Tackling diversity: BCC department will try to reflect community's ethnic makeup
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
After listening to seven white students discuss racism in a recent class, Danielle Legge joined the circle and dryly told her classmates, "It feels a little weird listening to a bunch of white people talk about racism."
Legge's father is black and her mother half Japanese. Her remarks to the Bellevue Community College group reveal changes the Eastside technical and community colleges are undergoing as they match — and sometimes surpass — the growing diversity of their host cities.
The class, "Skin Deep," offers an early look at an ethnic-and-cultural-studies department to be unveiled at BCC in the fall. The goal: to broaden a curriculum that school officials say too often ignores the student body's new global mix. The college has 27 percent students of color, compared with 15 percent in 1995.
Legge's unease may hint at the problems the colleges still face, though — lots of diversity and talk about it but lingering challenges.
Specifically, they struggle to recruit faculty members of color and retain some minority students who, for one reason or another, often drop out after a few quarters.
A changing community
An immigration boom in the 1990s and the movement of minorities to the Eastside have made the communities more diverse, especially at the region's community and technical colleges. A casual stroll through the campuses reveals myriad languages and skin colors.
Many minority students also commute from Seattle and other areas to Eastside colleges — just two in five BCC students come from its official service area of Bellevue, Mercer Island, Snoqualmie Valley and Issaquah.
Legge, for instance, car-pools with friends from Seattle. She said that while she feels uncomfortable when she's alone and off campus in Bellevue, the hillside campus — with its thousands of students of color — offers more safety and assurance.
"People feel more comfortable here now because they see like faces," said Nikia Knight, a BCC graduate and coordinator of a college program for high-school dropouts.
The college has nurtured that environment, said its president, Jean Floten.
While not faulting the college, Ron Taplin, associate dean for multicultural services, said more must be done to increase academic achievement among blacks and Latinos especially.
Nearly two in five black students who enrolled between the 1997-98 and 1999-2000 school years attended for just one quarter during the following two-year period, meaning they essentially dropped out of school. By contrast, just one in five Asian students dropped out. Numbers for Hispanics and Native Americans weren't available.
"It's troubling data, real troubling data," Taplin said.
A heavy load
Working too many hours to pay for school and often support a family is the biggest obstacle to academic success, Taplin argues. Nearly a quarter of black students in the fall were working 40 hours a week, while just 16 percent of Asians were, according to the college's Office of Institutional Research. Asian students were most likely of any group to stay in school and the least likely to work while taking classes. Nearly a third of Native Americans work full time while going to school.
"Economics is the big issue," Taplin said. "Money that would otherwise go to school is competing with other economic needs."
Floten is appealing to the Bellevue Community College Foundation, a private group, for more financial aid for poor students, while Taplin has begun trying to find corporations and community groups that can help students with financial woes.
Staying in school is just a beginning, however, as the tight job market demands students with solid grades and immediately applicable skills, Taplin said. "Take a look around you. You think anything less than high academic achievement is good enough? I don't think so."
Taplin and his staff reach out to struggling minorities in the summer before school starts to explain what's ahead and how to make college work. They advise students to work together, see an adviser often and live by certain rules: sit in the front of the classroom, be on time, never miss a class. "Students who heed our advice do better," Taplin said.
A more diverse faculty
A lack of minority faculty members also can impede progress, college officials said. Though 27 percent of students are minorities at BCC, 15 percent of the full-time faculty are. At Renton Technical College, the numbers are similar. At Lake Washington Technical College, which tracks employees rather than faculty, 17 percent are minorities.
That can be problematic for students who feel more comfortable talking to counselors or faculty from the same ethnic or racial background, said Chequita Williams-Cox, BCC's assistant director of advising.
Legge also noted that students of all races and ethnicities at BCC tend to segregate themselves. One room in the student center is known as the "BET room" around campus because that's where black students seek friends and often watch Black Entertainment Television. She called the phenomenon unfortunate but not surprising.
A walk around the cafeteria reveals the same thing — students seated at one table speaking one language, while classmates at the next table speak another.
Seeking a common ground
Given that atmosphere, will the ethnic-studies department further balkanize a campus seeking common ground among an increasingly diverse group?
That common ground amid difference is what multiculturalism can achieve, said professor Kimberly Pollock, who will head the new ethnic-studies department. "Many people talk about ethnic studies as a form of segregation. But with critical multiculturalism comes the prospect of more perspectives. Speaking with one voice is not what the country's founders had in mind," she said.
In this time of cost-cutting, the new department will be lean, with one full-time faculty member and other teachers on loan from other departments, Pollock said. She views the new department as a chance to broaden the intellectual experience of whites and minorities, while giving the latter the feeling they have a stake in the intellectual life of the campus.
Pollock and her colleagues use creative methods to illustrate how race, class and gender manifest themselves in American life. On a recent Monday morning, they played a version of Monopoly in which the players are given a socioeconomic class — in addition to a car, horse or thimble — and are then directed around the board by a banker, who holds all the money and power.
These creative methods must be balanced, Pollock said, with the type of rigorous analysis a college class should require but for which her students often are unprepared. The antidote is a heavy reading and writing load, she said.
Legge said the approach is working. The reading requirements, which vary from economics to literature to psychology, and the discussions in her "Skin Deep" class are helping her and her classmates understand where and how attitudes about cultural identity are formed, she said.
"I'm learning from people from Redmond and Kirkland that their ideas come from their parents, their schools, their neighborhoods," she said.
Staff writer Michael Ko contributed to this report. J. Patrick Coolican: 206-464-3315 or email@example.com