NEWS

Unearthing the Archives: An Exploration of Student Engagement Over the Years

By Shawna Chen '20 || Issue 149-6

Forty years' worth of documents and records reveal long-standing issues in the student experience of the college. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Earlier this semester, college rankings for 2020 came out in a number of publications, most publicly in the U.S. News & World Report and The Wall Street Journal. Unsurprisingly, Amherst College secured top spots on both lists: #2 on the former’s rankings of liberal arts colleges and #20 for the latter’s list, which includes universities. On outcomes, the college ranks particularly well, with an average salary of $60,333 10 years after enrolling, according to the Journal. U.S. News & World Report also placed the college at #12 in best undergraduate teaching and #3 in best value schools.


Notably, the college’s ranking on engagement, a metric used by the Journal in its methodology, is on the lower side when compared to similar colleges and universities. On engagement, which the Journal says is based on “how connected students feel to their school, each other and the outside world,” the college is grouped in the #501-600 rankings. Indeed, when asked if students would choose the college again if they started over, survey results showed a 7.9 on a scale of zero to 10. Harvard students, in contrast, reported a 9.2 on the same question. Another survey question, which asked, “Does your college provide an environment where you feel you are surrounded by exceptional students who inspire and motivate you?”, garnered a 7.5 on the 10-point scale. The same question received an 8.2 from students at Williams, which also received a #501-600 ranking on student engagement.


To many, this ranking on student engagement is not surprising. Anxiety, stress and depression are consistently the highest-ranking concerns among students who visit the Counseling Center. Belonging — or lack thereof — is also a known issue at the college.


Students often refer to shadow Amherst — students that aren’t visibly known or recognized on campus — as well as the Amherst awkward — an avoidance of eye contact and hellos — in their interactions on campus. Creating a stronger sense of community and belonging, in fact, is listed as one of the priorities of the capital campaign.


But feelings of lack of belonging and engagement are exacerbated by “[t]he high value placed on achievement [at Amherst that] contributes to impostor syndrome, perfectionism and the need to ‘perform’ success,” as stated in the strategic plan for belonging, developed by the Belonging Committee and released to the community last year.


The report detailed various initiatives that could help alleviate this tension — including increasing community engagement and “ownership” through the creation of shared experiences such as campus rituals and student-led projects focused on particular Amherst issues — but not before detailing a “problem statement” that emphasized mental health issues and social inequities within the student experience.


According to the American College Health Association’s 2016 National College Health Assessment, 30 percent of Amherst students reported feeling “very lonely” in the two weeks before the survey was conducted, compared to 27 percent of the national college reference group. The disparity widened on another question that identified students who reported feeling “very lonely” within the last year: 72 percent of Amherst students versus 61 percent nationally. Across all years at Amherst, more than half of students reported feeling exhausted, not from physical activity. The assessment showed that feeling exhausted and overwhelmed “by all you had to do” is actually commonplace and more likely to occur than not.


Findings from the belonging report further made clear that “students who hold oppressed identities or come from disadvantaged backgrounds struggle more with all mental health concerns, including loneliness, isolation and social disconnection.” Students of color reported higher rates of loneliness within the two weeks before the survey compared to white students, and more first-generation students reported loneliness within the two weeks before the survey than did non-first-generation students.


The “painful reality,” the report continued, is that students of color and white students do not have the same Amherst experience. Students of color may arrive at the college excited about the “advertised diversity” commonly seen on the college website and in promotional materials, but end up disappointed by the campus climate, often feeling as if they were brought to Amherst to “satisfy the ideal of diversity, rather than for the deeper value that they bring to the community as individuals.” In addition to facing microaggressions and instances of bias, students of color are also more likely to be “pushed or pulled” into educating white community members and advocating for institutional change, all of which the report acknowledges consumes time and takes a “considerable emotional toll.”


The Counseling Center and resource centers hear many of these stories — “of being made to feel uncomfortable, sometimes unsafe, or that they are ‘other,’” the belonging report stated. “If belonging is characterized by feeling ‘at home’ (in a place, with other people and in one’s own skin), white students are more likely than students of color to experience this level of ease.”


To fully unpack the ways in which identity and experiences of identity shape the student experience, The Student turns to an archival analysis — in the hopes of shedding light on gaps that remain within the institution and current campus culture.


The Axis of Race
When Amherst Uprising forced the campus to a standstill in November 2015, the sit-in in Frost Library centered marginalized students — people of color in particular — and their experiences of discrimination and racism at the college. The weekend-long Uprising, packed with hundreds of students, pushed this particular set of issues to the forefront of the community and demanded action and apology from the administration. In response, the administration created a presidential task force on diversity and inclusion and expanded resources in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Norm Jones joined shortly after.


Internal documents show, however, that continued “inequities in the distribution of, and access to, campus resources … [are] a core theme that undermines sense of belonging.”


