UI’s lack of diversity presents barrier to some students of color

The University of Iowa’s graduation rates for students of color lags behind that of white students — and some students of color feel a lack of diversity contributes to feelings of isolation.

6-year+graduation+rate+across+Iowas+regent+universities.+Graphic+by+Caleb+McCullough.

6-year graduation rate across Iowa’s regent universities. Graphic by Caleb McCullough.

Kate Perez, News Reporter


E’mma Camara, a first-year student who is Black, said the ratio of students of color to white students does not surprise her at the University of Iowa — but she expected to see more diversity when she came to campus.

“I figured that there’d probably be more white people [on campus],” Camara said. “But I was expecting to have more people of color in my classes, on the day to day and in the dining halls. I just expected to see more of them in more places, but I really don’t to be honest.”

She said the university is doing a “pretty good” job of acknowledging different identities and is being respectful.

“But, you can’t really help the actual numbers,” Camara said. “In all my classes, I’m pretty much the only person of color and if I’m not the only person of color, I’m the only Black person.

University of Iowa student E’mma Camara poses for a portrait on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. (Grace Kreber)

In the past years, the retention rate of students and faculty of color has dropped, with more and more people unsatisfied. According to the 2020 Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Campus Climate Survey results:

  • Only 49 percent of faculty and staff who identify as being from an underrepresented minority reported that they would encourage someone who shares their social identities to accept a position at the UI.
  • 50 percent of faculty and staff who identify as being from an underrepresented minority reported that they seriously considered leaving the UI, compared to the 39 percent of faculty and staff who identify as white.
  • 45 percent of faculty and staff who identify as being multi-racial reported that they seriously considered leaving the UI.
  • 48 percent of faculty and staff who identify as being Latinx reported that they seriously considered leaving the UI.
  • 26 percent of faculty and staff who identify as being Asian reported that they seriously considered leaving the UI.

Andrell Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican first-year student and Advantage Iowa Scholar, said his experience has been disappointing at the UI.

“When I was waiting for the bus after one of my classes, I started people watching and I noticed that for several minutes, I didn’t see a single person of color,” Rodriguez said. “I think there’s definitely an effort to try to be the university that is more diverse — but like with everything in today’s day and age — I feel like it’s more for the sake of just being diverse, and not because they actually care.”

Data visualization by Molly Milder/The Daily Iowan

Rodriguez said he knew ahead of coming to the UI that the retention rates for students, staff, and faculty of color were low.

“When I was looking at schools I wanted to go to, that was the case in the vast majority of them, the like graduation rate of people of color as compared to white people,” Rodriguez said. “They were all lower.”

University of Iowa student Andrell Rodriguez poses for a portrait on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. (Grace Kreber)

Grayson Lottes, a Puerto Rican and Cuban student, said his time has been different from others on campus.

“My suitemates, two of us are Hispanic, one of us is Black, and then my roommate is white,” Lottes said. “And so predominantly there, it’s different from other people’s experiences already.”

He said he feels like there’s a lot of diversity in his classes.

“I’ve seen quite a nice amount more POC than I expected,” Lottes said. “I expected it to be predominantly white people. But it hasn’t been.”

Being an Advantage Iowa Scholar, Lottes receives emails about opportunities regarding diversity and inclusion programs and other resources, helping Lottes feel connected, he said.

Danielle Martinez, director of student retention in academic support and retention, said she works with students of color and first-generation students in order to close the gap between the retention rates of majority students and students of color.

“We ask students ‘what do you like most about the University of Iowa,’ and for a lot of our rural students, our white students, they say, ‘Oh my gosh, the diversity, there’s so many different people here, I love it,’” Martinez said. “Then we ask the same question of like, what do you like least about Iowa? And what we hear a lot from our students of color is ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s not diverse at all.’”

In the UI class of 2025, 22 percent identified as a student of color, which is up from previous years, Martinez said. Martinez added that the student of color retention rate from the fall 2020 cohort is about 86.9 percent, reported through the Office of the Registrar.

University of Iowa student Maria Engler poses for a portrait on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. (Grace Kreber)

Retention numbers for students of color are also lower than the white student retention numbers across all Iowa public universities according to the state Board of Regents Fall 2020 Graduation and Retention Report.

  • In 2019, the percent of white undergraduate students who returned for a second year was 88 percent. The four-year undergraduate graduation rate was 54 percent.
  • The percent of undergraduate students who identified as part of a racial or ethnic minority who returned for a second year was 87 percent. The four-year undergraduate graduation rate was 42 percent.
  • The percent of undergraduate students who identified as part of an underrepresented minority who returned for a second year was 85 percent. The four-year undergraduate graduation rate was 41 percent.

Maria Engler, a Filipina-American first-year student, said she is satisfied with the level of diversity she has seen at the UI.

“I was the only Asian person in my high school, and then coming here, it was nice seeing other people that simply looked like me,” Engler said. “Other people that were Asian or identified as Filipino-American, it was nice to see.”

Pratibha Khatri, a first-year honors student who is Nepali, said there are enough resources at the UI for diverse students, but has not received as many emails as the students that are Advantage Iowa Scholars.

Data visualization by Kelsey Harrell/The Daily Iowan

“When you think about it, the teachers are probably also facing xenophobia in some sort of way,” Khatri said.

The UI Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is looking to change these results, Liz Tovar, executive officer of the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan. Tovar wrote that the changes are not an overnight flip, but are a key focal point in the new strategic plan.

Pratibha Khatri poses for a photo on Thursday Sept. 23, 2021. (Grace Kreber)

“Our campus climate results have suggested we need to do a better job in this area,” she wrote. ‘We need to understand the reasons for departure and allow our data to guide us strategically around this issue.”

The Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is committed to keeping its faculty and staff at the UI, Tovar wrote.

“We have many voluntary programs, including the BUILD training program, which our faculty and staff participate in each year,” Tovar wrote. “The key is for everyone on our campus to have a role in this effort. We all can purposely work to respect everyone, commit to keeping great talent in Iowa and work to build a welcoming community for all.”

It is everyone’s job in the community to take steps to be more affirming, provide opportunities, and support each other, Martinez said.

“I think, just as an institution, we have some really good opportunities to create change,” Martinez said.

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