Diversifying Middle America

Predominantly white and conservative community college in Wyoming aims to celebrate differences in culture, ethnicity and sexual orientation where there are few.
April 8, 2009

PHOENIX -- “Diversity” was the stated theme at this week’s meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges. Bubbling beneath the surface, however, were frank discussions about budget shortfalls and a dreary job market.

Officials from the Northern Wyoming Community College District told a group of attendees how they have managed to make institutional progress on both fronts by deliberately attempting to diversify their campuses. They argue that their efforts, including attracting foreign students to the area, have improved the value of the educational experience they provide to native-born students and stimulated the local economy.

Diverse might seem a peculiar word to describe the student body of the three-county region the district serves. Nearly 97 percent of the students who attend its two colleges are white, and Native Americans from traditionally local tribes make up the largest minority group.

Religiously, the district is predominantly Protestant -- both evangelical and mainline -- although it has sizable Catholic and Mormon populations. Politically, and much like the state as a whole, it is an increasingly Republican-voting area. (It should be noted, however, that the region helped elect a second-term Democratic governor in 2006.) Also, less than two percent of the district’s population is foreign born.

Still, Kevin Drumm, the district's president, said the area is becoming more diverse all the time, as it has plenty of jobs to offer -- mostly energy-related work with coal, natural gas and oil. Because of its recent growth in comparison to its relatively small population, he asserted that Wyoming is actually the most rapidly diversifying state in the country.

Using this as a backdrop, Drumm came to the district in 2004 with the ambition of creating a more welcoming atmosphere for different kinds of ideas, cultures and students.

“As a president who moved to Wyoming from a city and college in Massachusetts that was majority minority, it was a bit of a culture shock moving to an institution that was 97 percent Anglo,” said Drumm, who was previously vice president for enrollment at Springfield Technical Community College. “I began to cogitate how we could begin to intentionally diversify this college.”

The institution already attracted a number of minority students because of its National Junior College Athletic Association sports teams. Drumm noted that the women’s basketball team’s leading scorer was a Native American. He, however, said these programs were not enough, and fostered diversity in a narrow way that made him “uncomfortable.”

Instead of simply starting academic and student programs with a global focus at the colleges, Drumm said it was important to attract and foster a diverse campus population first.

Claudia Colnar, director of international programs, said the colleges began making a concerted effort to attract foreign students to Wyoming, of all places. Although it seems a hard sell, the district has sent a number of delegations overseas -- particularly to China, where there is great interest in American education -- to try to recruit students who wish to study in the United States.

To attract these students, Colnar said the colleges have added on-campus housing, full-service dining halls, more tutors, ESL instructors and international affairs officers to help with any student issues. In addition, she noted that the colleges have partnered with a number of families in the region to host some of these students. The colleges brand themselves as a gateway to the American West and take particular pride in the local beauty of the area, no matter how rural and remote.

Mark Englert, vice president for enrollment and student services, said the district has a long way to go before it can establish strong “brand recognition abroad.” To try to boost its image as a place where diversity is valued, he said it is attempting to hire more staff with international experience. The case for diversity, he said, must also be made to the local community, by including them in various cultural events.

“If were going to make changes around here, we have to be very intentional about our efforts,” Englert said. “At the same time, we have to celebrate some of the cultural diversity we already have in this district. We haven’t always done a good job with that.”

Drumm said it is challenging to persuade international students to come to a Wyoming community college -- particularly when most have ambitions of attending college in larger, coastal cities -- but he said the district’s strong transfer history and inexpensive cost are major attractions.

Of benefit to the district, international students do not qualify for any financial aid and must pay full freight. Though Drumm claimed this was not the primary reason he pushed for more international students, he acknowledged the extra dollars would help the institution.

Though the district has reached transfer agreements with only a few online and in-state institutions, Northern Wyoming officials said they tout the fact that many of their students go on to attend more elite institutions around the country. The ability to transfer, they said, is chief among the questions they receive from international students considering attending their institution. Drumm added that those students who decide to come from overseas are typically talented enough to transfer “wherever they want.”

Some may choose to stay in the area, but Drumm admits that most are likely to leave after having completed their two-year degree. Community colleges, at their core, have traditionally been vehicles for educating local citizens and spurring economic development as a result. Drumm, however, said there is an economic boon to this type of international recruiting, as well as an educational one.

“Even if some of these [international] students stay only two or three years, there is such a labor shortage in this area that their temporary presence in the workforce makes a difference,” Drumm said.

In the classroom, Drumm said the institution is still working to further integrate a global awareness component in its curriculum. Though more and more faculty members are beginning to “internationalize” their courses, he acknowledged there has not been buy-in from everyone.

“Some of my faculty will say, ‘Oh, that’s an eastern thing,’ ” Drumm said. “And they’ll mean it as an insult.”

The efforts to diversify have also not been without some resistance in the local area.

“We have a very dark [international] student who has been stopped five times by the local police and has never been cited for anything,” said Drumm, referring to instances of prejudice in his community. “Also, we raise a lot of money privately, and fund raising could become an issue because of what we’re doing. So far, however, that hasn’t happened.”

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David Moltz

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