BROOKINGS, S.D. (KELO)– College and university campuses are becoming more diverse, but there’s still a lot of work to do. According to U.S. Census data, white students make up more than half of college enrollment in the United States. The numbers for students of color, though growing, are still well below that. That’s one reason why South Dakota State University has several groups to help retain diverse students, but that’s not the only focus.
When Robert Escamilla began college, he remembers feeling excited about his future. Cut to now, and the 26-year-old just graduated on Saturday.
“It’s a journey I’ve been on for five years,” Escamilla said.
Even with thousands of students on the same path, Escamilla felt alone and lost.
“Coming here, it was kind of like, ‘oh my God. Where do I fit in?” Escamilla said.
It wasn’t like that where he grew up in Texas. It’s 16.5 hours from Lubbock to Brookings, but Escamilla says he felt even further away from himself.
“To begin with, it was really hard. Coming from Texas, everywhere I looked there were people who looked like me,” Escamilla said.
To say the least, when someone asked him a question, it was a culture shock.
“She came up and asked me, ‘so, do you speak Latino?’ And I just kind of…a drawback, wait what did you just ask?” Escamilla said.
Escamilla didn’t get mad, but he did use it as a teaching moment.
“I was like, well, I would never go up to you and ask you if you spoke white I would ask you if you spoke English,” Escamilla said.
Eventually, Escamilla got involved with the Latin American Students Association and the coordinator of multicultural recruitment, Alex Wood.
“The first person I went to was Alex, okay, here’s someone of color that I can talk to and so he sort of really helped me start into school,” Escamilla said.
Two groups on campus, Los Hombres and Brothers’ Circle, focus on male students of color and help them meet people to make school a little easier. Recently, the groups sponsored an event called a Moment of Brotherhood for diverse students and faculty.
“We all gathered one evening to share a moment of brotherhood, where it was a space, a safe space, for our students of color and minority students,” Florencio Aranda, Latino Multicultural Affairs Advisor, said.
Here’s a look at diversity. Wood estimates diverse students make up 15-percent of SDSU’s campus. Nationally, according to 2017 census data, Hispanic students make up less than 20-percent of college enrollment, up only about seven percent from ten years ago. In that time, black student enrollment grew a mere one-percent from 13 to 14-percent. Asian students are at just more than eight percent, up from six-percent.
Wood and Aranda says campus groups to grow diversity are important for a number of reasons, including academic success.
“Research shows students are more inclined to be academically successful, especially in the university setting when there are individuals who look like them that have similar backgrounds,” Aranda said.
Even the reasons for diversity you may think don’t matter…do.
“A young man, African American, wanted to get a haircut. Probably not just going to find that easy spot here in Brookings, but being able to connect him and say, oh my gosh, here’s my barber I know in Sioux Falls,” Wood said.
“There are certain things, you just, form a cultural standpoint, you know where it’s at. You know how to access it. You get some place else and you don’t have that, that does take away a little bit of who you are,” Wood said.
Escamilla hopes these groups will help other students of color who come here.
“It will be hard, but don’t give up. I think eventually the longer you are somewhere, the more you’ll realize, hey, I do fit in with these people. I do belong here,” Escamilla said.
In this journey, finding representation is the compass Robert Escamilla needed so he didn’t lose himself in the crowd.
To learn more about the multicultural center, you can visit its website.