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Less than 2% of the population: Westminster community unpacks, analyzes being Black at a primarily white Utah college

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Isaac Cortes. That error is now fixed.

This story was initially written in Fall 2022 by former Forum reporter Lalise Eshete.

At Westminster College, there’s a variety of students. Some don jerseys with the school’s branding splashed on their purple clothing, others wear cuffed pants, worn hats and Patagonia backpacks like they’re perpetually on a hike. 

There are students like these and more — those who dress completely distinctively and those who seem to follow a loose uniform of their major or subculture. 

Though all these students wear different clothes, the majority of them have something blatant in common.

Westminster students are overwhelmingly white. 

Black students are the third smallest racial/ethnic group at Westminster, amounting to 27 students as of Oct. 15, 2021, according to the 2021–2022 Common Data Set published by Westminster. The smallest racial/ethnic groups are Native Americans and Pacific Islanders, according to the Common Data Set.

These statistics correspond to Utah’s population distribution as a whole: It’s estimated white people account for 90.3% of the population while Black people represent 1.5% of the state’s population as of July 2022, according to the United States Census Bureau.

Samara Thorell, a junior nursing major, said being Black at Westminster makes her especially vulnerable to feeling isolated, despite belonging to a small group.

“I’m always the only Black student in every class,” Thorell said. “I’ve never had one class where there were two of us. It’s a very weird feeling; I hate it a lot.”

The Black Community On Campus and Lack of Diversity

Westminster is committed to creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for all members of the community, according to the college’s website.

Senior sociology major Angelina Mayar said Westminster’s commitment does not ring true.

“I picked Westminster College because it’s a small campus, and I thought there was going to be a lot of intimate conversations and community,” Mayar said. “I got the very exact opposite of that.”

Other students echoed Mayar’s sentiments.

Flore Elliott, a senior chemistry major, said she noticed the Black community at Westminster seemed to be “non-existent” and “in the shadows” during her first year. 

“I don’t think there’s really much of a group unless you’re in the same team […] or in the same class,” Elliott said. “I feel like there might be a ‘friend group’ but not like a ‘community group’ that every Black person on campus is really a part of.”

Junior nursing major Samara Thorell similarly said she doesn’t know a lot of the other Black students on campus despite it being her third year. 

“Half of us don’t think there’s other [Black] people,” Thorell said. 

Changes in enrollment patterns might be impacting the presence of Black community, according to Nick Lockhart-Allen, a senior public health major. 

“As a [resident adviser] I can kind of see the incoming students and the demographics of the last couple years, and the Black student population has significantly decreased,” Lockhart-Allen said.

Nick Lockhart-Allen, a senior public health major, Isaac Cortes, a senior communication major, and Akary Herrera, a junior sociology major, sit outside of Shaw Student Center viewing a shared laptop Sept. 22, 2022. Lockhart-Allen said he has managed to make a community for himself during his senior year, though many of his fellow Black students have already graduated. Photo courtesy of Lalise Eshete. Image description: Three students of color sit around a table with a black laptop, smiling at the screen. A glass windowed building is blurred out in the background.

The overall ratio of Black students at Westminster has remained at around 2% of the population for the last five years, according to Westminster’s Common Data Sets; however, a decrease in the student population means around 20 fewer Black students on campus than in 2018.

Economics professor Michael Mamo said Westminster’s lack of Black students may be due to the image of Westminster as a school that’s prestigious and lacking in diversity.

“[Black students] don’t want to be singled out […] its not a good feeling,” Mamo said. 

Nick Lockhart-Allen, a senior public health major and RA, said he feels this prestige-perception influences prospective students.

“Westminster kind of shows ‘I’m an expensive school,’” Lockhart-Allen said. “I feel like that turns away a lot of Black students because a lot of marginalized communities—especially in Utah—come from a lower socioeconomic status.” 

 The median household income in 2021 was $77,999 for white people and $48,297 for Black people (the lowest median income), according to the United States Census Bureau

Westminster’s tuition and fees in 2022-23 for undergraduate students cost $39,832 pre-financial aid, according to the college webpage.

“I feel like just seeing [Westminster’s] price tag is an automatic turnoff,” Lockhart-Allen said. “But for me, I came here and I learned about like, all the financial aid opportunities […] and all the different things that they don’t quite tell you upfront.” 

The Black Excellence Initiative

For senior sociology major Angelina Mayar, meeting with the Black Excellence Initiative every Monday and Wednesday was her entry into knowing other Black people during her first year, according to Mayar. 

Between 2018 and 2019, Black Excellence was active, but the program is less involved and there are fewer members as of this past year, according to Mayar.

Michael Mamo, who has taught economics at Westminster for 20 years, said there’s been attempts to create a Black community on campus with the Black Excellence Initiative for the entire time he’s worked here.

Mamo said Black Excellence has high turnover of leaders and members because of the low population of Black students at Westminster.

“The [students] that are in the club will graduate and leave campus without being replaced, leaving the club to die,” Mamo said. “It’s not quite a longstanding club on campus.”

Victoire Soumano, a senior geology major, is the most recent student who volunteered to revive the Black Excellence program. 

Soumano said she was handed the reins of presidency in 2020, during the midst of the pandemic, and has led the initiative for the three years since. 

Though there are resources to host events as a school-funded initiative, the specificity of her audience made it difficult to get the word out about Black Excellence, according to Soumano.

“Building a community [at] Westminster is hard, because there’s only like two-and-a-half black people on this campus,” Soumano said. “So it’s really hard to reach people.” 

