Fight or Flight: Multicultural Student Life at St. Olaf College
Mike Shoemaker and Phala Hoeun
St. Olaf College is a predominantly white, private, liberal arts
college with about 3,000 students. It is located in Northfield,
Minnesota, has a cherished Norwegian heritage, and is affiliated with
the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Students of color
account for about nine percent of the student body.
Numerous research accounts have illustrated the difficulties facing
students of color at predominantly white colleges and
universities. Our intent was to explore the dynamics of
multicultural student life at St. Olaf College, and what might be done
to improve it.
The sample population included first-year through senior year students
of color at St. Olaf who are associated with Student Support Services
(SSS), the Multicultural Affairs and Community Outreach office (MACO),
and/or multicultural organizations on campus. We interviewed fifteen
students from this population, as well as six faculty/staff members
involved in multicultural student life on campus. To select these
students, we conducted a snowball sample, consulting students involved
in the aforementioned groups, created a list, and then extracted a
stratified random sample from the list. Faculty and staff members
were chosen at the recommendation of the students interviewed, and were
not necessarily of color.
Students of color generally face considerable cultural isolation,
experiences with racial and ethnic stereotyping, and even
discrimination at St. Olaf. They are expected to educate the
broader St. Olaf community about multicultural issues, to be tokens of
diversity, to represent their racial or ethnic group, and still be able
to gain the most out of their St. Olaf education. In search of
support, cultural expression, and empowerment, students often become
very active in multicultural organizations on campus and/or more
heavily involved in the SSS program. Yet this is met with
hostility and generally seen as self-segregation by the larger student
body. The marginalization of multicultural programs and events
also leads to further feelings of isolation among students of
color. However, these groups and programs play a vital role in
multicultural student retention, as they are a crucial source of
mentorship, guidance, and support.
Currently, the situation of multicultural students at St. Olaf mirrors
the ethnic and racial marginalization and desegregation that exists in
the larger society. This does not reflect well on a college
committed to service. Similarly, as more and more first
generation college students are students of color, the college’s
mission demands that St. Olaf become a truly more diverse campus.
Given the college’s strong Norwegian Lutheran heritage, this move will
undoubtedly meet resistance.
The St. Olaf Community
St. Olaf College, founded by Norwegian immigrants in 1874, is a
private, liberal arts college located in Northfield, MN.
Northfield is a rural Minnesota town, located approximately thirty-five
miles south of the Twin Cities, with two colleges and a population of
about 17,000 people. Roughly 3,000 students attend St. Olaf,
whose mission promotes a liberal arts education rooted in the Christian
gospel, and providing students with a global perspective. Also,
“Forty-four academic majors, 27 intercollegiate sports, a
world-renowned music program, and a nationally recognized commitment to
international study help St. Olaf fulfill its mission to develop and
nurture mind, body and spirit” (www.stolaf.edu/about). Its
strong Lutheran heritage and affiliation with the Evangelical Lutheran
Church of America help it lead the nation in the number of graduates
who have earned a Ph.D. in theology. Its rigorous academic
programs earn similar honors in mathematics and the natural sciences.
Demographically, St. Olaf is a predominantly white college, with about
9.4% of the student body being students of color (percentage indicates
the number of students who self-report being something other than
white/Caucasian on their St. Olaf application). The demographic
makeup of the student body has changed very little to not at all over
the last ten years
(www.stolaf.edu/offices/irp/enrollment/ethnic.html). The majority
of the students on campus, about 62%, receive financial aid, and the
average financial aid award is about $18,000 at a college costing about
(www.stolaf.edu/offices/irp/Pbl/CDS/03H.finaid.pdf). Thus, we can
infer that the St. Olaf student body from a range of economic
backgrounds. In addition, the college’s relatively large number
of first generation college students creates a St. Olaf community that
is socioeconomically diverse.
Statement of the Problem
On a campus dominated by white students and staff, the experiences of
multicultural students will inevitably differ from those of their white
peers. The wide body of research discussing the experience of
students of color on predominantly white campuses is fairly consistent
in its findings. Students of color face a large degree of
cultural isolation, experience longer and more difficult adjustment
periods, confront varying degrees of racial or ethnic discrimination
and/or prejudice, and often don’t share the same amount of social and
academic support as their white peers. These factors have a
significant impact on multicultural student retention and academic
performance (see bibliography for specific studies).
The purpose of this study is to explore the specific
dynamics of multicultural students’ experiences at St. Olaf, and
whether multicultural students, faculty, and staff view these
experiences as positive or negative. We also intend to further
our understanding of why they perceive it as such.
Our study consisted of twenty-one interviews, fifteen of which were
conducted with current students, the other six with
faculty/staff. All of our student interviewees were multicultural
students, and our sample was created using snowball sampling. An
initial group of multicultural students were identified by their
participation in multicultural organizations and their time spent in
the MACO office. Using these individuals as starting points and
asking them for the names of other persons they consider to be
multicultural students, we created a list of possible
interviewees. From this list, we conducted a stratified random
sampling of fifteen students based on their race/ethnicity, gender, and
year in school. Out of the fifteen students of color interviewed,
nine were female and six were male. There were five
Black/African-American students interviewed, four Latino students
interviewed, and five Asian/Asian-American students interviewed.
Four were first year students, one was a sophomore student, five were
junior students, and five were seniors.
For faculty and staff, we sought out six individuals who were
identified by multicultural students as friends/mentors of the
multicultural student body, heavily involved in multicultural
activities, and seriously engaged in multicultural student life.
These faculty/staff members were not necessarily multicultural
For participant observation purposes, we utilized the
Multicultural Affairs and Community Outreach Office (MACO), Flaten Hall
(location of the Student Support Services (SSS) Program), Stav Hall,
and multicultural organization meetings. These organizations
included the Asian Cultures Association (ACA) organization, Hmong
Awareness Group (HAG), the Cultural Union for Black Expression (CUBE),
Presente, and the Muslim Student Association (MSA).
All requests for interviews were conducted in person and interview
notes were recorded in writing. The confidentiality of participants’
identities was assured, and so will not be disclosing names or year in
school in our findings. Gender and ethnicity are also undisclosed
except when interview citations require them. In one case, an
alias is used to protect the identity of the participant.
In one of our final interviews, we asked a student this question, “What
should St. Olaf do to improve life at the college for students of
color?” His answer provides a telling introduction to our findings:
“People need to learn more about other cultures. Now, the student body
is not really integrated, it looks like this (left illustration).
There’s some mixing, some converging, and some pulling apart. Or maybe
it looks like this [laughs] (right illustration). Some people can
graduate not knowing anyone from the other group.”
The fact of the matter is, the experiences of students of color at St.
Olaf differ significantly from those of their white peers, because of
the relative segregation and cultural isolation that they
encounter. The findings listed below are an attempt to document
how these experiences unfold.
First however, a few clarifications are needed. If conducting this
research has taught us anything, it is that the experiences of
multicultural students at St. Olaf are as diverse as the group of
people itself. Also, the need of multicultural students to be
viewed as individuals is very real. For these reasons, we are
very wary of depriving people of their individual experiences, stories,
and opinions. Yet the nature of our research compels us to focus
on those trends and patterns that seem to pervade multicultural student
life. Additionally, our findings must not be understood as a
description of the “average” multicultural student experience at St.
Olaf. No such experience exists; it is very unlikely that any
individual student’s experience plays out exactly as we have outlined
As two final notes, any use of the term “diversity” in this paper
refers explicitly to difference based on race or ethnic heritage,
unless otherwise stated. Also, we have decided to use the terms
“multicultural students” and “students of color” interchangeably.
We are aware that a great deal of debate exists around the use of this
terminology. Yet we found that most of those students and faculty
interviewed tended to use the terms interchangeably, and so shall
For students of color who were able to visit the St.
Olaf campus as prospective students, they were able to physically
observe the campus environment, get a feel for the make up the student
body, faculty, and staff, and for a short time, experience the
atmosphere of the classroom and cafeteria. With these preconditions,
students of color oftentimes formulate expectations of themselves, the
campus environment and of student life on campus. In general, students
who choose to attend St. Olaf often come with academic and social
expectations. However, these expectations vary among incoming students
of color. Socially, expectations are slightly different for students of
color than those of white students because of the fact that the St.
Olaf campus is a predominantly white campus. Academically, students
typically feel that college coursework will be more challenging and
difficult than high school coursework.
