It wasn’t until after their high school’s sports signing day that civil engineering junior and track athlete Kaila Bishop found out they would be one of 23 Black students enrolled in Cal Poly’s class of 2022. The class consisted of 4,398 freshmen total.
“I was a little scared,” Bishop said. “But not much, because I actually grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, and although I never fully ‘fit in’ I definitely got used to it.”
Though Bishop said they accept there will always be gaps, whether it be economic, cultural or otherwise, exploring STEM as “the only Black student in the room” was still a struggle.
“I still feel kinda left out in a way,” Bishop said.
Three years since Bishop joined Cal Poly, the university remains the only predominantly white public university in California.
Fall 2020 data on undergraduates across every California State University (CSU) and University of California (UC) campus revealed that 54% of Cal Poly’s undergraduate students identify as white — making the percentage of white students twice as high as the average CSU, UC or both combined.
Additionally, only 10% of Cal Poly undergraduates are first-generation college students. Public California universities have an average of 22.6% white and 33.4% first-generation students.
That proved to be a deciding factor for some students during the high school class of 2021 college decisions process.
Incoming freshman Kiana Hamada said hearing about Cal Poly’s lack of diversity as a mixed-race, Asian American student was one reason she opted for Arizona State University instead.
“I feel that since Cal Poly is predominantly white, I wouldn’t feel as comfortable trying to fit into the environment, especially with the ongoing violence and hate towards the AAPI community occurring in our nation today,” Hamada said.
Out of Cal Poly’s 21,447 undergraduate students, there are 27 students identifying as American Indian/Alaska Native, 48 identifying as Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islander and 164 identifying as Black/African American, according to enrollment data from Fall 2020.
“Having people to relate to is something that creates these communities and safe spaces,” Bishop said. “People may always offer to listen to our experiences, but it’s hard to understand if you aren’t living it in real time.”
A 2017 report from the California Faculty Association (CFA) union called “Equity, Interrupted: How California is Cheating Its Future” demonstrated how state funding for the CSU system decreased while diversity in the CSU student body increased simultaneously. As a result, increasingly expensive student fees disproportionately burden marginalized students — especially at Cal Poly.
“These problems exist throughout the CSU, but they are especially acute at Cal Poly,” CFA San Luis Obispo Chapter President and history professor Lewis Call said in an email. “It reflects the fact that this expensive ‘public’ university mainly attracts students from affluent families, and those families tend to be white.”
The university denied a public records request for the ethnic and racial demographics of total Cal Poly applicants, as well as the demographics of those who were rejected and accepted.
According to the university’s public records access coordinator, Bernadette Monterrosa, demographic data is exempt due to privacy rights, and these privacy rights “outweigh public interest in disclosure.” Monterrosa cited the part of the California Public Records Act that says “personnel, medical, or similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” can be exempt from public records requests.
The ethnicities of applicants and those admitted is made publicly available for total CSU applicants.
University Spokesperson Matt Lazier said Cal Poly should “mirror the diversity and demographics of the state it serves,” which is a continuous goal for the university. However, diversifying campus is not simple, especially when California Proposition 209 prohibits the consideration of race, ethnicity or sex in public education, he said.
“The university must work through avenues of outreach in order to attract greater diversity in its student applications and enrollment,” Lazier told Mustang News.
That process is the same for other public universities, both CSUs and UCs. Yet Cal Poly’s diversity still lags behind other campuses.
Meanwhile, the UCs had the most diverse class in their history for Fall 2020 as a result of restructuring outreach efforts in admissions. For example, UC Berkeley connected with high schools less familiar with them and less likely to consider the school as an option. Also, UC Merced initiated early outreach to Black students throughout the state’s middle and high schools.
Cal Poly has specific initiatives in place that would increase student diversity, Lazier said. This includes the Cal Poly Scholars Program and its high school outreach, which helps provide financial support to lower-income, first-generation students, many of whom are from underrepresented communities.
Also, Cal Poly aims to provide greater outreach to 520 “partner schools” across California that serve “communities with substantive numbers of first generation or economically disadvantaged students and families.” By doing so, the university says it will “increase the number of qualified students from these communities admitted to the University.”
Still, Cal Poly’s top feeder high schools demonstrate a pattern that may be perpetuating a predominantly white student body. Cal Poly’s top two feeder high schools in Fall 2020 were San Ramon Valley High School, which is consistently more than 70% white, and San Luis Obispo High School, which is also predominantly white.
“I’ve always thought it’s important to be honest because I hear stories of schools creating this amazing image, just for minority students to enroll and completely struggle throughout their entire college years,” Bishop said. “If we bring to light the areas that Cal Poly needs to work on, then maybe higher ups may actually care to change something.”
Bishop said the university should not only put more funding into diversity programs like the Black Academic Excellence Center and the Dream Center, but also publicly highlight more achievements and successes from minority students.
“I definitely believe we deserve to have our achievements highlighted as much as everyone else, and in that, the highlights would be honest and true,” Bishop said.
Still, as ethnic studies professor Grace Yeh previously told Mustang News, “Cal Poly has a certain reputation that might inhibit people from thinking, ‘That’s a school for me.’”
A history of racial discrimination at Cal Poly, from a white student wearing blackface in 2018, to far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos speaking on campus twice, can deter applicants. The “lackluster” responses from administration that often follow these incidents make it even harder to attract and retain underrepresented and minority students, Lewis Call, the history professor and union president, said.
“Until that changes, it’s hard to see how we can attract and retain more students from underrepresented groups,” Call said.
The university says there’s been “undeniable progress,” as Cal Poly’s student body has changed from about 63% white in 2011 to 54% today, and as the Office of University Diversity and Inclusion works to improve campus climate.
Meanwhile, incoming statistics freshman Ruben Jimenez says, “there’s really no way to address this issue except by facing it head on.”
Jimenez said he’s well aware of Cal Poly’s lack of student body diversity, and the resulting racial and political tensions are “well documented” on the internet. Student culture and location were deciding factors for Jimenez, and he said he didn’t let this faze him.
“The only way diversity can be achieved is for someone to start it off,” Jimenez wrote to Mustang News. “This pattern historically happened with immigration: when people saw others with a common identity going somewhere, they’d go too. So, I feel like by going there I’m making my contribution.”
To new students who may be experiencing the hesitancy and isolation Bishop felt three years ago, they say:
“Trust that it’ll be okay in the end; you’ve already made it this far. As minorities at this campus, we hold open arms to all incoming freshmen and transfers. Join the communities you’re looking for early on.”
Harrison Kirk contributed to this story.