Soumano said turnout is usually low, with the exception of Share Your Culture, an event where students shared their cultural foods and dress last year in collaboration with Raíces Unidas and the Asian American and Pacific Islander Life programs. 

Soumano said her current goal is to find someone to take over her responsibilities before she graduates on May 6. 

“I don’t want [Black Excellence] to go dormant like it did last time because it takes so much more effort to wake it up than it does to just transition to someone else,” Soumano said.

Being ‘Othered’ as a Black Person On Campus

Black people who have attended college are more likely to face racial slurs and microaggressions, according to a Pew Research study on Black Americans’ experiences of racial discrimination. 

Black students often experience these forms of racism in college because they are thrust into historically and predominantly white institutions where they are attending classes, or even rooming with students who have “problematic views and prejudices,” according to Psych Central, an independent mental health information and news site.   

As a result, Black students and students of color report higher rates of emotional distress and isolation during their first year of college, according to the American Council on Education

Michael Mamo, a chairperson of the economics and international business program, said though he appreciates his colleagues who are “welcoming and progressive thinking people,” he has come to accept that he will be treated differently as one of the few Black people part of Westminster’s faculty.

“You recognize [as a Black person], you are not always an insider,” Mamo said. “You […] have to play that role of an outsider.”

Mamo said he is likely one of the only faculty members on campus who consistently has to use their school ID.

“Whenever I show up — let’s say to check books out for the library — the student workers there have to ask, ‘Who are you, are you a student?’” Mamo said. “This happens to me in the cafeteria [and] in the computer lab.”

In teaching his late-night Master of Business Administration courses, Mamo said he would often have similar encounters with campus patrol, who would question who he was and why he was trying to enter a building.

Victoire Soumano, current president of Black Excellence and a senior geology major, said she experienced microaggressions and got stared at — especially in her first year at Westminster — and had to stand up for herself.

Soumano said one incident in particular occurred when a group of teenagers in a truck screamed racial slurs at her as she was walking to school with her friend.

Victoire Soumano, a senior geology major and current president of Black Excellence, works at a table outside in Richer Commons Sept. 22, 2022. Soumano said she is the most recent student who volunteered to revive the Black Excellence program, which “seeks to build community through the shared interest and/or identity of blackness,” according to the Student Diversity and Inclusion webpage. Photo courtesy of Lalise Eshete. Image description: A woman of color works on her laptop at a table outside in Richer Commons, with Meldrum Science Center blurred out in the background.

Nick Lockart-Allen, a senior public health major and RA, said he also experienced racism while walking with another white student (that he didn’t know) from a bus stop to the school, who reportedly “stepped off the sidewalk” to avoid walking with him.

Lockhart-Allen said he had a similar interaction again with a white student, who crossed the street to avoid walking with him to the bus stop while continually looking back at him like he was “going to do something.”

Samara Thorell, a junior nursing major, in contrast, said they hadn’t had any major experiences of racism at Westminster. 

Angelina Mayar, a senior sociology major, said being Black affects her trust in the administration. 

Mayar said she wouldn’t report any incident of racism because she is “unsure of any administration working in favor of students of color.”

Tamara Stevenson, chief diversity officer and vice president of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, said her office oversees the bias, incident and reporting protocol. This process is a way to provide education and support to people who may have experienced a mistreatment due to an aspect of their identity, according to Stevenson.

The DEI Office was created in 2016 and arose out of student activism, particularly a student protest that took place on campus in 2015, according to Stevenson.

Stevenson said she recognizes some students might not trust the bias reporting process. 

“I know that’s part of the reason why we don’t get as many reports. I think another reason is that students don’t know that that process exists,” Stevenson said. 

Anyone can report a bias incident on the Westminster website, according to Stevenson.

Fostering Black Community, Trust and Awareness

Senior sociology major Angelina Mayar said she sometimes feels Westminster tokenizes its underrepresented groups. 

Tokenism is the practice of doing something only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly, according to a 2022 Forbes article describing ways companies tokenize underrepresented employees. 

“I think [the college uses] programs like First Scholars, previously known as Legacy, and Black Excellence to use students as photo-ops as a way to explain, ‘Oh we’re a diverse school,’ but they don’t really take the time to make it important,” Mayar said. 

Flore Elliott, a senior chemistry major, said lacking a Black community means giving up an essential part of college social life. 

“If I did [have a community] I probably wouldn’t be so anti-social,” Elliott said. “It’s about having a safe space, having people to talk to who truly, truly understand. My white friends do their darndest, and they do understand as much as they possibly can, but they definitely don’t fully understand what it’s like [to be Black in the U.S.].”

Building a community in a location with limited Black culture is challenging, but not impossible, according to Tamara Stevenson, chief diversity officer and vice president of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

“I definitely want to be careful to note that community can’t be forced,” Stevenson said. “What I can do is help support the conditions […] but it’s really up to the students to connect.”

Stevenson said students would have to trust the DEI office to engage with them, which can be fostered by “ensuring students are welcome in the classrooms, that they are reading about themselves [and] studying about themselves.”

Westminster’s Black Student Union and Black Excellence program are two groups on campus, each with different goals and student participants who “have different desires about how they want to build community,” according to Stevenson.

“The Black Student Union really includes conversations about structural barriers and the things that are concerning [students] in terms of their college education or their on-campus experience,” Stevenson said. “Whereas you have Black Excellence, it’s sort of saying we just want to not have the pressure of talking about more challenging issues.”

Economics professor Michael Mamo said he still has hope for the future of Westminster. 

“Minority students should be encouraged to come [to Westminster] because it’s a welcoming campus [open to] new ideas,” Mamo said. “I think there is a bright future [ahead].”

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