Nevertheless, students of color who were enrolled in
Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs
felt they were prepared for college work. Additionally, programs like
Upward Bound (federally funded TRIO program like the Student Support
Services Program (SSS)) united high school students with college
students to help them realize their potential for college. These
college students served as mentors and offered personal and academic
guidance for high school students working toward obtaining a college
education. Socially, students of color expected to be a part of
the underrepresented group on campus, the minorities at a predominantly
white campus. Not only would students of color be among the few on
campus, they would be among the few off campus as well, in Northfield
itself. It is also important to point out that among students of color,
there were those who came here hoping to begin their college journey on
a clean slate, without any expectations and those who came with their
expectations laid out. The following quotes illustrate the variety of
expectations expressed by some of the students interviewed:
“I came here without any expectations, I didn’t know what wanted, I just fell into place.”
“Academically, I figured I’d be about average because St. Olaf took in lots of private school kids, from the suburbs.”
“I would like to learn about other cultures, but not feel pushed to
meet people. I want to make friends who are lifelong, those to count on
in the future, after graduation.”
“I expected more people to be aware of things outside their upbringing
and immediate surroundings, be into social and political change,
working for change.”
“I knew it was very challenging and that I’d have to compete with
people with a better education. I was scared I was not able to succeed.”
Whether these expectations
have or have not been met also differ. Overall, academic expectations
have been met and students of color are satisfied with their college
education. The transition from high school to college has been
challenging and the college coursework more demanding and in-depth.
Socially, many students of color feel the need to be on a more
multicultural campus, with more students, faculty, and staff of color.
In order for any student- black, white, or purple, to feel at ease and
at home while at college, they must be comfortable in the space they’re
in. At a college where most of its students stay on campus, it has
great potential to be like a home away from home. If students of color
do not feel that they can be themselves in an environment such as St.
Olaf, where they are surrounded by white students, faculty, and staff
who may not contribute to a welcoming and accepting environment,
students of color must deal with the fact that their four years here
will be met with great challenges. These challenges may serve as
distractions if they are not dealt with in a positive manner and
students of color may end up dropping out, transferring, or going
through life at St. Olaf unsatisfied. Consequently, many students of
color seek refuge through interacting with other students of color,
faculty, and staff, and participate in multicultural organizations on
This social phenomenon among students of color is
the foundation that draws others like them to become unified with one
another as active members who are reaching for similar goals. These
goals are to spread cultural awareness, raise multicultural issues on
campus through events and discussion, and express themselves as
individuals without being lumped into one group. Even students of color
who weren’t as involved in multicultural affairs in high school have
found St. Olaf to be a starting point for creating communities,
developing leadership skills, and increasing their own self-confidence
levels of a diverse community.
Experiences with culture shock, stereotypes, discrimination, and racism
During the early stages of adjustment to the campus
environment and student life, students of color often begin to
experience culture shock. Being a student of color on a white campus
affects all aspects of student life. In a classroom setting, students
of color are either non-existent or very few. When a student of color
is tardy or absent from class, it is more noticeable and easier for the
professor and other students to point out. In the field or on the
court, students of color can quickly be identified through mere skin or
hair color. In the cafeteria, students of color are known to sit
together at one table, or in one particular area. These types of
experiences allows for many students of color to feel less as
individuals and more as a part of a colored group. It also allows white
students to look upon students of color as an “exclusive people” who
segregate themselves among the rest of the students on campus. As a
result, students of color become quickly aware extremely cautious of
the issues they must face when dealing with white students.
Before being able to deal with a problem, the
problem must first and foremost be acknowledged. White students are
often perceived as being ignorant among many students of color because
they are completely oblivious to multicultural issues and don’t know
how to interact with students of color. They are hesitant to break the
ice and befriend students of color. They hold to their stereotypes of
people of color and are at times afraid to be around people of color
alone. At the opposite extreme, some white students who have been able
to acquire at least one friend of color feel they have made great
strides in becoming more accepting and understanding of people of
“The white kids say, “It’s not that bad, what are you bitching about?”
They have passive aggressive attitude and smile behind the mean truth.”
“People will talk to me about how they were racist, that they never had
a black friend. It’s good…but it’s uncomfortable. People don’t worry
about saying more racist things when I’m around”
These perceptions from white students about students
of color are causes of stereotypes that lead to misunderstanding and
miscommunication. Using the findings from a 2001 Sociology
/Anthropology research paper by alumna Jessica Knutson entitled, “White
Students Perspectives on Racial Diversity at St. Olaf College’” white
students believed that students of color were admitted to this college
through Affirmative Action. The white students she interviewed felt
that race and racism were not issues that existed on the campus; this
kind of “white ignorance” is usually apparent in white students who
aren't culturally competent. Many white students at St. Olaf come from
either small towns or the suburb where there is less ethnic diversity,
have parents who have a college education, went to prestigious high
schools, come from at least middle class families, and have had minimal
or no real exposure to people of color. These students who have had
encounters with people of color either have watched people of color as
portrayed on television or in the media. Students who had few friends
of color in high school or growing up may feel that they have a firm
grasp on race issues. Students of color commented on conceptions they
thought white students had about them. Here are some responses:
“They think that we like to exclude ourselves from the rest. They ask,
why do all students of color sit together? But they don’t notice that
many kids are white at the colored table [in the cafeteria].”
“They think we got here through Affirmative Action, that we always get
to class late or don’t show up to class...or that we’re here on
“They think that we’re all poor and “ghetto.”
“They think we’re more likely to be lazier, that we have a different
agenda. Whites tend to think minorities have different goals in college
and for the most part, are too liberal for understanding things like
politics. They think that we’re more likely to swear.”
“I don’t want to generalize, because there area lot of different white
people on campus. I’m guilty of it too. There are some who are
comfortable with making multicultural friends, but some are
intimidated. I’ve heard some say that minorities don’t get good grades
and are let in because the school is sympathetic, that we’re not
qualified to be here (because of programs like SSS), there’s a lot of
misunderstandings. I try not to think about it.”
Students of color often report having perceived
feelings of racial discrimination, prejudice, and stereotypes. Some
white students do not intentionally mean to be racist, whereas other
white students are blatantly racist. Stereotypical and racial offensive
comments have been directed toward students of color at St. Olaf, other
comments are subtler. Many of these stereotypes stem from not only
miscommunication from the media, but a lack of communication between
whites and people of color. This lack of communication may result in
the development of preconceived notions and set the stage for
stereotypes, discrimination, and racism. Students were asked, “Have you
had experiences with stereotyping at St. Olaf? These experiences may or
may not include prejudice or discrimination. Could you explain?” The
following are some of the responses:
“It hasn’t affected me personally, but talking to other minority students on campus, the majority of them have.”
“We’re cool because we can sing and dance. We’re loud. We can’t be
trusted. If we can’t afford it, we shouldn’t come here. We’re “people
escaping poverty” [referring to the former Professional Exploration
Program (PEP) program].”
“People assume I know how to speak an Asian language fluently or that I may not be good at English. “
“People act “black” to me just because I’m black. They say, “I love it
when you do the black thing” and “Man, I wish I was black.”
“I’m a lazy Latino. Because I’m a minority male, I’m a playa. Some assume I’m so liberal, I’m an atheist.”
“I don’t even know how to react now, I just kinds let it slide, get it off my back, and for get about it…their loss you know?”
Sometimes there is a lack of understanding within
racial groups among students of color. For instance, there are many
people who can be categorized as being Asian or Hispanic, but people
often overlook the fact that there are many subdivisions within these
categories such as language, dialect, traditions, food, clothing, etc.
that people should learn to acknowledge.
“People tell me what it means to be black in America.”
“I have a hard time connecting even with a lot of Asian students here…we’re culturally different.”
“ People don’t realize that there are differences between those of the
same ethnicity…such as national identity. You don’t have to be outside
of the multicultural group to have these experiences.”
Women of color face a “double barrier” of being
victims of stereotypes not only by race but also by gender. Even though
this issue was not raised directly within the students we interviewed,
except for one example provided, we felt that this was another
dimension of stereotypes that exists within the broader category toward
people of color. One of our interviewees gave us this example of an
incident that took place in a St. Olaf gymnasium:
“You would be a good basketball player, why aren’t you on a team?”
