It was just like any other warm August day when Aliyah Seenauth found herself walking across Fairfield University’s campus to sit down with Pejay Lucky, the director of student diversity and multicultural affairs. Seenauth was excited to hear more about her 28 students, before starting her position as a teaching assistant for Academic Immersion.
The Academic Immersion program is promoted through Lucky’s office and works to both engage and acclimate incoming underrepresented students to Fairfield through two free course offerings in the summer. A sophomore student from a Caribbean household in Queens, New York, Seenauth held high anticipation for helping these incoming first-year students. Her elation, however, did not last long.
Sitting across from Lucky, Seenauth’s heart began to sink as the unnerving words left his lips; only 13 Black or African American students were enrolled in the 2021-2022 first-year class of nearly 1,300 students- less than 1%.
According to Fairfield University’s Fact Book, there were only 12 Black or African American, non-Hispanic students enrolled in the 2021-2022 first-year class, but Seenauth maintains that there were 13.
As she walked out of his office, she still found herself struggling to grasp the news. Her mind raced back to the previous June of 2020 when she had read Fairfield University President Mark Nemec’s letter for the first time in response to the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter.
“You would have thought that they would have done better, this year,” Seenauth thought.
She took out her phone and dialed her father’s phone number to share with him the disappointing news.
Fairfield University is a Jesuit, Catholic university, which is widely known as a predominantly white institution, or a “PWI.” Following their motto of Per Fidem ad Plenam Veritatem, which translates to “Through faith to full Truth,” Vice President of Marketing and Communications Jennifer Anderson says, Fairfield is “dedicated to diversity and inclusion; to radical hospitality in service of racial, social, and economic justice.”
There have been several initiatives enacted by the University to address the lack of racial diversity on campus, as well as to ease the experience of underrepresented groups of students. Some of these initiatives include the creation of Academic Immersion, the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, and Nemec’s chartered “Working Group on Inclusive Excellence.”
Further, the Company Scholars program, which offers “up to 12 four-year, full tuition grants to low-income students attending Jesuit and Cristo Rey high schools,” has recently been established, as well as the Bellarmine College initiative, which proposes the building of an academic unit to offer an associate degree program to low-income families in the Bridgeport, Conn. area.
However, questions are still being raised by instructional faculty and students as to how much true progress is being made.
Looking at faculty alone, as of fall of 2021 only 17.4% were faculty of color, 4.8% of whom were Black, with white faculty constituting 77.33%. When looking at full-time undergraduate students, the percentage of students of color decreases to 12.5% in comparison to faculty, while 1.45% of whom were Black, with white full-time undergraduate students constituting 78.76% of the student population.
Enrollment trends have further shown a decrease within the number of full-time undergraduate students of color. Looking from the fall of 2016 to 2020 alone, the percentage of full-time undergraduate students of color dropped from 14.1% to 13.2%, and the percentage of students that identify as “Black or African American”, decreased from 2.5% to 1.6%.
Vice President of Admissions Cory Unis was asked to be interviewed for his own insight into this matter, but questions were transferred to Anderson, who did not provide details specific to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions’ work.
The lack of increase in racial diversity causes some faculty and students to wonder whether or not the University is taking the right approach. Seenauth believes that although certain departments on campus such as Admissions and Marketing are trying their best, the University as a whole needs to change their approach by listening to and incorporating minority students in their thinking. She is not alone in feeling this way.
Seenauth is the Associate Director of Diversity and Inclusion under the Fairfield Undergraduate Student Association, which is a board that has existed for roughly four years. She works hard with her peers on the board, as well as in other areas, to increase inclusivity for underrepresented students, as well as to attain her personal goal of helping future students of color feel more comfortable at Fairfield compared to what she has endured.
Her beliefs boil down to three main changes that ultimately have to be made.
First, listening to students of color and giving them the opportunity to express their experiences. Second, actively reaching out to more local high schools and engaging more with prospective non-white students. And third, putting in these efforts from the heart, with a desire to embrace the culture and individuality of each student, rather than solely for the number and to upkeep a good modern image.
“People don’t like the term minority, but taking that term away diminishes the problem,” says Seenauth. “I always have to work 10 times harder than the next person to make it somewhere, because I will not succeed otherwise. A white person’s bare minimum is something I put my all into.”
First-year Makeylia Ingram shares her discomfort, as she is the only Black student in her nursing lectures this fall.
Ingram attended Harding High School in Bridgeport, Conn., and Fairfield was her top choice out of the twenty-one schools she applied to. Fairfield professors who had visited her high school to talk with her and her peers, as well as the home-like atmosphere of the Egan School of Nursing and Health Studies, caused her to instantly fall in love with the University.
Ingram knew coming to Fairfield, however, that she would stand out.
“When I came here, I always told myself you’re going to be different, and that’s okay,” said Ingram.