While Amherst College is one of the most racially diverse elite institutions in the country, underrepresentation remains in athletics, academic departments and the faculty — not to mention the very fabric of the institutional culture itself.


Divisions are especially clear in athletics. In 2015, white students made up 47 percent of the student body overall, but they accounted for 74 percent of varsity athletes. Varsity athletes were also “far less likely” to be international (3 percent), low-income (4 percent) and first-generation (3 percent) than the overall student body, according to a 2017 diversity and inclusion report obtained by The Student.


“Recruiting is bi-directional: we must especially attend to how and why some historically underrepresented groupings do or do not end up at Amherst, which might speak to potential students’ sense of our resources or commitment,” the report stated.


In the last decade, the college has taken steps to diversify the high schools from which it enrolls students. Though matriculation from school type has seen a general increase in public school attendance, steady decline in parochial schools and a plateauing in private schools, the percentage of black non-Hispanic students from public schools has “with significant variability, tended to decrease over time, from as high as 76 percent in 1989 to a low of 38 percent in 2016, when 48 percent of black non-Hispanic students matriculated from private high schools.” Asian and Pacific Islander students also tended to come from public high schools at a higher rate than other groups.


“It is not clear what the ideal ratio should be, but … [t]here do appear to be by-products of admission recruitment practices that produce significant race and school type cohorts,” the 2017 report stated.


Interestingly, Asian students are grouped in with white students, rather than underrepresented minorities, in the “access and equity” portion of the diversity report. This is especially noteworthy in light of the recent ruling in the Harvard case, which upheld affirmative action and rejected discrimination against Asian-American applicants at the elite institution. The grouping raises concerns around the institution’s conception of the Asian student and the Asian identity, an apprehension shared by numerous Asian and Asian-American students.


Though there is no racial achievement gap controlling for academic prediction in the first year, the report found a performance gap in final cumulative GPA that was attributable to being an underrepresented student of color, relative to white/Asian students.


“Black students gain in GPA from start to finish, but a significant portion do not gain as much as some other groups,” the 2017 report states. “Something different is happening during their time at Amherst, which suggests that what we might have begun investigating as an academic ‘achievement’ gap is indeed an access, equity or support gap that is not merely attributable to ‘preparation.’”


Correspondingly, black students had the lowest four-year, five-year, six-year and ever-graduated graduation rates. They were underrepresented among students who received department prizes and among students who graduated with a STEM major after stating STEM interest when admitted. The distribution of Latin honors in previous years was also disproportionately lower for black and Hispanic students.


These statistics raise a whole host of questions: how does the institution support or not support certain marginalized groups? What aspects of the college are black students encountering that result in an academic achievement gap? What aspects of the black student’s experience of the college — one that often navigates both blatant and covert racism — reflect inequities in resources and academic access? How does or doesn’t the college view Asian students as a minority group with its own issues around discrimination and inclusion? How is the college, an institution founded during the time of slavery and complicit in removing indigenous people from their land, attempting to redress the exclusion at the heart of its conception?


Multiple reports emphasized that marginalized students found solace and a sense of place among the resource centers in Keefe Campus Center. But high staff turnover in the resource center team — with the most recent departures of both the Multicultural Resource Center and Women’s and Gender Center directors in the last year — leaves students feeling disconnected and “contributes to campus narratives regarding the college’s inability to successfully recruit and retain talent from historically underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds and communities,” according to the 2017 diversity report.


A Look Back
To examine these institutional records is all the more uncanny considering the similar language used in a 1980 internal report titled “Quality of Undergraduate Life.” The 126-page document covered all aspects of the student experience in breadth and depth, but its findings prove all the more the need to continue devoting time and attention to the issue of student engagement. Despite the nearly 40 years between the 1980 report and recent internal documents — and the drastically different demographics of the student population — many of the issues discussed, and the ways they are discussed, draw parallels.


“Amherst College houses a diverse group of people,” the report states early on. “That does not make Amherst College diverse.”


For members of groups traditionally excluded from Amherst, this fact “has a wide-ranging effect upon their feelings of belonging in the institution, their comfort with the institution’s response to their presence here [and] their acceptance on their own terms by members of groups which traditionally have belonged to the institution.”


“It also may help to explain why it is sometimes so difficult for them to communicate the underlying unease many of them feel with the institution, for the roots of the problem are grounded in an ethos of the institution rather than in any one concrete practice or set of behaviors,” the report continued.


At the time, the college had opened applications to women just six years prior. Once on campus, however, both women and nonwhite students’ experienced “both attitudinal and institutional factors” that made them feel reduced to “second-class status at the college.”


The report emphasized the need for “substantial changes in [the college’s] entire cultural climate” and recognized that the “very articulation” of women’s and students of color’s needs was frequently perceived as a threat to other students’ opportunities “to get what they expected from their experience at the college.” White students, for example, reported the opinion that students of color associate more with each other than with whites, “thereby depriving white students of an important part of their education” — the chance to associate with people with different backgrounds. And these expectations remain without a second thought for white students who themselves associate exclusively among white students.