Women of color outnumber the men of color on campus. Professor Joan
Hepburn is the founder of the Women of Color group on campus and has
worked relentlessly to provide a support group for the young women of
color on campus (within recent years, the Men of Color group formed on
campus). This group was originally made up of African American women,
but throughout the 1990’s has expanded and become more ethnically
diverse. The Women of Color group is a framework for discussing issues
of importance pertaining to women of color. These issues range anywhere
from discussing study abroad trips, to future career choices, to
interpreting dreams, to coming up with fundraising ideas, to planning
trips and activities and the list goes on. Professor Hepburn usually
provides dinners at her home, with the understanding that her women of
color enjoy home-cooked meals. She is warm and welcoming and makes her
group of women feel like they’re at a home away from home. She often
invites mentors to speak at group meetings, and in many ways she has
inspired the older women of color to mentor the younger women of color
Some white professors are also guilty of
stereotyping and discrimination. White professors focusing too much
attention to racial heritage can lead to discrimination in the
classroom. It can result in provide false assumptions of multicultural
students and their academic abilities. These professors may feel that
they have more than enough knowledge to inform students about race
issues through their research and therefore need no students of color
to contribute to class discussions to tell them otherwise. Thus,
students of color find themselves being discriminated against and
misunderstood. Professors may even expect less academically for
students of color and “go easy” on them. A few students interviewed
reported that some professors have shown direct discrimination and
underestimation of their intellectual abilities. These students shared
the following experiences:
“There were three multicultural students in the class. We all missed
class once at different times. But the professor pulled all of us aside
to say that we’d been missing class a lot. That professor put us
together as a group.”
“My professor was unhappy with my performance, but wouldn’t talk to me.
The professor went to the Dean of Students office and accused me of
cheating. It made me want to leave school. I felt the need to prove
myself. I took the test over and we found out that someone else had
cheated off of me. I didn’t want to deal with racism.”
“My professor pointed me out in class and asked if I understood. The
professor apologized for not talking enough about black people.
Overall, many students interviewed felt that
professors believe in their ability as a student are helpful in
providing the support needed to succeed academically. These professors
have made students of color feel more comfortable in the classroom and
in their offices.
“I haven’t really felt any discrimination. I feel some empathy at
times, which has caused me to push a little harder because they
[professors] recognize that we’re more susceptible to lose
“I think that professors not only believe in your ability as a student, they see where your potential may lay.”
“I’ve never had experiences with a professor judging me before seeing my work.”
“I think it depends on the professor. The ones I’ve had have either been lenient or harder. They grade me equally as others.”
“For the most part, St. Olaf has done a good job training professors to
help minority students. It’s the students they need to work on.”
When students were asked if they felt other students
believed in their ability as a student, the responses also ranged.
“I don’t care if they believe in me or not, I think me being in college
says something in itself. We’re all here for the same reason which is
to get a college education.”
“Students expect a lot from me, I feel that other students feel that I have the ability as a student.”
“Sometimes when I worked in groups, I dreaded working in groups. When
someone takes charge, I have to prove myself to show that I’m as
intelligent as they are. I’m not sure if it’s because of the people’s
personality or because of their race.”
“They see me as an outsider and what I have to say is not standard or
academically smart. I think outside the box, and it would hurt their
grades. They like to regurgitate what they read in the book without
questioning it. Or they take professors’ words as the final say.”
Possessing cultural competency is one factor that
may be lacking and therefore causing false perceptions made by white
students about students of color. Trying to build one’s understanding
about people from other cultures is important to help eliminate false
notions about those from other cultures. It is easy to lump individuals
together based on one experience or one person. This may result in
“tokenism,” where one person is representative of the whole. In cases
where race is involved, especially in the classroom, a student of color
may be asked or expected to speak on behalf of his/her whole entire
culture and race.
This is a critical point for many multicultural
students because if they spend too much time thinking about all the
wrong things and questioning themselves and why they are at a place
like St. Olaf, they may stay trapped in this culture shock. They may
not identify as being an “Ole.” Thoughts about leaving St. Olaf, and
perhaps transferring to a bigger, more diverse school may arise,
resulting in a bitter attitude and less satisfaction with student life
on campus altogether.
“I feel like it’s been stolen. Life has passed me up. I spend too much
time explaining myself and my life to people. They ask me, why do you
talk like that? Why do you have all that hair stuff? Nah ah, that stuff
didn’t really happen to you. They think it’s a joke.”
Social support is key in students’ satisfaction with
the college and retention. Friends, especially other students of color,
family, role models, and mentors are all essential in providing a sense
of familiarity, worth, guidance, and comfort in an environment such as
St. Olaf. Campus resources such as the Multicultural Affairs Office,
Student Support Services, and Multicultural organizations are necessary
at institutions such as St. Olaf to provide a sense of belonging and
support network for students of color. Academic support is also
important to students’ academic performance. Sometimes experiences with
stereotypes, discrimination, and racism affect academic performance, it
either pushes students of color to deepen their insecurities, to
continue questioning their abilities as a student, or it impels them to
strive even harder toward academic success. When students of color
internalize these stereotypes of oppression, they may feel
disadvantaged and unable to succeed academically as white students.
Here are a few testimonies from students who felt that such experiences
had affected their academic performance:
“[I] think about it all the time and push myself. I ask, how come I
can’t meet these expectations? I wanted to prove myself to show that I
am really smart. I became more driven to prove people
wrong, it kind of motivates you, but it’s not good motivation.”
“It puts self-doubt in my head, I never had that until I got here, the
fact that students felt they were better than me…the ones that went to
prep schools. I felt they were [better than me] and wanted to be close
to their academic performance. If the white students were a “B”
student, I’d be a “C” student, just so I’d stay low. My friends always
told me how smart I was, but I didn’t believe I was, I thought I was
here by luck.”
Students of color differentiate and sometimes
separate feelings of being welcome, accepted, and fitting in. The
campus climate plays a significant role in providing an environment for
which students feel they are welcome. The way white students, faculty,
and staff treat and interact with students of color provides an outlet
for acceptance on this campus. Whereas, fitting in may be the biggest
challenge of the three due to demographics of the college. The majority
of the students at St. Olaf are white, blond haired, blue-eyed, and
come from higher economic backgrounds. Most of the white students here
have been educated in a suburban or private school setting. On the
other hand, most of the students of color here are from urban settings
and have been educated in public schools that are very diverse in terms
of ethnic representation. Students talked about their feelings of being
welcome at St. Olaf, acceptance, and fitting in:
“I don’t scream that I’m from St. Olaf. I don’t sport St. Olaf
clothing, I don’t have pride, I don’t show spirit. It ‘s just a school
I go to.”
“Largely, students are very open-minded, which may partly be due to the major.”
“It’s a little bit harder to be recognized as an “Ole” because we’re not typical.”
“I guess I don’t fit in because I’m not the demographic norm. People
who stand out and those who don’t fit in are the ones making a
difference here, those are the ones challenging the norms.”
“I feel welcome here, admissions chose me for a reason, I had something
St. Olaf College would benefit from. I don’t feel accepted here because
I’m not white.”
“I feel recruited so people can learn what it’s like to be like me.”
‘I fit where I want to fit.”
The Summer Bridge Program through SSS, is a core
part of the program that allows students who are accepted into the
program to experience a small part of St. Olaf College life through a
five-week program during the summer that usually begins at the end of
July. The aim of the program is also to provide students with study
skills, receive academic advising through SSS advisors and SSS
upperclassmen who serve as teaching assistants and mentors, and have
fun through social and cultural activities put on by the SSS staff.
Another important part of the program is that students get to take an
introductory biology course along with a lab component, which a St.
Olaf professor teaches. This gives SSS students an opportunity to gain
exposure to the rigor of college courses, professors, and get an early
feel of the campus.
After successful completion of the program, SSS
students receive one biology credit that counts toward their graduation
requirement. However, the Summer Bridge Program is not a requirement
for being a member of the SSS program. SSS Students may decide to spend
their summers doing other things, but many SSS take advantage of this
summer opportunity because it may serve as a starting point at St. Olaf
and as a bonus, it offers students an opportunity to meet other SSS
students. Students of color account for approximately seventy-percent
of SSS students. It is during the Summer Bridge Program that SSS
students begin to form close bonds with one another. These bonds
continue to grow in numbers and in strength as more and more students
join the program. Students in the SSS program not only make friends who
are students of color, they also make white friends. The majority of
students of color however, reported having more multicultural friends
than white friends and that the SSS program is one of reasons why.
“More of my friends are SSS students and multicultural students.”
“My closest friends are in the SSS program.”
“We went to high school together and were in the same programs but didn’t become friends until the Summer Bridge Program.”
“The majority of my friends are multicultural…that I met through SSS…we bonded and from there, everyone just stuck together.”
The tight friendships formed during the SSS program
have had a significant impact on student of colors’ level of
satisfaction at St. Olaf. These friendship groups were reported by
almost all of the students interviewed as being sources of support. Not
only were friends important aspects of their lives at St. Olaf, their
friends were like their family. These friends provide a strong sense of
connection that the SSS program helps to build. It was more
important for students of color to have a few very good friends than to
have many friends who were around and in passing. Students in the SSS
program share a commonality with one another, for example, through
their life experiences, ethnicities, preferences in entertainment,
geographical background, etc. It is this type of understanding between
students of color that allows them to be more open and trusting in
their relationships with other students of color. These students added
that it is because of their friends that they are still here at St.