When learning at Academic Immersion that she is one of only thirteen Black or African American students in her class, she couldn’t help but feel shocked.
“Sometimes you don’t need an incident. Sometimes it’s just living your life here,” says Seenauth. “Unfortunately, it’s not always about something happening to impact you. Sometimes it’s the energy and the feelings of being in class and you’re the only non white person.”
Junior Eden Marchese is Director of Diversity and Inclusion for FUSA, who identifies as a white, non-binary queer student. Marchese’s reaction to the admittance of only 13 Black students expresses similar disappointment.
“It’s very disheartening and I think it just shows the campus [is] taking a step backward,” said Marchese.
As underrepresented students, Seenauth and Ingram also share how their experiences differ from one another.
Seenauth often struggles with trusting her white peers and professors, questioning whether negative actions or attitudes towards her are a direct result of her race.
“I realized when I came here to Fairfield, anytime someone just brushed me off or gave me the slightest tone, even professors, I took it as ‘wow, that was a racist’ because you just don’t know who you can really trust,” says Seenauth. “Of course, it’s not going to be that way for everyone but it’s just kind of how I noticed I started to perceive things once I got here at Fairfield.”
Ingram’s perception of the interactions she has with others at Fairfield differs but still leads to discomfort.
“I’m not automatically thinking that someone’s racist, they’re probably just as uncomfortable as I am because they probably think that I think that they’re racist,” Ingram says.
With the low level of diversity on campus impacting minority students’ experiences at Fairfield, some feel it is crucial that the University begins to take a step back and listen.
Seenauth feels strongly that much of this falls on Nemec, who has never reached out to her or her peers who face similar struggles. Many of the initiatives pushed by her board are disrupted, she says, and she believes that much of this is due to the influence of the more conservative parents on Nemec.
“Some may say that you can’t shut out parents because they’re paying you but if Nemec is a man for the students,” Seenauth says, “then he should be considering all the students and not just the ones whose parents are giving him the most money.”
Although positive initiatives are being enacted and charted by Nemec as stated previously, he has not directly reached out to current minority students at Fairfield for their insight and opinion. Further, many individuals feel that there are still apologies to be made regarding the absence of the statement “Black Lives Matter” in the letter he sent out in the summer of 2020. Marchese is one of these individuals.
Marchese, as well as many others, such as the Fairfield University Alumni Response Team, express disappointment in Nemec’s insufficiency to address the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It shows how the University only cares so much as it’s good for an image, but they don’t care about it being good for the students’ lives and student happiness,” says Marchese.
Seenauth believes that further apologies need to be addressed better as well. For example, in response to the off-campus “Ghetto Party” of 2016, Anderson stated on behalf of the University that “We will learn from this,” according to the New York Times. To some students, this was not sufficient. The controversial party was included in the script of “Project X” by Judy Tate and performed in December of 2021 by Fairfield theatre.
Ingram, as a first year student, was also taken away by the performance and believes it should have been mandatory for every Fairfield student to see.
“There are uncomfortable conversations that happen within the play,” Ingram says, “but even I was uncomfortable because seeing and hearing these things, I felt seen.” She continued saying, “It was uncomfortable to feel seen even though that’s what you want because you’re not used to it.”
Ingram also appreciates how the performance displays how every individual is different; whether white or Black, you are not the same as those who share in your race. Each person holds different perspectives, has different upbringings and has a unique personality that reflects who they truly are.
Although many departments at Fairfield are working hard to address and raise awareness of this ongoing issue, many individuals feel some are still not listening to the voices of minority students, and subsequently that efforts being made are not always coming from the right place.
“The biggest thing that white students, faculty members and administrators could do is to listen and not react immediately in terms of wanting to defend themselves,” says Marchese.
Seenauth shares her frustrations with one individual specifically who has neglected to listen to the voices of minority students on campus, Nemec. A lot of initiatives pushed by Diversity and Inclusion are halted once reaching him and those he works closely with.
“It’s Nemec’s people that are not letting them put their best foot forward,” she says. “I wish that he could sit in a room with every single student of color that goes to this school and let us all speak; I would be shocked if he had something to say that went against us. I don’t think that he would be able to handle all of our emotions; I don’t think that he’s ready for that. And that’s why something like that hasn’t happened either.”
There seems to be potential for Fairfield to shift from being a PWI to become a more diverse and multicultural institution, gradually. Many faculty and students feel as though different approaches and priorities must be taken, such as listening to minority students and reaching out to more non-white prospective students.
Seenauth and Ingram both express that throughout their journey at Fairfield, a choice they both have made and sticking to, they hope to help increase diversity and influence prospective students of color to come to Fairfield and feel at home.
“I feel as though my purpose at this University is to get through whatever struggles I face in order for future generations to feel comfortable enough to be here,” says Seenauth. “I am willing to sacrifice my own sanity, as a student of color, to help those in the future.”