Barnes finds her purpose, research focus outside of comfort zone
Friday, November 30, 2012

(Editor’s Note: New buildings aren’t the only things changing the face of campus. The faces of UI students are also literally changing. Strolling across campus one sees more international and Hispanic students, more veterans, and more students with cognitive or intellectual disabilities. Read on to get a glimpse into one student’s life, who represents several facets of the broad spectrum of diversity at the UI.)

Frances Barnes recalls the profound culture shock she experienced when she first arrived in Iowa three years ago.

“I had never been to the Midwest before and wasn’t prepared for how different everything was,” says the 33-year-old College of Education Rehabilitation and Counselor Education doctoral student from North Carolina. “And I mean everything—the weather, the landscape, the culture, and not seeing as many people who looked like me.”

Coming from a historically black college to a predominately white institution was a huge adjustment for Barnes, who says her mentor back at North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University pushed her to make the transition.

“She said I needed the exposure and experience,” Barnes says. “And I am a true believer that experience is the best teacher. It is my belief that a person learns the most when they are unaccustomed, uncomfortable, and face mysteriousness with a desire to remove such feelings.”

Barnes isn’t alone. UI officials say that the university has made significant strides in both recruiting and retaining students across a broad spectrum of diversity.

This includes students of different ethnicities, international students, student veterans, LGBT students, students with disabilities, and first-generation students, according to UI Chief Diversity Officer Georgina Dodge—a challenge in a state that still has a small minority population overall.

Most diverse class ever

The fall 2012 incoming class was UI’s most diverse ever, with 16.2 percent—725 students—identifying as minorities, continuing a trend that has seen that mark grow from 12.6 percent in 2010 and 14.2 percent last year.

Of a total of 31,498 UI students (21,999 undergraduates, 8,129 graduate and professional students, and 1,370 postdoctoral and post professional M.D. students) currently on campus, 12.6 percent identified themselves as African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Native American/Native Alaskan, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, or two or more races; 11.3 percent were international students representing 101 countries, and 55.2 percent were from Iowa.

There has especially been strong and steady growth in the number of Hispanic students attending the UI, much of this due to joint outreach programs coordinated by the Center for Diversity and Enrichment in the UI Chief Diversity Office and UI Office of Admissions.

Over the last three years, enrollment of Hispanic students has grown by 37 percent, from 1,099 students in fall 2010 to 1,505 students in fall 2012. International student numbers have also surged with 2,191 students in 2008 to 3,576 in fall 2012. The largest number of international students comes from China, South Korea, India, and Taiwan.

A growing number of student veterans also attend the UI, with the fall enrollment at 552.

Significant progress has also been made in identifying first-generation students, currently 5,670 students.

African-American student numbers have increased by 7 percent from 784 students in fall 2010 to 837 students in fall 2012; and students who identify with two or more races or ethnic categories have climbed from 243 in fall 2010 to 420 in fall 2012.

Conversely, numbers of Native American students have declined from 120 in fall 2010 to 83 in fall 2012, Asian-American student numbers have gone down slightly from 1,114 in fall 2010 to 1,086 in fall 2012, and Native Hawaiian student enrollment has been stagnant (from 36 students in fall 2010 to 35 students in fall 2012).

* Note: According to the UI Office of the Registrar, the data trend seems to indicate an increase in minority enrollment but it is difficult to say for certain because the federal guidelines for ethnicity and race self identification have changed. As a result, more individuals of mixed races or Hispanic ethnicity may be willing to identify themselves.

Embracing change, providing resources

What most distinguishes the changing face of the UI campus, Dodge says, is how UI students are embracing those changes.

“Students are excited about meeting each other and connecting across differences,” Dodge says. “A good example of this is UI Student Government’s ‘Get to Know Me’ program, with the fabulous video on their website. We need to give our students credit for being smart enough to realize that they are citizens of the world, and the world contains all types of differences that they need to live with.”

Barnes is also a first-generation college student, and says that support for this aspect of her identity has been crucial to her success on campus.