Olaf. A few expressed that friends are an important part of their
experience here, but are not the determining factor on their level of
satisfaction with the college.
“Over the years, I’ve had lots of friends come and go, so I try not tot
let it determine my satisfaction here. My friends have been really
good, they helped me realize that I’m not just some fluke who got into
college. They’re good for support.”
“If my friends weren’t here, I wouldn’t be here…I would have quit.”
“It’s not about the quantity, it’s abut the quality. I don’t have lots
of friends, but what I do have is a good group of friends.”
“My friends are a huge part of why I stayed, even in the challenges and
trying to make a difference. I at least have a support system, someone
who knows how I’m feeling…someone I can talk to."
There is a need for more effective dialogue among
all students, faculty, and staff on campus to address issues dealing
with ethnic diversity, multiculturalism, and race on campus. If there
is no dialogue between whites and people of color, stereotypes,
prejudice, discrimination, and misunderstandings will continue to
pervade our lives and infect us with a preventable disease. Change will
not happen on it’s own, someone needs to take the initiative.
“We represent a challenge that they need to have to get out of the
comfort zone. If they want to take that challenge, that’s when they
communicate with us. If not, they need to be pushed by one of their
own. We represent change, not only domestically on campus, but the new
America- international students, immigrants, first, second, third,
fourth generational people whose forefathers struggled to be here. We
represent the struggle and that’s how I believe faculty and staff see
Multicultural Spaces, Cultural Expression, and Support
Another primary way multicultural students rectify
their need for social support and cultural expression is through
participation in multicultural organizations and MACO and SSS
activities. MACO and SSS serve important roles in supporting
multicultural students, multicultural activities, and developing a more
positive community climate. Yet beyond their determined
functions, these offices form needed spaces for students to be among
those who they can relate to culturally, as well as those who share
their daily struggles and feelings of marginalization. In these
spaces, students of color are able to meet new people, congregate,
socialize, carry out business, and just be themselves. In the
same way, multicultural organization meetings and activities are
important sources of social support and group solidarity among
members. A few examples illustrate this point:
“I knew coming here was going to be a lot like my high school –
predominantly white, rich-kid culture. But I also knew that there
would be others like me – multicultural students who shared common
struggles. I came looking for that group of people who I could be
good friends with... For sure it has to do with a common
struggle. I can’t get away from that; it’s the truth. That
commonality builds a special relationship between multicultural
“[I participate in multicultural organizations] because I know the
people in those organizations can relate to me and my situation as a
woman of color in this country.”
“When I walk into the MACO office, I know I can say whatever I need to
say and people will understand... I will wait all day to share things
until I go in there.”
“[How do you react to experiences of stereotyping?] With intellectual
reproof. I usually get very educational... but eventually I just
hang out with colored people. Eventually, I need to get away from
that environment, to get away from having to educate.”
“There are certain times of day when I feel like I can act multicultural... When I’m in MACO, I can be multicultural.”
The first two examples demonstrate multicultural students’ need to be
around others who can understand their experiences as people of color
in a predominantly white environment. The need is real and
becomes a point of solidarity amongst an otherwise very diverse group
of people. Though most students acknowledged that the summer
bridge program formed the basis for many of the their relationships,
what keeps them together throughout the years at St. Olaf seems to be
their common experiences as people of color at a white college.
Moreover, the last three examples illustrate the importance of spaces
like the MACO office and multicultural student organizations in
creating a type of haven for these students on an otherwise white
campus. They are places where students of color can go to feel at
The reality of these places as multicultural spaces
is also demonstrated by white students’ reaction to these spaces.
For example, students of color are highly criticized for eating meals
together in the cafeteria. They are accused of isolating
themselves from the rest of the student body. Multicultural
students do nothing to discourage white students from eating with them
(there are always white friends mixed among the group), yet the space
is perceived by many to be exclusively for students of color. Our
field notes offer another example of this:
“As I walked into the MACO office with Becky, who I was about to
interview, we had to sneak by a white female student standing in the
doorway. The student was speaking with a friend inside the
office, but was reluctant to enter. Instead, she stood in the
doorway, holding the door halfway open. Katie turned to me and
said, “Yeah, we find that really interesting, too. When white
students come to the office, they never come inside. They always
just stand in the doorway. We’re like, ‘It’s okay, you can come
in. We won’t hurt you.’”
The above example illustrates the perception of places like the MACO
office as being explicitly multicultural. This perception is
powerful enough that many white students even feel intimidated entering
such spaces. It becomes an ironic reversal of roles, as white
students are the ones who, in these brief instances, feel slightly out
of place. Entering the room entails relinquishing their usual
majority status and putting themselves in an unfamiliar
Besides being sources of social support for students
of color, multicultural organizations, in particular, provide necessary
opportunities for cultural expression and education. One of the
primary functions of multicultural student organizations is to
facilitate cultural events. Students see these events as chances
to share their stories and their cultures with the wider community, and
to overcome the lack of cultural competence among whites. As one
“My first year I just went [to meetings] because my friends went, but
now I see how [multicultural events] can benefit the student body as a
whole... I know that most people don’t intend to be racist;
they’re just ignorant. They weren’t raised in a diverse
environment. That’s why I’m in involved in ACA [(Asian Cultures
Association)]. I want to raise awareness amongst the student
It’s evident in this excerpt that multicultural events hold serious
meaning for many students of color. They are more than just
shows. They are opportunities for group members to educate the
student body with regard to the group’s history, their cultural
practices, and the issues that they face. They also function as
attempts to breakdown stereotypes about certain racial or ethnic
groups. They are efforts by students of color to make the campus
see them in way that they would like to be seen. The fact that
they are culturally specific rather than just “multicultural” adds to
the feeling of pride associated with such organizations.
In addition, institutional support of these events provides students
with the financial and political capital necessary to briefly transform
other parts of campus into multicultural spaces. For example,
during Asia Weeks a group of Cambodian Buddhist Monks holds a water
blessing in Ytterboe lounge in honor of the Buddhist New Year.
During those few hours, the Ytterboe lounge becomes a place of Buddhist
celebration. During Viva la Raza Week, Presente often holds a
salsa dance in the Pause, filling the space with the sights and sounds
of the Latino musical heritage. Through these types of events,
multicultural students are able to create familiar spaces on various
parts of campus. They become spaces for cultural preservation
during a student’s four years at a predominantly white college.
Multicultural organizations and related offices are also sources of
empowerment for students of color. They become places to discuss
problems and issues, voice concerns, problem-solve, and act in response
to these ideas. As one student noted in reference to why she
participates in multicultural organizations, “it’s because they’re
places where I feel like I can do something about the things that I
don’t like here.” Likewise, participation in organizations offers
multicultural students skills in leadership and programming. A
couple of examples illustrate:
“[Participation in multicultural organizations] gives me confidence
that I can do something positive... Before I didn’t really see
myself as a leader, but now I can see that I can do it and that I would
be good at it.”
“As a freshman I joined HAG [(Hmong Awareness Group)] and took up an
officer role. I never exerted myself that way in high school...
It was the first time I found a group that I was intimately involved
in, and to me it was really exciting. For my first two and a half
years at St. Olaf, it was my number one priority. There were
times where I skipped class and procrastinated because of a HAG
event... because it was like a family – if my family got in trouble,
I’d drop everything for them.”
These examples are extremely demonstrative of the importance of
multicultural organizations in offering students skills and confidence
in leadership and programming. On the other hand, the second
excerpt also alludes to the negative side of participation in these
As discussed above, students of color often feel
compelled to participate in multicultural organizations as sources for
cultural education and expression, and forums for breaking down
stereotypes. Yet, heavy involvement in these organizations can be
detrimental to their educational experience at St. Olaf.
“[Experiences with stereotyping] only affect my academic performance in
that they make me feel responsible to be in everything, to represent in
every venue. That’s taken time away from school.”
“I tried to start an organization because I wanted to share my culture
with other people. But there were only like three of us on campus
and it was a ton of work and nobody else ever showed up to the
meetings... Eventually I just decided that, you know what?... I’m
here to get an education too.”
As shown, being misunderstood makes many students of color feel
compelled to participate heavily in multicultural organizations.
But having to carry the brunt of the burden for educating their peers
on cultural and racial matters can seriously distract from one’s own
The second excerpt above also illustrates the
frustration caused by the perceived lack of campus interest and
involvement in multicultural events. This is a huge issue,
particularly amongst the students that plan and facilitate such
events. Virtually every student interviewed mentioned the
marginalization of multicultural events by the larger St. Olaf
community as a source of serious frustration and despair. A few
examples of this:
“I was more involved [in multicultural organizations] as a
freshman. But after that I stayed away from those groups and
events. I feel we were just being stupid. After all that
planning we’d get to the event and only see other multicultural
students. It seems pointless... Multicultural students
outnumber white students at those events... They should outnumber
“I do [feel welcome] sometimes, most of the time. But sometimes I
am really disappointed and want to go home. I work on DCC
[(Diversity Celebrations Committee)] and I see how people react
negatively to multicultural events.”
