In an effort to better understand the challenges facing some minority students at University of Oregon, the Emerald interviewed students of color and faculty who have devoted their careers to addressing diversity and inclusion. Some students have used their experiences to reflect on their own biases and have taken steps to change their own behavior. Some students on campus have challenged their instructors on issues around race. This is the first part of a series coming out this week examining the role of discrimination at UO.
When Awab Al-Rawe first came to the University of Oregon, the Iraq native spoke Spanish in hopes that people wouldn’t recognize his Middle Eastern heritage.
He didn’t want to associate with other Arab students either. After 9/11 and U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was not easy being an Arab in this country. Al-Rawe wanted to get an education in political science and law to return to Iraq and help rebuild his country, but stereotypes suggested he was a potential terrorist, making him uneasy with his own identity.
Al-Rawe said that when he arrived, he felt weakened by his identity.
He eventually overcame his urge to disassociate with his Iraqi heritage. He made friends with other Arab and Muslim students on campus and found many who had felt the same way. He went on to become the president of the UO Arab Student Union.
Now, seven years after he arrived in Eugene, his story highlights the challenges many minority students face when they come to UO, where nearly 60 percent of the student population is white, compared to a 5.5 percent Asian population, 2 percent Black population and .6 percent Native American population.
Having a diverse community on a college campus supports students like Al-Rawe who depend on encouragement from his peers to create a healthy learning environment. Forms of discrimination such as stereotyping, exclusion, or threatening someone’s identity occur at UO, which can create additional stress for those already bearing the responsibilities of a college student.
“There is always individual discrimination when you meet people with different ideologies that do not want to include you in the dialogue or the sphere they are in,” Al-Rawe said. But he says that support from other students and administration has the potential to lead to change.
Many minority students say that although they expected UO to be a liberal and diverse school with an inclusive environment, they arrived to something different. Few of the professors look like them and some of their classmates tend to stereotype them or make them feel uncomfortable when racially charged topics like slavery or segregation come up.
UO student and co-director of the Black Student Union Ashley Campbell said, “the discrimination I have faced is when I am in a history class and they talk about African-American history, and the whole class expects [me] to answer.”
The challenges that students of color face on campus seem to be increasing over the past few years.
During the 2013-2014 school year, 51 accounts of bias or discrimination were reported to the Bias Education and Response Team at UO, and in the following year, the number of reports rose to 85, but these reports are not the only recent accounts of intolerance.
At a Halloween party in 2016, UO law professor Nancy Shurtz wore blackface as part of her costume. Shurtz said she did not mean for her costume to be offensive. Additionally, after the 2016 presidential election, three high school students came onto campus also wearing blackface.
“How do you expect students to feel comfortable coming to class when that’s going on?” Campbell asked.
Although UO President Michael Schill was quick to criticize Shurtz’s behavior, saying it “is patently offensive and reinforces historically racist stereotypes,” black students on campus say the president has been slow to answer their 2016 request to rename Deady Hall, (as well as six of the other demands) which is named after a proponent of racial exclusion laws.
That’s not to say the UO administration hasn’t responded to the challenges faced by UO’s minority students. Chris Esparza, the associate director of the Holden Center, works to build community and cultivate leadership on campus. He said situations like that faced by Al-Rawe are not uncommon.
“Some students, in order to walk onto this campus, they either have to take a significant part of themselves and leave it behind and show up as someone not quite effectively them, or bring all of it and have to put up a sense of armor to protect it from being attacked,” Esparza said.
Administrators and faculty like Esparza have made efforts to improve the experience of minority students on campus. The Division of Equity and Inclusion states that diversity, equity and inclusion are integral parts in the university’s priorities as an academic institution.
President Schill is addressing these priorities by asking the deans of each school at UO to devise plans to promote diversity and inclusion on campus.
The guideline for these plans details the kind of success Schill hopes to find in each department such as bringing more diverse scholars to speak on campus and increasing the amount of diversity-related scholarships awarded.
Juan-Carlos Molleda, the dean of UO’s School of Journalism and Communication, said that his plans for the journalism school are only in the beginning stages, but a deadline is set for March when the heads of schools will meet to compare strategies and see how they can work together.
Particularly in the journalism school, Molleda said that diversity is essential, not only to create a welcoming environment for students and faculty, but also to foster sensitivity to diverse perspectives that students will take with them after they graduate.
While administration works to improve the campus climate, students can still be active in supporting their peers as well.
Ashley Campbell, who was offended by the incidents of blackface on campus, had hope regarding how Black students can move past these acts of bigotry.
“Our goal is to not let these things get us down, even though they hurt sometimes,” she said. “Take your time to mourn, but then come back and remember that your goal is to graduate within four years and your goal is on academics and security and safety.”
Awab Al-Rawe, who began his time at UO denying his identity, now uses his position as president of the Arab Student Union to bring the campus together. He has arranged meetings between the ASU and Jewish student groups and veterans on campus.
Al-Rawe said that the task of creating a more inclusive campus lies with both students and administrators. But from someone who has encountered discrimination, he believes that campus organizations can be an important component of improving inclusion at UO.
“I urge students to be active within their communities. And their communities hopefully can have the leadership to bridge the gaps,” Al-Rawe said. “That’s the culture that we need to broadcast.”
Anna Lieberman contributed reporting to this article.