“President Mason has lunch once a year with the i-fellows, a program that supports new doctoral students,” Barnes says. “It’s amazing to sit down and talk with her. I loved hearing her story about being a first-generation college student. I really felt a connection with her.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Barnes says that the UI offers resources ranging from the culture centers to festivals and offices that support diversity.

Dodge says a number of steps are taken to create a welcoming climate for all students through interactive programs such as Friends and Neighbors in the Center for Diversity and Enrichment, which pairs international and U.S. students, first as pen pals and then peers; the Building Our Global Community program in International Programs, which provides opportunities to learn about cultures from around the world; trainings such as Safe Zone, which teaches participants how to support members of the LGBTQ community; and nondegree programs such as the College of Education’s REACH Program, which provides a campus experience for students with intellectual, cognitive, and learning disabilities.

“We are creating a community that provides a space for all even as we educate ourselves about each other, diminishing the fear and misunderstanding that comes through lack of knowledge,” Dodge says. “It is vital that we provide our students with the cultural capital they need to be successful in this world—and that currency is knowledge of how to be in relationship with others, no matter what differences may exist.”

Getting outside of comfort zone

While attending college in North Carolina, Barnes says she was always in her comfort zone. Coming to the UI propelled her into unfamiliar territory. She saw few black faces. She initially felt alone.

“I was so scared before I came here,” Barnes says. “I wondered if I could make it in the doctoral program, how I would be treated. There were just so many unknowns.”

But it also gave her focus and a sense of purpose. And she started to get to know a lot of people who reached out to her. She met other African-American alumni mentors through a program established by the College of Education Department of Rehabilitation and Counselor Education who gave her support and encouragement. She also became an active member of the college’s diversity committee.

She got involved as the volunteer coordinator at the UI Women’s Resource and Action Center as well as the College of Education’s i-fellows program in the Office of Graduate Teaching Excellence, which provides support to new doctoral students through mentoring and networking. Through i-fellows, Barnes has developed deep collegial ties and friendships with fellow graduate students from Taiwan and Ethiopia, among other places.

“I’ve learned that when you’re uncomfortable, you’re forced to face your fears, and when you face these fears, you discover that fear is a beautiful thing, and you grow,” Barnes says. “You use that fear as fuel, and when you accomplish one goal or tackle one fear, it makes tackling other fears so easy.”

This experience also became the focus of Barnes’ research, which examines the transition for African-American students from historically black colleges to predominately white institutions and explores the reason there are so few black students at the latter.

“It’s kind of a catch-22. You’ve got to open opportunities to get African-American doctoral students to come to the program and stay in the program, but the factors that hinder them are lack of funding and lack of other African-American students and faculty mentors,” Barnes says. “And having a social network of people you feel comfortable with is also important.”

Barnes believes she’s had even more opportunities at the UI to interact with others from around the nation and world, and that meeting Iowans from small rural communities is another facet of diversity for her.

In fact, more than one third of the 112 students in the master’s or doctoral UI College of Education Rehabilitation and Counselor Education program are domestic minority or international students. Even more diverse, 32 of the 52 doctoral students represent domestic minority or international students, nearly 62 percent.

Diversity enhances the classroom experience

In a College of Education ethics course, Barnes had the opportunity to work on a group ethics project with fellow graduate students from China, South Korea, Puerto Rico, and Iowa.

“It was the most amazing experience I ever had,” Barnes says. “We did a presentation on a case study of group counseling, and it was really interesting to see the different aspects of culture that influenced the decisions that were made.”

Barnes believes strongly in educating others about diversity and differences, whether it’s fellow students from small rural communities or faculty, staff, and even members of the community.

“You have to meet people where they are and educate them,” she says. “Embrace it, understand it, and look at it as a learning lesson. When I’m outside of my environment, where I’m no longer the majority, I really came to understand and appreciate my own African-American culture even more here at Iowa.”

Barnes has no regrets about coming to the UI.

“I’m learning so much more about the world, other people, and myself here at Iowa then if I stayed in North Carolina,” Barnes says. “I found my purpose here coming outside of my comfort zone.”