“[Organizing an event] is a ton of work to merely have it marginalized by students, faculty, and staff! [original emphasis]”
After putting incredible amounts of time into programming, it is
overwhelmingly frustrating and deflating for students of color to
receive so little recognition for their efforts.
They want their hard work to be recognized, and, more
importantly, they want people to acknowledge the existence of their
organizations and their activities. They want to be
noticed. In this way, the lack of attendance by the student body,
faculty, and staff also serves to emphasize multicultural students’
isolation and separation from the rest of the student body.
As shown above, some students respond to such lack of interest with
despair and resignation. Others, however, try to find ways to
welcome white students to multicultural events. A couple
“I feel that students are trying to publicize events and office
activities differently than when I first came here. They are
trying to make them more appealing to the masses and those unsure about
“Sometimes now we don’t advertise events as multicultural or associate
them with multicultural organizations because we want people to come to
These examples illustrate multicultural students’ attempts to welcome
the rest of the student body to their events and organizations, places
now avoided because of their branding as exclusively multicultural
spaces. However, as the second excerpt shows, that may have to
come at the expense of recognition for their work. Evidently, for
some students of color the desire to share and educate is greater than
their need for recognition.
Additionally, a perceived lack of institutional support for diversity
programs and events causes some students to question the college’s
commitment to diversity.
“[Student life for multicultural students could be improved] if there
was support for multicultural groups – if there was more funding...
There’s not enough support behind the groups like SSS. It makes
it seem like people don’t care enough.”
“[What could be done to attract more students of color to St.
Olaf?] That’s always been a loaded question... I don’t know
if the college really wants the benefits from having multicultural
students or if they’re just trying to fit a quota. I believe if
someone wanted something, they’d go in and grab it.”
Thus, it’s apparent that some students of color perceive a lack of
institutional support for multicultural programs, including recruitment
programs. In the same way that a lack of support for athletics
would make athletes feel unwelcome at St. Olaf, a perceived lack of
support for multiculturalism contributes to feelings of marginalization
and isolation amongst students of color.
Another feature of multicultural organizations that
can be problematic is the fact that the importance of these
organizations can also serve as a source of division. The split
between HAG (Hmong Awareness Group) and ACA (Asian Cultures
Association) in recent years is an example of the way in which the
diversity within groups and the desire for cultural expression can
produce divisions. During our research, we encountered another
such example of this in the formation of Karibu. For many, CUBE
(Cultural Union for Black Expression) has been the organizational home
of Africans and African Americans at St. Olaf. However, recently
a group of students within CUBE decided to form an organization
exclusively for African cultural expression, which they have called
Karibu (the Swahili word for “welcome”). These students, many of
whom are recent African immigrants or African international students,
didn’t believe that CUBE was sufficiently representing African cultures
and issues, and so decided that their interests would be better served
in a separate organization. The move has caused a great deal of
controversy between individuals in each group and between those who
believe that unity is needed to maintain the strength of the
The CUBE/Karibu split can also be understood as an
expression of cultural uniqueness or individuality. The persons
forming Karibu wanted to distinguish themselves, their cultural
backgrounds, and their interests from those of African Americans.
In the same way, members of all multicultural organizations often
struggle with their needs for group identification, solidarity, and
cultural expression and their need to be perceived as individuals
within those groups. Particularly among a student body harboring
racial and ethnic stereotypes, many students of color long to be
perceived as individuals, rather than merely as members of a given race
or ethnicity. A few examples illustrate:
“It’s easy to group multicultural students by ethnicity, and students
are scrutinized as a group so highly... [So one of the greatest issues
facing multicultural students at St. Olaf] is just wanting to be
accepted for who they are.”
“It would be nice if people would realize that multicultural students are just people too.”
Thus, it is fairly evident that many students of color struggle with a
need to preserve their racial/ethnic identity and a need to be
recognized as an individual.
Students of color go about asserting their
individuality in various ways. One way is through participation
in other campus organizations. Many of the students we
interviewed participate in a wide range of other campus activities,
from working on the Manitou Messenger staff, to participating in music
ensembles or athletics, to being involved in volunteer activities or
SGA. Participation in these other activities allows multicultural
students to express their individual interests in matters outside of
the multicultural arena. It also seems to lend a great deal to
students’ satisfaction with the college and their relationship to the
larger student body. Another way of expressing individuality is
to discontinue membership in multicultural organizations
altogether. Though it seems like fewer choose this option, it is
a path that some students of color take in order to be perceived by the
larger student body as an individual.
It may be true that participation in multicultural
organizations and the establishment of multicultural spaces have some
problematic aspects, but it must be acknowledged that, overall, these
organizations/spaces play a crucial role in the satisfaction and
retention of students of color. At a predominantly white college
in the Midwest, it is essential that students of color have
organizational outlets for cultural expression and preservation.
Similarly, the social and cultural isolation that students of color
face is confronted through the establishment of multicultural spaces
that foster relationships with other students of color. These
organizations and spaces provide students with social, cultural, and
academic support, as well as avenues for breaking down stereotypes and
sharing group issues, practices, and ideas with the larger student
body. Additionally, they contribute in large part to students’
satisfaction with the college in that they provide paths for
Multicultural organizations’ truly problematic aspects rest in the fact
that they are a large part of the educational burden that multicultural
students are expected to take on, and that they are not embraced and
supported by the campus community. This disinterest, expressed
through lack of attendance at multicultural events, inadequate funding,
etc., causes a great deal of frustration among many multicultural
students and leads to further feelings of marginalization. In
response, many multicultural students and organizations have attempted
to reach out to the larger community, but the community has generally
not reciprocated. If St. Olaf hopes to make a comfortable home
for students of color and reap the benefits of the diversity that it
possesses, it will have confront these issues in the near future.
The information discussed above presents a fairly
bleak picture of multiculturalism at St. Olaf. Yet it must be
acknowledged that nearly all of the students interviewed are relatively
satisfied with their experience on the hill, and, according to our
faculty and staff interviewees, multicultural students’ level of
satisfaction with the college seems to be slightly better now than in
the recent past. This is due in part to the fact that most
students of color seem satisfied with the education they are
receiving. They are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to
receive a college education, they take that opportunity very seriously,
and are pleased with the instruction that they are receiving in their
classes. The presence of more multicultural organizations and
spaces represents another area in which the college seems to be
positively progressing – in the institutionalization of diversity.
According to the faculty and staff interviewed,
leadership and support for diversity issues has waxed and waned over
the years as the school has experienced changes in students, faculty,
and administrative personnel. Thus, in recent years proponents
have worked to institutionalize diversity at St. Olaf. The
following interview excerpts illustrate:
“The community, at various times, shows different levels of commitment
to diversity... So some faculty sat down four years ago to create the
idea of permanently making diversity a college issue, making it the
responsibility of the whole community, the responsibility of all
faculty, staff, and students – not just one office. Eida’s office
[Community Life and Diversity] was part of this initiative. They
communicate the diversity message throughout the college, in PR,
“The fact that Eida is working on affirmative action issues and
guidelines, like making sure the pool of candidates for faculty and
staff positions is diverse, will definitely have a positive impact.”
“The student body tends to think that the MACO office is just a place
for multicultural students to hang out... when the truth is that they
do a lot in terms of overseeing and coordinating programs to support
multicultural students and develop a more positive community climate
These statements demonstrate not only the need to institutionalize
diversity at St. Olaf, but also the perception that things are
improving in this aspect of multicultural life. The interests of
people of color are becoming more visibly represented in everyday
campus business, through the work of established offices rather than
that of individual leaders. Also, multicultural student
representation is becoming more prevalent in campus organizations such
as Student Government, with the creation of a Multicultural Student
Senator and the presence of a Diversity Celebrations Committee
liaison. These kinds of initiatives are seen as important to not
only improving current multicultural student life, but also to
attracting more students of color and creating a more diverse St. Olaf
campus in the future.
In addition to the MACO office and multicultural
organizations mentioned above, two other important institutional spaces
were mentioned in our interviews with students of color – the Diversity
Awareness House and the SSS office. The Diversity Awareness House
(DA House) is a new initiative, begun last year, in which multicultural
students of both sexes are given a permanent honor house space for
hosting events, promoting awareness, and establishing a multicultural
space that can be utilized twenty-four hours a day, seven days a
week. As a couple interviewees said:
“The Diversity Awareness House needs to stick around. That way students know they always have a place to go.”
