Students of different races face challenges, find new environment at UTD
When political science senior Nick Hernandez looks back on when he first arrived at UTD in the fall of 2012, he readily admits he felt out of place.
Hernandez, who grew up in the predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood of Pleasant Grove in Dallas, was used to being around those minorities from his time at Skyline High School and Eastfield Community College. When he came to UTD, however, he encountered a new environment.
“Every time I would come to UTD, it would be completely different from my regular setting of Eastfield or my high school,” he said. “Honestly, it was like all Hispanic, all black and there were like one or two white people. We had one or two Asians as well, but coming here, it was completely different. … I just wasn’t used to this atmosphere, this environment.”
For Hernandez and other minority students, UTD has been a place to learn and grow, but it has also been a place where the realities of racial relations — both good and bad — have taken shape.
One of the traits that define the university is just how diverse it is. Although white students are still the majority, comprising 32 percent of the campus population, international and Asian American students combine to form 45 percent of the student body.
That’s one of the things that surprised neuroscience senior and Chinese Student Association member Cynthia Liang when she first came to campus, even making her uncomfortable at times.
For much of her life, Liang didn’t want to fit the “stereotype” of the Asian who would only hang out with other Asians. In her high school, which only had a few minority students, she said she would spend most of her time with the white students in an effort to make herself stand out and not validate what she thought were the preconceived notions people had of Asians.
Part of that attitude stemmed from an incident in a school bus on the way home from elementary school one day.
“I was sitting next to this little boy. … We were both second graders, and I think he just turned to me and was like, ‘You shouldn’t be in the United States,’” she said. “And I was like, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, because you’re Asian.’”
Liang, who was around 7 years old at the time, proceeded to get off the bus and cry before she went inside her house, trying to prevent her parents from knowing she was upset.
Although she doesn’t blame the boy, she admits the incident still hurts, even 15 years later. Since then, she said she always felt weird around other Asian people in large groups. When she got to UTD, however, that all changed.
“When I first joined the Chinese Student Association (and) the Filipino Student Association, it was all Asians, everywhere. So it did feel a little uncomfortable in the beginning, even though I was with my own people,” she said. “But I kept hanging out with them and I realized … that they also go around with themselves, groups of Asian people and it’s not a big deal at all. Before, I wouldn’t have been OK with that.”
For Liang, going to UTD has been the first time in her life when she has actively hung out with people who are Asian and not felt awkward doing so. For other students, being around their own people was one of the main reasons for coming here in the first place.
Home Away from Home
Pavan Kanteti, an information technology and management graduate student and the president of the Indian Student Association, said he was choosing between attending UTD and San Diego State University after his move from India. He was set on SDSU, but then he attended an ISA event for an Indian festival at UTD.
“I came here and I was totally taken aback by the rich cultural diversity,” he said. “(I saw) different nationals coming together and celebrating that festival, so I fell in love with this university and I was like, ‘No, this is my place.’”
Kanteti said there was a lot of culture shock when he came to the United States, from the way people held doors open for one another to how the country celebrated Christmas.
Although he’s never experienced any major incidents of racism, he has had at least one experience where he felt he was treated differently solely because he was Indian.
“There was this one time I was giving an interview for an internship and the interviewer was very loud and I was like, ‘Why is this guy so loud?’” he said. “And he was slow … And I was like, ‘Why is this guy talking to me like this? I can understand what you are saying.’”
Although Kanteti said he understood the employer thought he couldn’t speak English properly, he didn’t let that stop him from moving forward with the interview and getting the internship.
Kanteti said overall, his time at UTD has shown him just how possible it is for different cultures to interact.
“I don’t think any university across the United States has such a beautiful diversified campus and such a beautiful crowd,” he said.
Even with that diversity, UTD still suffers from the classic problems of underrepresentation of two groups in particular: black and Hispanic students. Combined, the two only form 18 percent of the student body as a whole.
For neuroscience senior Jared Griffin — who is also the president of Alpha Phi Alpha, the university’s only historically black fraternity — that means he sometimes interacts with people who rarely, if ever, have gotten to know a black man.
Because of this, he said there’ve been times when he’s realized people on campus have been almost fearful when they approach him.
“It’s almost like they don’t know how you’re going to react to things that they say, so you have to … make them feel comfortable enough (so they’re) like, ‘Oh, this guy’s not going to attack me for doing something like that’ or not even attack me, but just overreact,” he said.
Another issue he’s seen stemming from this is the reluctance black students sometimes have with joining black organizations because they do not want to appear “too black.”
“There’s a mix of students that not only are they trying to be black and go to college, but they’re trying to not be like super gung ho. … They don’t want to look like a new Black Panther Party or something like that, they just want to be accepted as black students,” he said. “They feel like if they’re joining something like this, they’ll be looked at as anti-everything else. … That’s not the case at all. We treat everyone the same of race, creed, color, etcetera.”
That has sometimes made it difficult for membership to grow in Alpha Phi Alpha, which currently has its largest participation in chapter history with six active members.
Still, Griffin said as a whole UTD has been welcoming, especially compared to experiences outside of campus. When he drives back home to Atlanta, Ga., for example, he’ll make it a point to not stop in states like Mississippi and Alabama for too long because of bad experiences he’s had there with people who treated him negatively for being black.
Hernandez has had similar experiences outside of campus. One time, at a bar in uptown Dallas, he got into an altercation with a man who called him “a dirty Mexican.”
Although he hasn’t had a similar experience at UTD, he said there is still more the university can do to put emphasis on the growth of black and Hispanic students.
“I’ve learned to see that it isn’t just black, Latinos … it isn’t white people. You have your Asians, you have your Middle Eastern (people), you have all types of races,” he said. “So I think UTD is great in that aspect because it’s a huge melting pot, that’s what it is. But … you need more black people. You need more Latinos. I feel like those two should be growing in the next few years.”
The Greater Good
Hernandez, who is set to graduate at the end of this semester, said joining groups like Omega Delta Phi, the League of United Latin American Citizens and other groups on campus have helped him get past that initial feeling of being out of place on campus.
As he prepares to get ready for the LSAT and law school, one of his main goals is to highlight the importance of college to his little brother and other minorities.
“My plan is to help him and push him through so he can finish college, so he can get an education, so he isn’t stuck wondering, ‘Oh, should I have gone to college or not?’” he said. “He’s 17 years old. I have to. My dad’s not going to do it, my mom’s not going to do it. … We’re underrepresented. I feel like we get the short end of the stick. I just feel like (there’re) so many injustices that go on in our community that we need to step up. … So where do you start fixing the issue, where do you start fixing the problem? You don’t, you can’t as of now. You need more people who are educated in an area to continue serving the greater good.”