Two percent of students were black in 1975, compared to less than 1 percent today. | Joseph Pack/Mustang News

Elyse Lopez
Special to Mustang News

Janice Stone will never forget the encounter she had with her English professor at Cal Poly in the early 1970s.

She walked into class and sat down. She was one of several hundred black students on campus, but she distinctly recalls being the only black student in that classroom.

“(The professor) walks in, looks around and he says, ‘Black students are incapable of writing or speaking properly,’” she said. “I was furious.”

At the end of class, Stone marched into the Educational Opportunity Program on campus, which every black student had to go through at the time, she said.

“I complained and they said, ‘Well, he was on the not-to-take list,’” Stone said. “I said, ‘There’s a list?’”

Upon further inquiry, Stone discovered there was an entire list of professors to not take if you weren’t white — not because the professors were too hard, but because they were prejudiced, she said.

She had no idea such a thing existed, but she stuck with the class.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to show him.’ And I passed,” Stone said.

Strive and Struggle, an exhibit hosted by the Robert E. Kennedy Library, highlights the presence of black leadership groups on campus in the 1970s. When Stone attended Cal Poly, it had its highest population of black students in recent decades, with 285 attending in 1975. Since then, the number has dwindled.

According to the 2013-14 data set, 143 students identify as black or African-American. That compares to 11,126 white or non-Hispanic/Latino students. By percentage, the numbers seem even worse.

Two percent of students were black in 1975, compared to less than 1 percent today.

“I was shocked to find out there were fewer African-Americans going here than when I was a student during the ’70s,” Stone said. “They say they’re actively recruiting.”

But she said many black students choose to go somewhere else.

Compared to the other California State Universities (CSU), Cal Poly is the least diverse, said Que Dang, MultiCultural Center (MCC) assistant coordinator.

“If you’re a student of color and you walk on campus for a tour, and you think, ‘Whoa, I don’t see anyone who looks like me,’ then you go to (University of California, Berkeley) or (University of California, Los Angeles),” she said.

Students of color who get into Cal Poly are also getting into other reputable schools, Dang said, and Cal Poly can’t compete in the way of diversity.

“I think it’s been a long history of not being diverse that perpetuates itself,” Dang said.

Cal Poly’s location doesn’t help, either.

“It’s very isolated here, not near any major city,” Dang said.

Stone, a former library specialist at Cal Poly who retired earlier this year, said that’s still an issue.

Even small things, Stone said, can contribute to the difficulty of attending Cal Poly as a black student.

“San Luis Obispo is not catering to a diverse audience,” Stone said. “It’s expensive to get your hair done here as an African American. I know those are extraneous things, but those all contribute to feeling comfortable.”

The MCC attempts to combat the pressures of a mostly homogenous school by working with campaigns such as the recent Campus Climate Survey launched by the Office of Diversity and Inclusivity, Dang said. The goal is to measure how people who may not fit the social norm feel every day on campus.

“I think it’s really going to bring a lot of attention to some of our weaknesses, our gaps and things that the administration can work on,” Dang said.

Dang does not see the lack of diversity on a daily basis because her job in the MCC keeps her in touch with a lot of different students, she said.

She has, however, often received feedback from students about being “the only one” in their specific situation. Whether it’s the only woman in an engineering class or the only African-American in a major, this “only one syndrome” affects many students, she said.

Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong has listed increasing and enriching demographic diversity as one of his main goals — a goal, Dang said, that will take time.

Sociology junior Michael Bolden, like most Americans, is a mix of multiple ethnicities and backgrounds.

“My dad’s black and my mom’s white, Native American and Costa Rican,” he said.

People choose Cal Poly based on its reputation and academics, Bolden said, rather than its diversity.

“Students who want to go somewhere and experience a lot of different cultures don’t choose to come here,” he said. “Maybe if it were a more diverse campus, but because it’s not, people come more for the academics.”

Bolden said he hasn’t experienced any hateful behaviors from other students, and he sees a mix of diversity playing for the men’s basketball team.

“Half my team is black, half is white, managers are Middle Eastern, so I’m around a lot of different people,” he said.

Demographic and cultural diversity are good for a university, Stone said, even if students might be blind to the issues at first.

“It benefits (students) that they get to stay in their comfort zones and they wouldn’t be challenged in their thinking,” Stone said. “But when they get out in real world, they have to work with lots of different types of people — it may be to their detriment.”

Every year, there is talk of increasing the number of students of color at Cal Poly, Stone said. She thinks diversity would help students understand the concerns that come from issues such as the party unofficially themed “Colonial Bros and Nava-hos,” which brought negative attention to the school in the fall.

Most importantly, Stone said, people need to feel they’re welcomed — otherwise, it doesn’t matter how diverse the school is.

“When they have these little issues, these little flare-ups, like signs or hanging a noose or having these offensive parties, it doesn’t help people feel welcome,” Stone said. “In 20 years, I would just hope that diversity isn’t an issue.”

Correction: Janice Stone retired between the time this article was written and published. It was updated to reflect her status as a former employee at Cal Poly. The article also stated the Campus Climate Survey was launched by the MultiCultural Center, when it came from the Office of Diversity and Inclusivity.

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