“The Diversity Awareness House, if it’s strengthened, could be an
important for improving life for students of color at St. Olaf.”
Multicultural spaces like the MACO and SSS offices and organizational
meetings/events can only be utilized during certain times of the day
and, generally, not on weekends. Thus, having a stable,
accessible space like DA House could be very important in improving
campus life for multicultural students on the hill.
Additionally, the SSS office and the programs it
provides were cited by nearly every student interviewed as crucially
important to their satisfaction with the college. All but two of
the students consulted are involved in the SSS program, consistent with
the fact that about eighty percent of multicultural students at St.
Olaf are first generation college students. Most of those
involved had nothing but praise for the program. Here are some of
“Sometimes, because I am an SSS student, people have stereotypes about
my intelligence and background, but I am very glad to be a part of
it. It’s a great source of support.”
“I support it. I feel like I’m part of a program that recognized
the disparities in education as far as demographics and they decided to
do something about it.”
“Honestly, at the start of SSS I thought it was pointless because I had
taken college courses in high school. But in the program they
gave a preview of what classes at Olaf are like. I’m thankful for
it. It’s given me options and opportunities to meet new people
and to meet faculty and staff to advise me.”
“I’m very grateful for it. It’s a wonderful program.
Non-SSS students may not agree, some are really against it.
People think it’s only for minorities and they think it’s too
“clique-y”, like we need to branch out. It can be hard for
multicultural students not in SSS as well.”
People tend to find SSS to be a great source of support, both
academically and socially, and the program is important to the
satisfaction and retention of students of color at St. Olaf.
However, as suggested in the first and last excerpts, participation in
SSS can become problematic in terms of the student body’s perception of
“Before SSS I was in Upward Bound, so I was familiar with the program
in high school. I feel that the program is helpful, but I keep
hearing rumors that SSS is for dumb people... At first I like the
program cause I felt that I had potential and they thought I had
potential, but now being in it makes me feel not as smart.”
It is widely believed that the student body perceives the program as
being for students who aren’t as smart or only for minorities (and thus
giving special treatment to students of color). These perceptions
can not only damage SSS students’ self image and lead to feelings of
inferiority, but also add to students’ feelings of isolation.
By establishing offices and programs that promote
diversity and support multicultural students and activities, the
interests and needs of students of color become an institutional
priority of the college. Multicultural representation in campus
business and student life becomes less the responsibility of individual
initiative-takers and more the responsibility of established offices
and programs. Through their efforts and initiatives, and with the
support of the administration, students and faculty of color perceive
positive changes taking place in this aspect of campus life. This
visible support of the college is crucial in making St. Olaf a
welcoming environment for students of color. As long as they
believe that positive changes are taking place on their behalf, their
hope for the future will supersede their own grievances and
What More Needs to Be Done?
Despite the positive changes mentioned above, all of
the students and faculty interviewed felt that much more needed to be
done in order to make St. Olaf a community that truly welcomes
diversity. One primary suggestion was that St. Olaf consider
making curriculum changes. Despite the existence of the MCS-G and
MCS-D requirements, most students of color feel that St. Olaf graduates
leave the hill with an inadequate understanding of the dynamics of
race/ethnic relations in America and the social ecology of the
“St. Olaf should consider changing the GE requirements. It would
be beneficial to have to study racial issues and issues of culture in
the states, particularly issues in the area – in Northfield and at St.
Several of the students and faculty interviewed echoed this sentiment,
and its rationale makes perfect sense. Having such a course would
relieve students of color of much of the educational burden that they
experience while at St. Olaf. It would also serve to help
breakdown stereotypes and remove some of the mutual intimidation and
misunderstanding that exists between white students and students of
color. This may serve to facilitate more interracial and
intercultural relationships at the school.
The idea of such a requirement is reminiscent of the Campus Ecology
course being offered this semester by Professor Jim Farrell and student
Elise Braaten. The idea behind the course is that most St. Olaf
students know very little about the natural ecology of the St. Olaf
campus and their impact on the immediate environment. Thus, the
course attempts to educate students so that they may act responsibly
and be stewards of the land around them. In the same way, few
students at St. Olaf understand the social ecology of the campus.
They don’t think critically about what kinds of ideas, actions, and
processes pervade campus interactions and relationships, and they don’t
see the impact of some of their thoughts and actions on the welfare of
the community. Acquiring these skills would not only enable
students to become socially conscious members of the St. Olaf
community, but would create a greater awareness of their roles as
members of the global community as well.
Perhaps the greatest focus of students and faculty was the need to for greater efforts to recruit multicultural students.
“We have gone significantly backwards in the area of admissions.
We have chosen to focus our recruitment efforts on the Upper-Midwest,
particularly the suburbs… We are looking for multicultural
students where they don’t exist.”
“When I was going to school here [in the 1970s], there were 70-80
African American students on campus. Now there are 35. The
number hasn’t been that high since.”
“What can be done is to accept students of color. They’re out
there, so go get them… If St. Olaf wants to do it, there are qualified
students out there who have applied, and some have been denied…
They need to go out there and find and recruit the best and brightest
students of color.”
Judging by the statements above, it is fairly obvious that students and
faculty hold pretty strong opinions about the need to more heavily
recruit students of color. The college’s efforts to do so are
perceived to have declined in recent years. Also, the idea that
the pool of qualified students of color is small and too heavily
recruited for St. Olaf to compete is nonsense according to the people
we interviewed. Their perception is that the pool of qualified
candidates nationwide is sufficiently large, and that many of those
candidates would be more than happy to receive the educational
opportunity that St. Olaf can offer them. As discussed above, the
quality of the St. Olaf education is one of the primary contributing
factors to multicultural student’s satisfaction with the college.
That opportunity is something that can always be offered, regardless of
other problems the campus may face in terms of creating a positive
environment for students of color.
Along the same lines, a third major focus of
the individuals we interviewed was the need to recruit and retain more
faculty and staff of color. According to faculty we interviewed,
there is still significant unconscious and/or overt resistance to
hiring faculty of color at St. Olaf. Faculty of color are not as
highly solicited to apply, and, in some cases, departments have
insisted on hiring white candidates, even over candidates of color with
better credentials. Yet having faculty of color is very important
to many of the students that we interviewed, as they serve as valuable
role models, advisors, mentors, and as individuals that can relate to
multicultural students’ experience in higher education. The
following example illustrates:
“Joan Hepburn is a role model to me cause she sits in a position that I
want to be in when I get older. She went to NYU and Brown; I want
to go to an Ivy League school for medicine… In the way she speaks, her
feedback and her help outside of class, she gives you the respect you
deserve. She embodies what other profs should be… And she’s
Black! Multicultural! Not of the norm! It’s really great.”
The statement demonstrates the importance of having faculty and staff
of color that can serve as role models and mentors to multicultural
students. It is also encouraging for students of color to see
people of similar racial/ethnic backgrounds in professorial
positions. They serve as a tangible reminder to students exposed
to messages of inferiority that their racial and/or ethnic background
does not make them less capable or less intelligent.
The presence of more faculty of color also lends to
the disintegration of St. Olaf’s image as a white college. By
having more people of color in positions of authority and
administration, spaces like the St. Olaf campus become more
race-neutral. In the same way that it would be difficult for a
white person to feel at home in an environment governed by people of
color, the overwhelmingly white makeup of the administration, faculty,
and staff contributes to the feelings of isolation and marginalization
of people of color. Having more people of color in administration
and faculty positions also ensures that the interests and issues of
these individuals are represented in decision-making, curriculum, and
other college business. For example:
“When the committee was put together to create the American
Conversation, not a single person of color was invited to sit on
it. Not one! There are still no faculty of color that
participate in that program.”
The fact that people of color have been literally left out of the
American Conversation demonstrates the lack of multicultural
representation in academic and administrative decision-making, and
leads to a greater feeling of marginalization amongst students and
faculty of color. Various faculty and students who were
interviewed cited this lack of people of color in administration
positions as an issue that needs to be addressed in order for St. Olaf
to become a more welcoming environment for multicultural
In summary, despite the relative satisfaction of
most of the students we interviewed and their perception of positive
changes in the institutionalization of diversity, the majority of our
conversations were focused on things that need to be changed in order
for St. Olaf to feel like a second home to students of color. The
ideas presented focused essentially on two areas – greater
multicultural education and greater student, faculty, and staff
representation. If St. Olaf truly desires to live up to its
commitment to diversity, these issues must become a bigger part of the
Investigating race relations at any level is always
a complicated task, and the body of work done in the field leaves us
with a wealth of theories and conclusions that are beyond the scope of
this paper. Yet in conducting our research on the experience of
multicultural students and race relations on the St. Olaf campus, we
found a few theories to be especially applicable and worth further
By far the most useful theoretical paradigm in observing race relations
at St. Olaf is that of the politics of space. In their work on
the experience of Black students in higher education, Feagin, Vera, and
Imani (1996) discuss the importance of the politics of space in
affecting Black students’ experiences on predominantly white
campuses. They found that feelings of isolation or
marginalization are caused by a wide variety of factors, some subtle
and some more overt. For example, the absence of faculty and
administrators of color, small populations of multicultural students,
and a lack of emphasis on multicultural/racial issues in the curriculum
are all causal factors. Likewise, subtle or blatant acts of
discrimination or stereotyping by students and faculty, whether
experienced by individuals themselves or experienced by others and
passed on, and exclusion in decision-making processes or student
programming considerations, are all reminders to students of color that
they just don’t belong.
