Diversifying Middle America

David Moltz, Inside Higher Ed, April 8, 2009

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Officials from the Northern Wyoming Community College District told a group of attendees how they have managed to make institutional progress on both fronts by deliberately attempting to diversify their campuses. They argue that their efforts, including attracting foreign students to the area, have improved the value of the educational experience they provide to native-born students and stimulated the local economy.

Diverse might seem a peculiar word to describe the student body of the three-county region the district serves. Nearly 97 percent of the students who attend its two colleges are white, and Native Americans from traditionally local tribes make up the largest minority group.

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Still, Kevin Drumm, the district’s president, said the area is becoming more diverse all the time, as it has plenty of jobs to offer–mostly energy-related work with coal, natural gas and oil. Because of its recent growth in comparison to its relatively small population, he asserted that Wyoming is actually the most rapidly diversifying state in the country.

Using this as a backdrop, Drumm came to the district in 2004 with the ambition of creating a more welcoming atmosphere for different kinds of ideas, cultures and students.

“As a president who moved to Wyoming from a city and college in Massachusetts that was majority minority, it was a bit of a culture shock moving to an institution that was 97 percent Anglo,” said Drumm, who was previously vice president for enrollment at Springfield Technical Community College. “I began to cogitate how we could begin to intentionally diversify this college.”

The institution already attracted a number of minority students because of its National Junior College Athletic Association sports teams. Drumm noted that the women’s basketball team’s leading scorer was a Native American. He, however, said these programs were not enough, and fostered diversity in a narrow way that made him “uncomfortable.”

Instead of simply starting academic and student programs with a global focus at the colleges, Drumm said it was important to attract and foster a diverse campus population first.

Claudia Colnar, director of international programs, said the colleges began making a concerted effort to attract foreign students to Wyoming, of all places. Although it seems a hard sell, the district has sent a number of delegations overseas–particularly to China, where there is great interest in American education–to try to recruit students who wish to study in the United States.

To attract these students, Colnar said the colleges have added on-campus housing, full-service dining halls, more tutors, ESL instructors and international affairs officers to help with any student issues. In addition, she noted that the colleges have partnered with a number of families in the region to host some of these students. The colleges brand themselves as a gateway to the American West and take particular pride in the local beauty of the area, no matter how rural and remote.

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Drumm said it is challenging to persuade international students to come to a Wyoming community college–particularly when most have ambitions of attending college in larger, coastal cities–but he said the district’s strong transfer history and inexpensive cost are major attractions.

Of benefit to the district, international students do not qualify for any financial aid and must pay full freight. Though Drumm claimed this was not the primary reason he pushed for more international students, he acknowledged the extra dollars would help the institution.

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In the classroom, Drumm said the institution is still working to further integrate a global awareness component in its curriculum. Though more and more faculty members are beginning to “internationalize” their courses, he acknowledged there has not been buy-in from everyone.

“Some of my faculty will say, ‘Oh, that’s an eastern thing,’ ” Drumm said. “And they’ll mean it as an insult.”

The efforts to diversify have also not been without some resistance in the local area.

“We have a very dark [international] student who has been stopped five times by the local police and has never been cited for anything,” said Drumm, referring to instances of prejudice in his community. “Also, we raise a lot of money privately, and fund raising could become an issue because of what we’re doing. So far, however, that hasn’t happened.”

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