Diverse U? General College community members look back

Editor’s note: This article is the second in a two-part series that examines the impacts of closing the General College on diversity at and access to the University.

The University administration cited low success rates as evidence for closing the General College and merging the faculty and staff into the College of Education and Human Development.

When the General College closed, students, staff and faculty were temporarily displaced and thrown into a confusing time of transition.

Three former students, along with faculty, staff and advocates, tell their stories of success and belonging in the General College.

Students

Many General College students felt they were stereotyped by the rest of the University community and said they felt misrepresented by the statistics and success rates presented by the administration as evidence to close the program.

These students were among those who chose to rise above the stereotypes and find success by graduating in four or five years and moving on to the next big thing.

Khong Xiong fits into the General College stereotypes – sort of: He’s a first-generation college student of color from a small town in the Wisconsin countryside.

Xiong said he chose the University because of its diversity.

“I didn’t know much (about General College),” he said. “I knew I had to transfer, and had to prepare myself for two years before I could transfer.”

Xiong’s parents, who fled Laos during the Vietnam War, didn’t attend college, he said, so sometimes it was difficult to relate his experiences to them.

“There are words that you can’t use in Hmong Ö when I tried to find words to explain the General College,” he said. “They were supportive, but never really knew.”

Xiong’s peers elected him the president of the General College Student Board, one of the student groups that campaigned hard against the college’s closing, during his freshman year, he said.

“They said General College students weren’t talented enough,” Xiong said. “But how many freshmen have gone through what I did: organizing workshops, going out and presenting (in the community), making the dean’s list?”

Xiong will graduate this spring with a degree in psychology and a minor in social justice.

He said his experience in the General College and the fight to save it affected how he looks at higher education, and he’d like to get a graduate degree in educational policy and administration.

“(Higher education) is not just about numbers and statistics,” he said. “It’s about faces and real people.”

Pooja Garg was also involved in the General College Student Board.

She said when she was initially admitted to the General College, the program didn’t seem attractive.

“I had heard the stereotypes,” she said, meaning that the General College was only for student-athletes or students of color.

When the General College closed, Garg made the transition into CEHD.

“It’s not the same,” she said. “Nobody can replace the General College.”

When the student board planned the big rally on Northrop Mall, many of the students, like Garg, felt pride for their college.

“I felt like I was part of history,” she said.

Garg graduated from CEHD with a degree in business marketing and education in December.

She said she is frustrated by the fact that she has not found a job yet.

Zeb Anderson wasn’t the stereotypical General College student: he’s white.

“It was a really big eye-opener,” he said of entering the General College. “Coming up from my background, where we maybe had one or two African American kids in our whole school Ö It forced me to tear down some stereotypes I had.”

Anderson said he came from a small, rural town where the culture was homogeneous.

“Not that the area I grew up in was overtly racist,” he said, “but there were subtle things that I gained growing up, that I just unconsciously had against students of color.”

When Anderson talked and hung out with a friend in the Carlson School of Management, he said he felt a little bit of the General College stigma.

“I did carry that label,” he said. “But I knew that I was going to get the same degree that everyone else was going to.”

When news of the University’s strategic positioning plan broke and rumors of the General College closing spread, Anderson said he was adamantly against it.

“I felt somewhat lessened of a person,” Anderson said. “I could feel a little of that stigma of Appleby and GC, like it was a second-class education.”

The statistics about graduation and retention rates in the General College were accurate, Anderson said, but when presented, they didn’t take into account students who left the school because of “lack of resources, or dropped out to work for a couple of years.”

Anderson said he worried that if the General College closed, his younger siblings wouldn’t have a way to access the University.

Anderson will graduate this spring with a degree in political science and is hoping to either start his own business or attend law school.

Faculty & staff

Teaching in the General College was also different for many faculty and staff members.

Many of the members of the General College departments made the transition into CEHD, assistant professor Karen Miksch said.

“We’re really passionate about teaching,” she said.

The General College teachers’ philosophy was that “students learn from each other, we learn from them and they learn from us,” Miksch said.

It was the University’s land-grant mission and the General College’s commitment to admissions access that originally attracted Miksch to a teaching position in the General College nine years ago.

Kwabena Siaka, a doctoral candidate in educational policy and administration and former General College graduate teaching assistant, said he misses teaching in Appleby Hall.

There were often outside issues working against the General College students, Siaka said, whether they were family, financial or mental health issues.

“Some students didn’t have the study skills,” he said. “The ones who were successful were the ones who were active, working for the newspaper or on the student board.”

The University is on a track toward privatization and corporatization of higher education, Siaka said.

Other “top-notch universities,” like Harvard and Princeton, have found ways to excel in science and technology while still maintaining the humanity of education, he said.

Mark Bellcourt, a former General College adviser who made the move to CEHD, said the students in General College were “students that are very much underrepresented in higher education and didn’t always know what to expect.”

“Helping them and teaching them what education’s about” was exciting, he said. “Just helping them to go and become successful University students.”

Bellcourt said that when the General College closed he was concerned the University wouldn’t do the same work in reaching out to underrepresented student populations.

“My biggest concern was that the students were not going to have the same access to the University,” he said.

Nationally, students who have a lower socioeconomic status “generally have fewer role models,” he said, “and generally go to schools that don’t offer the same rigorous coursework.”

These students end up not being well-prepared for a four-year institution, and their only option may be community college, he said.

The faculty also had to battle the stigma of General College by helping their students get past the stereotypes.

Susan Warfield, program director for the Student Parent HELP Center and former General College adviser, said she had students who would cry in her office because they felt ashamed of their place in the University.

“I used to tell them, ‘Now is your opportunity that you’ve been handed to make what you will of the situation,’ ” she said. “I would tell them, ‘You’re going to get the same degree as anyone else at this University.’ “

Some of the students who came to Warfield’s office just wanted to get out of the program and “rebelled,” she said, but many of Warfield’s advisees have kept in touch with her over the years, updating her on their progress in law school or teaching jobs overseas.

Advocates

Non-General College students also rallied for the General College during the spring of 2006.

The General College Truth Movement and the Equal Access Coalition planned protests and campaigned on campus to try to save the college.

Former Daily columnist Nathan Paulsen, a former GCTM member who graduated with a political science degree in August 2006, said he was a first-generation, nontraditional student and sympathized with the issues General College students faced.

GCTM worked with other groups to plan rallies and organize the sit-in on May 4, 2005. The group feared the University wouldn’t remain diverse and accessible if the college closed.

The students “believe we should have a voice,” Paulsen said, something the University administration “did everything in their power to prevent.”

Paulsen said the full impacts of the college’s closing aren’t yet realized.

“The struggle for access is not over,” he said.

Another group in support of General College was the Minnesota Student Association.

Colin Schwensohn, a School of Public Health graduate student, was the student senator who co-authored the MSA resolution in spring 2005 to support General College.

Not all MSA members supported the attempts to save the college, as the measure passed in a narrow 17-16-1 vote in the body’s final April forum.

“Some of the students were quite brutal,” Schwensohn said.

Opposing members said college should be based on meritocracy and acceptance to the University should be more difficult.

“I went to an inner-city school,” Schwensohn said. “I had a lot of friends who started in GC, who were affected by the closing.”

The University pointed to the increased number of community colleges as a solution to the issue of access, he said.

But MSA found the number of students, especially African American males, who transferred from community college to a four-year institution was lower than the numbers in General College.

Schwensohn said he was able to make good on opportunities he found during his time at Minneapolis North High School, but could see why some students fall through the cracks or struggle to get into college.

“Apathy is rampant on campus,” he said, but there was a small segment that “felt strongly about social injustice.”