Campus town halls are improving student inclusivity

Francisco Dominguez

Beyonce must have been thinking of the 20 million college students’ freshman experience when she titled her song “Sweet Dreams (Beautiful Nightmare),” since it’s safe to call that memorable first year a giant oxymoron — in which we somehow experience the most exalting of highs and the most humbling of lows at the same time. This toggling of emotions can seriously impact academics, and faculty are finally taking action. Sacha Kopp, College of Natural Sciences associate dean, is on a mission to find out why students who were at the top of their class in high school are failing once they arrive on campus.

On Feb. 26, Kopp hosted more than 60 CNS students and faculty at a Town Hall event where students shared both their toughest and most glorifying experiences at the University, depicting what challenges they faced and how they succeeded. This Town Hall event was the second-to-last installation in a series held by Kopp this semester to gather student input. Kopp insists that a unified freshman experience is becoming increasingly pivotal for collegiate success because more people are graduating from CNS than ever before and, as his introductory graph showed, at a much higher rate than students in the rest of the colleges and schools at the University. 

In response to Kopp’s four main concerns that he voiced at the Town Hall — college readiness, finding role models, feeling alone and family or cultural expectations — the wide spectrum of students in attendance recounted their personal struggles, struggles I, as a first-generation Hispanic male, can relate to. 

Often, as biology senior Ronnie Shade pointed out, minority students are burdened by acute self-awareness. “I constantly have to look at myself in someone else’s lens,” Shade said. “Am I being eloquent enough? Does this person understand me? There’s always a pressure to be at a certain standard because if not, it makes the rest of us look bad. And I use this as motivation.” 

Shade alluded to a key element of college life — actually, life in general: identity. He, along with others who spoke out that evening with equally touching stories, revisited the topic of identity as one of the main obstacles that minority students face — and for good reason. 

According to the UT’s Office of Information Management and Analysis, black students constituted a mere 4 percent of the student body in 2011, despite the fact that African-Americans make up more than 12 percent of the total Texas population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Hispanics of “any combination” were enrolled at rates less than half that of the state’s: 17 percent compared to 38 percent, respectively. 

Both Shade and I are pursuing careers in medicine; our two demographics make up about 30 percent of the national population yet account for less than 6 percent of total physicians. Given the University’s history as well as the underrepresentation of minorities in scientific disciplines, it would serve administrators well to investigate how this disparity affects student’s academically, socially and emotionally.

By sharing their experiences, they subsequently shared their innermost doubts, worries and fears that UT has brought them. The impact on the audience’s mood by talking about our struggles, in what felt like a large group therapy session, certainly was visceral, a transformation from frustration to relief. In effect, the Town Hall helped the students in attendance become supremely aware of the trials other students are facing and how similar they are to their own. 

Town Hall events increase understanding and, in turn, inclusivity. Now, even though we can’t identify with other students physically or idealistically, we can empathize and relate with the effects of our differences. It was funny to hear an echoing in testimonials from an event that focused on diversity. Practically every angle was hit, and yet the struggles sounded so similar. Perhaps diversity being an issue is a facade, and, rather, we should recognize our Universality. Town Hall meetings, and gatherings of the sort, help us arrive at this conclusion.

With that, my quest continues: to find just one other Puerto-Rican student at the University level.

Dominguez is a biology junior from San Antonio.