and judge us. We need to be open-minded."
Ortiz has been in Student Activities for a year and he commented, "I haven't seen the students of color here stepping up and bringing real issues to the table where we can meet halfway. It really needs to come out of a group like this."
About 40 students signed a sheet at the end of the forum indicating their interest in the formation of a student diversity council on campus. In the week following the forum, student government leaders discovered a previously chartered campus organization called Baylor Bridges, which had become inactive. Organizers plan to take over that charter as the basis of a new multicultural student council.
Pierce expects to see more discussion and action in the fall. "My concept of a complete education is learning about these groups I don't usually associate with, addressing issues that are not easy," he said. "Diversity is key to that, and that goes beyond race to ideas."