As demonstrated above, these are all issues that are very prevalent on the St. Olaf campus. As two interviewees put it:
“People underestimate the role and pervasiveness of spatial politics in
terms of feeling at home in a place… St. Olaf is really a home to
mainstream white students. Its legacy and association with a
Norwegian Heritage, the names of buildings, etc. are constant reminders
that this is a white school… People emphasize the MACO office as if it
is sufficient [as a multicultural space], when most of the students on
campus can feel at home everywhere else.”
“Students of color must understand that they have the right to be
taught at the college, too. It’s not just the majority’s school,
it’s their school as well. Once this is figured out, the
experience will be way better.”
St. Olaf truly is a “white space,” and students of color feel that in
their everyday experiences. If St. Olaf wishes to make the St.
Olaf experience as positive as possible for students of color, it must
work to make St. Olaf a truly more multicultural space.
The idea of spatial politics is directly related to
theories about various levels marginalization. At Week One
functions and other campus events, facilitators and speakers often talk
about the “average” St. Olaf student – Norwegian, Lutheran,
middle-class, heterosexual, likely with blonde hair and blue
eyes. These are they types of students that Carolyn Anderson
(2001) refers to when she discusses her idea of the St. Olaf
“core.” According to Anderson, the further an individual moves
away from this core, the greater their feelings of cultural isolation
and marginalization. This same idea is resonated by Patricia Hill
Collins, in her theory of intersectionality (Ritzer 2003).
Collins’ theory, which is an expansion of feminist theory, states that
women experience various levels of oppression and marginalization based
on their race, educational level, socioeconomic status, etc.
Though we did not carry out an investigation of differences in
experiences of multicultural students, it is easy to see how these
theories may apply to student life at St. Olaf College.
Conclusions & Implications
In conclusion, our research has illustrated the
difficulty that students of color at St. Olaf face in trying to be
members of the community and trying to receive the best education
possible. The overwhelming racial/ethnic homogeneity of the St.
Olaf student body and white students’ lack of prior interracial and
intercultural experience leaves students of color feeling culturally
isolated and out of place. This lack of interracial and
intercultural experience, combined with socialized stereotypes about
people of color in the United States, creates a white student body that
is largely ignorant about multicultural issues and incapable of
interacting comfortably with people of color. This, in turn,
drives many multicultural students to join multicultural organizations
in order to share their experiences and educate the larger student
body. Involvement in these organizations is also a source of
empowerment and social support for many students of color. But
the marginalization of these organizations and their events on campus
adds to students’ feelings of cultural isolation. Additionally,
the need to carry the burden of multicultural education hinders
multicultural students ability to do what they initially came here for
– to receive a good education. Because of the small number of
students of color at St. Olaf, carrying this burden also necessitates
racial and ethnic tokenism. Students are asked to speak on behalf
of, and be representatives of their entire race or ethnicity, a request
that is not only unrealistic, but also robs them of their individuality.
Yet the veracity of these issues tends to be
disregarded, overlooked, and underestimated by the majority of the
student body, faculty, and staff. As shown in previous research,
white students at St. Olaf largely think that multicultural issues do
not pose a problem at St. Olaf. Claims of harmful stereotyping,
discrimination, or racism are all too often dismissed by white students
as being misinterpretations, exaggerations, or even outright
fabrications of oversensitive individuals or students of color
harboring antipathy toward whites. Even professors, many of who
are also relatively inexperienced in interracial and intercultural
communication, have been known to discount the difficult experiences of
students of color in their classes. If not that, many tend to the
other extreme, of being overly sensitive or even apologetic to
multicultural students in their classes. More shockingly, several
students of color have even experienced white faculty claiming superior
knowledge of the multicultural experience in the United States because
they’ve studied it. To these professors, multicultural students’
interpretations of their experiences are often denied validation.
As a tight-knit community and an institution of
higher learning in the United States, St. Olaf College has the unique
opportunity of being able to confront some of these issues. As
suggested above, classes on race in education or race relations at St.
Olaf could be incorporated into the curriculum and made a
requirement. The admissions department could work harder to
create a more diverse student body by recruiting from more diverse
areas. The administration and academic departments could make
more efforts to hire staff and faculty of color and represent
multicultural interests in decision-making. More could be done to
train current faculty and staff in positive multicultural communication
and education. This list is by no means comprehensive.
There is a huge body of literature out there that addresses this very
issue – how can a predominantly white college make students of color
feel more welcome and more at home.
But should this be the goal of increasing diversity
at St. Olaf College – to have a token group of multicultural students
who “teach us what it is like to be them” and feel welcome doing
it? Many of the students we interviewed realized that they didn’t
feel “different” or “multicultural” until they came to St. Olaf.
This is not because their high schools or communities were
exceptionally welcoming to people of color, but rather it is because
they came from situations where there was no “average” student, whereas
the makeup of the “average” St. Olaf student is well known and highly
touted. It is the very fact that St. Olaf is so homogeneous that
makes it a “white” space. So the question is really this: Is St.
Olaf willing to make the changes necessary to create a truly diverse
campus on the hill?
St. Olaf is incredibly proud of its Norwegian Lutheran heritage.
It has a tradition of being predominantly white, and it seems to have
no problem staying that way. It has shown a reluctance to go out
of its way to become an exceptionally diverse campus and to hire
faculty and staff of color. Our own sociology/anthropology department,
which is necessarily dedicated to multicultural thought, has only one
faculty member who is not ethnically Caucasian and American. Even
the current efforts to institutionalize diversity on the St. Olaf
campus could be considered “administrative tokenism.” Is having
one more office dedicated to multicultural issues, such as the office
of Community Life and Diversity, really going to make St. Olaf a
more diverse place, or does it merely serve to represent the interests
of a token group of individuals on campus?
Besides being a historically Norwegian Lutheran college, St. Olaf was
also founded on the ideal of service and with the mission of educating
first generation college students. At present, however, it seems
to be doing a great disservice in that its student composition reflects
and perpetuates the racial and ethnic disparities and segregation that
exist in the society at large. The new St. Olaf logo flaunts
“Ideals to Action.” If racial equality and desegregation is an
ideal, then St. Olaf needs to work to put that into action.
Likewise, the fact that about 70% of the students in the SSS program
are also multicultural students demonstrates the reality that more and
more first generation college students are students of color. So
in the near future, living up to this aspect of the college’s mission
is going to necessitate a more diverse student body. The goal of
educating first generation college students is going to be, are perhaps
it already is, in conflict with the school’s adherence to its Norwegian
Lutheran tradition. It is also in direct conflict with the
school’s push to become more and more prestigious in terms of the
academic profile of its incoming students. Thus, St. Olaf needs
to decide what it values more – it’s ethnic heritage and its desire to
be recognized by national publications as a top-tier school, or its
dedication to service. We mustn’t forget that being dedicated to
service and educating first-generation college students does not
require a negation of academic excellence.
All of these questions aside, the positive impact that the presence of
more students of color would have on the St. Olaf student body is
immeasurable. When posed the question, “How would the presence of
more students of color positively white impacts?,” essentially everyone
interviewed stated that such a multicultural presence would
significantly effect white students’ level of cultural
competency. The United States is becoming a more diverse place
everyday, and Latinos are soon to outnumber whites in America.
Yet far so many St. Olaf students leave school with their racial and
ethnic stereotypes still intact, and having had little to no
substantial interaction with students of color. St. Olaf
graduates are entering the real world largely still unable to
understand and positively engage people who are ethnically and racially
different. The school must see to it that they are able to do
so. As one interviewee stated: “We are the future that they have
to work with.”
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1999 Does Racial Diversity Matter?: The Educational Impact of a
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Students. Journal of College Student Development.
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2001 Racial, Ethnic, and Cultural Differences in Responding to
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2001 Coping with Prejudice: Personal Relationship Partners
as Sources of Socioemotional Support for Stigmatized
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2001 Relationships of Cultural Congruity and Perceptions of the
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Asian American Undergraduates: Examining Issues of Academic
Persistence. Journal of Counseling and Development. 81(1):93-105.
