Building a campus that includes everyone

Cortney Sanders

I won’t be in class on Wednesday. Instead, I will be in Washington, D.C. at the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the historic arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas.

This case will decide whether UT will be able to continue on the path to becoming a place where students of all races and backgrounds are truly welcomed into our university community.

When the Court makes its decision, it should let UT keep the race-conscious admissions policy it has now. The policy is working. In fact, UT should do more, not less, to ensure that all students get the benefit of meeting people of different races, cultures, ideas and viewpoints.

Ensuring that UT provides open pathways to leadership and opportunity is especially critical for African-American students. For much of the University’s history, we have been excluded by law or marginalized in fact.

Right now, about 75 percent of each freshman class is admitted under the Top 10 Percent Law, which only considers high school class rank. For the remainder, the admissions office considers not only grades and test scores, but also more than a dozen factors in an individualized review of applicants’ background and experiences. These factors include personal essays, leadership qualities, extracurricular activities, community service, family responsibilities, socioeconomic status, whether the applicant comes from a single-parent home, work experience during high school, whether languages other than English are spoken at home and race.

I was guaranteed admission to UT because I was valedictorian of my high school class in Houston. But I think it is critical that there be a pathway into UT for students who bring unique talents and experiences to the table, even if they missed the cutoff for Top 10 Percent admissions.

I love UT, and I’m glad I’m here, but I have had both good and not so good experiences as one of what is still a relatively small number of black students on campus.

As a freshman, I often found myself sitting in my room wondering whether I belonged here. Very few people whom I encountered in my residence hall, in my classes or anywhere on campus looked like me. I remember calling my mother in excitement when I saw five other African-American students on campus one day during the spring semester of my first year after taking a biology test. How many white UT students ever find themselves in a similar position?

When I go to my classes, I am often either the only African-American girl or the only African-American student. Sometimes, even when the class is larger than 200 students, I look around and see maybe only one other black student. Professors and other students often expect me to speak for my race or give “the black perspective” as though there was only one. While African-Americans have similarities, our personal paths to UT may be very different. My perspective growing up in Houston could be very different from that of someone from a small town who is the first in her family to go to college.

Sometimes, contributing what I know about black culture and traditions feels comfortable. For example, I was in a small English class where I was one of three black students. During a series of discussions about “The Color Purple,” the renowned novel by Alice Walker, my classmates all said that they appreciated my input because they had never looked at things from my perspective. Growing up, we often listened to jazz, and I was able to connect the role of jazz in the novel to the important contributions that African-Americans made in pioneering that genre of music, which is not just entertainment but a critical tool of self-expression and one of the first true American art forms. I also shared my insights based on conversations with my grandparents about their experiences with Jim Crow segregation.

UT has taken strides to promote a more inclusive campus climate. But several recent incidents have served as stark reminders that we still have a long way to go. In the past few weeks, African-Americans and other students of color say they were hit with bleach-filled water balloons thrown from apartment balconies in West Campus. And some sororities and fraternities have recently held themed parties in which members and their guests – who were mostly white – dressed up in clothing associated with offensive racial stereotypes.

These incidents emphasize that UT still needs to do more to pursue diversity. On a campus that is robustly diverse, these incidents are less likely to occur and, if they do, less likely to be tolerated.

I won’t get a chance to talk to the Supreme Court justices, but if anyone in Washington, D.C. asks what I think, I’ll tell them: “Don’t Mess with Texas.” Now is not the time to tie the hands of University officials, students, faculty and others who are working together to create a campus environment that truly embraces all of us.

UT students of all races are standing together to make our collective voice heard.  We need our University to continue to be able to use the necessary tools to admit and support students who will strengthen all of our experiences with diversity.  Only then will we fulfill our school’s motto: “What Starts Here Changes the World.”

Sanders is a government and African and African Diaspora Studies junior.  She was the 2011-12 Political Action Chair of the Black Student Alliance, which filed an amicus brief in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, along with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.