Fort Hays State University was the recent host of a statewide Kansas Board of Regents conference on diversity. Provost Jeff Briggs at the time highlighted the importance of diversity on the FHSU campus.
Hays Post asked average minority students about their daily experiences going to school on a mostly white campus and living in a mostly white community. Two African American students and one Hispanic student agreed to speak to us for this story.
For Taquala Bowls and Lyndel Chery, who both who came from metro areas, Hays was a culture shock.
They came from communities where they were surrounded by many peers of other races and being black was “no big deal” to a campus with a student population of only 4 percent African Americans and a community that is only 1 percent African American.
Bowls, junior in nursing, is from Kansas City and is the president of the Black Student Union, and Chery, junior in biology, is a member of BSU from Wichita.
The students say racism on campus and the community is not overt, but for non-white students there are feelings of isolation and undertones of racism. It can be tough going to what they call a PWI, predominantly white institution.
The signs of the racial divide can be subtle — someone stares at you when you are at a store or moves away from you on the street.
“You never know how people feel about you,” Bowls said. “You can see it on people’s faces. I can be in Walmart and everybody’s eyes are on me. You feel that tension and you know that it is because of your skin color. I came into Hays knowing that, but it is not something that I am supposed to be used to. I am supposed to be able to walk into anywhere and be comfortable and not get looks. It is basically the world we are in today.”
Chery said she knew what she was getting into coming to a small community in western Kansas to go to college, yet she said she can’t help but feel frustrated.
“It is still really aggravating,” Chery said. “I am a student just like you. I am here. I work. I work hard. I am doing everything that you are doing. Can’t you just look at me as a human being? That is what I am and what I want you to treat me as.”
During a shopping trip in Hays, Chery said she had her first experience with racial profiling. A checker stopped to look in her bag, because she said Chery had not scanned one of her items.
In the cities where the young women are from, groups of people from different races interact and smile at each other at stores and restaurants. In Hays, a whole room full of people will stare, they said.
“Me being African American, I know that,” Bowls said. “Since I know that, I am going to work harder to show people they have something to look at — that I am not the typical black girl.”
Both young women said they felt singled out in class when the issue of race comes up in discussion because often they are the only student of color in the class.
“You are like the token black person or the token Hispanic or Asian,” Chery said.
Fellow students are not only uninformed about black history and culture, but they don’t understand simple facts of life about living as a black woman, the students said. They said they are asked about their hair and their skin tone. It might be well-meaning, but the students said the questions make them feel awkward.
“Even when I talk to someone who is not my same race,” Bowls said, “I am always going to think about what I am saying to them to make sure I don’t hurt them, because I know how it feels, especially to be Hays. That is what Hays did to me. It made me look at somebody for their self. Sometimes we talk and we don’t realize we hurt their feelings. …
“I feel like being in Hays benefits me, because it shows me how to work with people who don’t come from the same place.”
Chery and Bowls said they see a difference in how they are treated on campus compared to off campus. Chery said she feels as if students are on the their best behavior on campus, but when they are at home or going out on the town, the behavior is different. She has heard the “N” word used in the community.
Bowls’ neighbor has a confederate flag on the back of his truck. She said she isn’t scared, but she always wonders who might be sitting next to her in class. Is it someone who will want to be a friend or will it be someone who hates her for her skin color?
Bowls said she hoped the Black Student Union could be somewhere students could feel like themselves, no matter what race they are. She said the group, which only has about nine members, has struggled to bring black students together. It seems as if they are all in competition with each other, which makes life on campus even more lonely.
“I have an apartment here and everything, and I still can’t call Hays home,” Bowls said. “The community doesn’t make me feel like it is home.”
The campus does not have a black sorority or fraternity. Chery said she didn’t feel comfortable pledging to a white sorority. She said the university could do more to enhance life for minority students on campus and added she felt as if many of the activities on campus were geared toward white students.
The experiences of other students may not be the same.
Jessica Rodriguez, a 20-year Hispanic student in the DACA program at FHSU, said coming to Hays was also a culture shock for her, but she said she felt very supported and accepted by FHSU faculty.
Seven percent of the FHSU population is Hispanic, and 4.7 percent of the population of Hays is Hispanic.
She said one of her most difficult adjustments was coming from Liberal where she was immersed in a Hispanic, Spanish-speaking sub-culture to Hays, where she was definitely in the minority.
“It was hard to find people to relate to,” she said.
Rodriguez, a business major, founded Dreamers United for Success, which now has 15 members.
Taylor Kriley, FHSU director of inclusion and diversity excellence, did not wish to answer the students’ specific issues, but said she works with students, faculty, staff and administrators to evaluate, explore and establish strategies to increase access, knowledge and support for the university’s underrepresented populations.
She pointed to such FHSU programs as Inclusion and Diversity Excellence Advisory (I.D.E.A.) Faculty/Staff Team and student team, which was created this year to evaluate and give guidance to goal creation for the institution.
The university’s Coffee and Conversations and Novels for Hope Diversity Book Club are additional opportunities for the campus to engage in discussions and provide feedback. Furthermore, the continued development of the university’s Hispanic College Institute assists juniors and seniors in high school with their transition and success in college.
Additionally, within the division of Student Affairs, FHSU supports its first generation and diverse student populations through its Golden Beginnings program.
“I believe it is vital for us to continue to build educational experiences for our campus to cultivate an environment accepting of all people. Furthermore, we are working with Hays community partners to build initiatives to bridge acceptance from campus into our community,” Kriley said in a written statement.
Asian American students make up an even smaller portion of FHSU and the city of Hays.
The demographics of FHSU are 1 percent Asian; and 25 percent international students. The remaining 3 percent are Native American, Alaskan, Hawaiian or other.
As of the 2010 census, the racial makeup of the Hays was 92.8 percent white, 1.1 percent African American, 0.3 percent American Indian, 1.8 percent Asian, 2.1 percent from other races, and 1.8 percent from two or more races. Hispanics and Latinos of any race were 4.7 percent of the population.
Kansas as a whole and the United States have significantly higher rates racial diversity.
In 2016, African Americans made up 6.2 percent of the Kansas population, and Hispanics made up 11.6 percent of the Kansas population. Nationally, African Americans make up 13.3 percent of the population, and Hispanics make up 17.8 percent of the population.