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Black Students at Predominantly White Universities. Journal of
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Appendix A: IRB Proposal
On a campus dominated by white students and staff, the experiences of
multicultural students will inevitably differ from those of their white
peers. Multicultural student life at St. Olaf College has
certainly changed as well, as the environment of the St. Olaf campus
and the demographics of the multicultural population have shifted over
The purpose of this study is to explore whether multicultural students,
faculty, and staff view their experience at St. Olaf as positive or
negative. We also intend to further our understanding of why they
perceive it as such. Not only do we hope to gain insight
into the perspectives of current multicultural students, but we also
aspire to put their perceptions in a historical context, by drawing on
the opinions and feelings of faculty and staff affiliated with the
Multicultural Affairs and Community Outreach office, Student Support
Services program, and multicultural organizations on campus.
Our study will consist of twenty-two interviews, sixteen of which will
be conducted with current students, the other six with
faculty/staff. All of our student interviewees will be
multicultural students, and our sample will be created using snowball
sampling. An initial group of multicultural students will be
identified by their participation in multicultural organizations and
their time spent in the MACO office. Using these individuals as
starting points and asking them for the names of other persons they
consider to be multicultural students, we will create a list of
possible interviewees. From this list, we will then choose 16
students based on their race/ethnicity, gender, and year in
school. Ideally, our sample will be equal with regard to gender,
as well as the number of Black/African-American, Latino, and
Asian/Asian-American interviewees. In terms of year in school, we
will attempt to focus our research on freshman and seniors, while
including some sophomores and juniors.
Utilizing the Multicultural Affairs and Community Outreach Office,
Flaten Hall (location of SSS Program), Stav Hall, and multicultural
organization meetings (such as Asian Cultural Awareness organization,
Hmong Awareness Group, the Cultural Union for Black Expression,
Presente, and the Muslim Student Association), our aim will be to act
as a complete participant, where the subjects studied will see us only
as a participant, not as a researcher.
For faculty and staff, we will seek out six individuals who are
identified by multicultural students as friends/mentors of the
multicultural student body, heavily involved in multicultural
activities, and seriously engaged in multicultural student life.
These faculty/staff members need not be multicultural individuals.
All requests for interviews will be conducted in person and interview
notes will be recorded in writing. The identity of participants will be
assured, as we will not be disclosing names, ethnicity, year in school,
or gender; we will use aliases when reporting data to protect the
identity and names of participants involved in our study.
We believe that our research will have a minimal negative impact on the
subjects involved. Questions may bring up uncomfortable or
upsetting thoughts and/or past experiences, but this is a risk in most
research projects dealing with human subjects. Also, in some
cases we might be asking that subjects share stories revealing intimate
or very personal information. Students may choose not to answer
any questions. A verbal protocol will be read to each participant
before each interview to inform them of the purpose of the study and to
reiterate their rights as a research subject. However, as we will be
assuring confidentiality in our study, we expect that this will pose no
harm to the participants.
The value of this research lies in its potential ability to improve
multicultural student life on the St. Olaf campus and, with that,
increase cultural diversity, in accordance with the Strategic Plan and
mission of the college. We intend to give a copy of our paper to
President Thomforde, various Deans of the college, the Board of
Regents, and the Admissions Office. Hopefully, these groups will
be able to use our research in order to create a more welcoming and
inclusive environment for multicultural students at St. Olaf.
Appendix B: Interview Questions
Student Interview Questions
“The purpose of our study is to gain a better understanding of
multicultural student life on campus. We’ll be asking you
questions about your experience as a multicultural student at St. Olaf,
how you evaluate your experience, and why you evaluate it as such.”
1. What is your name?
2. What is your age?
3. What is your year in school?
4. What is your ethnicity?
5. What is your hometown?
6. What high school did you attend?
7. Do you feel that you were a better student in high school or at college?
8. Are you an SSS (Student Support Services) student?
a. If so, how do feel about being an SSS student?
b. How do you feel about talking to non-SSS students about SSS?
9. Why did you choose to come to St. Olaf?
10. Did you look at or apply to any other schools? If so, which
11.What academic and social expectations did you have in coming to St. Olaf?
a. How do you feel that your expectations have or have not been met?
12.How satisfied are you with your life at St. Olaf?
13.Could you give me some reasons for why you feel that way?
14.Do you generally feel welcome and accepted here? How come?
15.Do you generally feel that you fit in at St. Olaf? How so?
16.What conceptions do you think white students have about students of color at St. Olaf?
17.Have you had experiences with stereotyping at St. Olaf? These
experiences may or may not include prejudice or
discrimination. Could you explain?
18.How did it affect you? How did you react?
19.Do you feel that it affected your academic performance?
20.Describe who you would consider to be your best friends at St. Olaf? How come?
21.Are more of your friends other multicultural students or white students? How come?
22.How important are these friends in determining your level of satisfaction at St. Olaf?
23.Are there any faculty/staff/other students that you consider to be mentors or role models here?
24.How important are these faculty/staff/other students in determining your level of satisfaction at St. Olaf?
25.Do you feel that professors believe in your ability as a student?
26.Do you feel that other students believe in your ability as a student?
27.What kinds of things stress you out?
28.How do you deal with that stress?
29.To what extent are you involved in multicultural organizations?
a. Why, would you say, are you involved these organizations?
b. How does involvement in these organizations affect your level of satisfaction at St. Olaf?
30.What should St. Olaf do to attract more students of color?
31.How would the presence of more students of color positively impact white students?
32.What could be done in order to improve student life at St. Olaf for students of color?
Faculty/Staff Interview Questions
“The purpose of our study is to gain a better understanding of
multicultural student life on campus. We’ll be asking you
questions about your observations and/or experiences as a member of the
St. Olaf community, and your opinions regarding how multicultural
student life has changed over time.”
1. How long have been affiliated with St. Olaf?
2. In what roles have you served at St. Olaf?
3. How involved do you feel that you have been in
multicultural student life at St. Olaf throughout your years here?
4. What observations have you noticed with regard to
changes in student life amongst multicultural students over time at St.
5. Have multicultural students’ general level of satisfaction with the college changed during your time here?
6. Why do you believe that these changes have taken place?
7. In what ways, do you think, is the St. Olaf
experience significantly different for multicultural students and white
8. Do you think multicultural students tend to behave
differently than white students in a classroom setting? In what
ways? How come?
9. Regarding the last two questions, have you observed significant changes in these areas over your time here?
10.How do you think racial/ethnic stereotypes manifest themselves in the classroom at St. Olaf, if at all?
a. Has this changed during your time here?
11.What do you think are the biggest issues facing multicultural students at St. Olaf today?
12.What should St. Olaf do to attract more students/staff of color?
13.What should St. Olaf do to improve life at the college for students of color?
14.What misconceptions do you think white students have about students of color?
15.How would the presence of more students of color positively impact white students?
Appendix C: Verbal Protocol
Thank you so much for agreeing to take part in our
project for a research methods course required for our major in
sociology/ anthropology taught by Professor Carolyn Anderson, who is
supervising our project. Our project is about multicultural student
life on campus and how it has changed over time. We will be
interviewing faculty, as well as multicultural students from all
classes and backgrounds. We will be asking you a number of questions
about your experience, and the interview will take about an hour. We
will be asking faculty about their experiences with multicultural
students and their perspectives on how the experiences of multicultural
students have changed over the last twenty years. Students will be
asked about their experiences as multicultural, their level of
satisfaction with the college, experiences of prejudice, how well they
feel they fit in, etc. We will write a paper that will be available on
the sociology/anthropology department web site, and we may present a
summary of our findings at a professional sociology or anthropology
We will protect your identity and the
confidentiality of the information you give us. This means that we will
not disclose your participation in this project to anyone else or
include information in any papers, presentations or discussions about
our project that would allow someone else to identify you.
We hope the results of our study will contribute to
a campus wide discussion of how to increase diversity and make St. Olaf
College a more welcoming institution for multicultural students and
Your participation is completely voluntary. You may
decline to respond to specific questions, or you can stop the interview
at any point. If you change your mind about allowing us to use your
information after the interview, please let us know by April 30, 2004.
Do you have any questions? Thanks again for agreeing
to be interviewed. We are anxious to hear your responses to our
Name: Phala Hoeun and Mike Shoemaker
Address: Ytterboe Hall Rooms 110c and 364d
Telephone number: x6342 and x6524
E-mail address: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
Professor Carolyn R. Anderson
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
St. Olaf College
1520 St. Olaf Avenue
Northfield, MN 55057
Telephone number: (507) 646-3133
E-mail address: email@example.com