It is clear in comparing documents across time that much of the language used and needs articulated remain the same. Most students of color in the 1980 report described derogatory remarks, racial and ethnic slurs, “tactless and insensitive jokes” and social and residential patterns that excluded nonwhite students. They also pointed to student activities, dining arrangements, college-sponsored programs and campus media in which they saw “racist attitudes reflected.” When women and students of color raised these concerns, men and white students were often unsympathetic and considered their words “an assault upon the traditions of the institution.”


“Whereas most white students thought that the college’s courses, programs, activities, facilities and organizations were purposely established on their behalf, (as students, not as whites), Hispanic and black students said that there are few places in the college where they can feel at home,” the report stated.


Similar to students of color’s current relationship with the resource centers, black and Hispanic students highlighted the Gerald Penny Cultural Center, Charles Drew House and Jose Martí Center as the only places that provided a comfortable setting, individual rooms aside. One student of color quoted in the report said it is “important not to forget where I am. Amherst makes it hard to remember, to retain a sense of home, to feel a sense of pride, to be able to go back and feel that we have learned something about ourselves.”


Here and Now
The 1980 report proves that issues around race and identity are ongoing. The college has without a doubt made improvements over the years, including recently opened spaces for Asian and native affinity groups and the removal of the Lord Jeff as its unofficial mascot. It is, however, equally necessary to point out the invisibility of specific voices and experiences in a large number of college documents. All of the recent documents reviewed by The Student, in fact, identify key areas in which the college is currently lacking.


While the diversity report collected data on Asian-American, black, Hispanic and white students, there was a dearth of information about the experiences of Pacific Islander and native students. Meanwhile, decades-long struggles have established black studies, Latinx and Latin American studies (LLAS) and sexuality, women and gender studies, but the college continues to lag in creating an Asian American studies major despite high enrollment numbers in Asian American studies classes. Areas of curriculum that require more resources, the diversity report stated, include educational studies, LLAS, African studies, Southeast Asia/Pacific Islander studies and Asian American studies. Students with disabilities continue to voice complaints about the largely inaccessible campus — as well as the two-person staff serving students in the accessibility services office.


In the last few years, the campus has been embroiled in various controversies related to discrimination and racism. Students rallied against anti-black violence and sentiment when a noose was found on Pratt Field in 2017. Homophobic and transphobic language was found written on chalkboards in Greenway and in the Amherst College Republicans’ GroupMe. In 2016, a female Asian-American student posted on Facebook about a white male student who approached her friends outside of a dormitory, threw a can of beer at them and questioned their presence in his “living space.” After the encounter escalated, he said he wasn’t a racist, that he was paying “full tuition” and that the Asian-American student should be thankful she was at Amherst. Her post received over 800 reacts and 149 shares.


Just last semester, The Student reported on an incident at a men’s lacrosse party in which a swastika was drawn on an unconscious student’s forehead and then circulated on Snapchat. The Common Language Document and its subsequent fallout received national attention. An investigation by The Student revealed that faculty of color are denied tenure at higher rates than white faculty, an inequity that directly impacts students, not to mention the professors themselves.


Though the college addresses issues of potential bias on a case-by-case basis, it does not follow a standardized bias response protocol, a fact noted in last year’s belonging report. “Whether it is transphobic language written on a college property, comments made in residence halls or outside of buildings, or problematic comments made by faculty, the absence of filed complaints typically means that such issues go largely unresolved,” the diversity report stated. “Coming forward with a complaint almost entirely relies upon a person’s trust in a system that can investigate and adjudicate. Many of the students who are aggrieved report not having such trust in our current processes.”


This lack of trust is heightened by a “decentralization and apparent lack of consistency in the practices and procedures on campus,” the diversity report noted. In many of the documents examined by The Student, including the 2018 evaluation by a NECHE reaccreditation team, authors highlight the college’s culture of individualism as both good and bad. The open curriculum, for example, was shown to induce higher levels of motivation and engagement among students and faculty, but the assumption that each student has the knowledge and capital to navigate the decentralized structures of the institution increases “the risk that it leads to an environment of isolation and discouragement, especially for those who come to Amherst without prior connections and/or understanding of the nuances of this culture,” according to the diversity report.


It’s eerily evocative of the 40-year-old document: “First, and more obvious, since the college considers the recruitment of significant numbers of minority students an institutional priority, the college has the obligation to ensure that the students so recruited are not merely set adrift to fend for themselves once they arrive on campus, but are provided with the environment and institutional support which will enable them to make the most of their college experience. Second, improvement in the racial climate at the college is essential to help all students learn how to recognize and cope with problems which they will find upon leaving the college and entering the adult world.”


These two goals — as evidenced in the various archival records analyzed by The Student — are not yet realized. But that doesn’t mean the college and the larger community aren’t working on them. There is still a long way to go, much of it behind the scenes and invisible labor, but it is a constant process.