Isolation and feelings of being ‘unwanted’ confront students of color at ‘too diverse’ University of Minnesota Morris


Although I asked the question several times to students at the University of Minnesota Morris in different ways, they all answered the same way.

These questions were: “What is too diverse?” and “What was your reaction when a regent of University of Minnesota suggested that UMN Morris may be too diverse?

Minimum two answers were able to elicit a variant on the same cuss word…the “F” word.

Dylan Young, a fourth-year student at Morris who is president of the Morris Campus Student Association, said that “I have no clue what that even means.”

“That’s f*cked up. Ryan Sajulga is a Morris second-year student.

Visceral reactions can be understood.

As University of Minnesota Regents Vice-Chair Steve Sviggum pointed out, students of color Young (Native American) and Sajulga (Filipino) are both part of the “problem”. Sviggum expressed his dismay at Morris’ declining enrollment during an Oct. 13 meeting. He asked whether the campus is too diverse and if that makes prospective students feel “uncomfortable.”

Sajulga, however, said that he was now the uncomfortable one after hearing Sviggum’s comments.

“I feel unsafe, unwanted. Sajulga, who plays for the university in tennis, said that she feels like she doesn’t belong.

MinnPost photo taken by Harry Colbert, Jr.
Students at University of Minnesota Morris, from left to right: Matthew Gearou, Ryan Sajulga, and Biruk Mengistu.

He is not the only one feeling unwelcome.

Mercedese Young Man stated that she feels lonely on campus and in western Minnesota towns.

Young Man, who is in her first semester of Morris’s freshman year, said that she feels isolated. “Before (Sviggum), said all that, I was going to counselors and telling them how difficult it was for me to adjust to being here.”

Young Man, who spent nearly an hour alone in the cafe seating area, claimed she came to Morris for its diversity. But she denied that. Officially Morris boasts a diverse student body – 41% of which 32% Native American, out of a total 1,068 students – but Young Man disputes those numbers.

Young Man, a South Dakota native, said that there are only a few Native students in the class and they all come from different tribes. “In many of my classes, I’m probably the only person of color.”

Only one

Biruk Mengistu was “only one” for four years.

MinnPost photo taken by Harry Colbert, Jr.
The American flag, which is the nation’s most powerful symbol of inclusion and unity, waves in the middle of University of Minnesota Morris’ campus.

Mengistu will soon graduate with a degree as a computer scientist. I met him on the way to class. After my interview, he hopped in a photo of Matthew Gearou and Sajulga.

Mengistu asked, “Wait! What’s that photo for? Maybe I don’t want it to be in it?”

Mengistu, when asked about the purpose of the photo, replied “Oh, I definitely want that photograph.” He also echoed Young Man’s sentiments of being alone and isolated.

“It’s absurd (that UMN Morris is too diverse). It’s exactly the opposite. Although I am loved and welcomed by the campus community, there is still a need for more diversity. In most of my classes, I was the only Black student. It’s improving this year, but I felt like the only Black student on campus during COVID.

Mengistu stated that the comments of the Vice Chair of the Board of Regents evoked feelings of shock and fear.

Mengistu said, “It is scary that someone in authority has that point of view.”

Gearou, who plays tennis and soccer for UMN Morris in both tennis, was moved by “That point” to ask, “What do he (Sviggum), want for our (campus community)?” Isn’t it what you desire for a diverse community?

The Road to Morris

Morris, Minnesota is approximately two and a quarter hours west of Minneapolis. St. Cloud is a typical example of interstate travel. It is not very remarkable. Although I expected to see some trees turn their fall colors of orange, yellow, and red, I wasn’t expecting much. However, I preferred the boring landscape of interstate travel to the two-lane Minnesota Highway 28. It was a bland highway with little residential homes and farmland, except for Glenwood, Minnesota. I was fortunate to be traveling on a sunny, clear day. Although I wasn’t sure how long I would be staying in Morris, I decided to make my return to home before it got dark. An anxiety attack started at the mere thought of traveling as a Black person on a dark, lonely road in rural America. My anxiety was only increased by the sight of an outdoor gun range located just.04 mile from the college’s entrance.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau Morris has 5,206 residents. Eighty-six per cent of them are white; 6.3% Hispanic; 3.4% Asians, 2.7% Black, and 1.9% Native American. It is far from “too diverse.” Most of the town’s commercial food can be found along Atlantic Avenue. Students I spoke with said that there isn’t much on campus, and they sometimes feel uneasy being away from campus.

Young Man stated that while a few Native students may try to get into bars, they won’t accept our tribal IDs. “And that’s crazy. They won’t accept our federally issued IDs.”

The university is viewed by most students as a safe place, a place of peace and tranquility. The University of Minnesota Morris is a small campus with a few buildings surrounding the quadrangle. It was quite quiet. The primary sound I heard in the quad was the American flag’s metal ringing against the tall pole at the center.

Dawson Kadlec and Grant Strukel, both students from the student center, were trying to get students to sign up for intercollegiate sports. Like everywhere else on campus, there was little activity at their table. They both shrugged their heads when I asked them if they’d heard the comments of the regent. This usually signifies “no,” but the expressions on their faces let me know that their shaking didn’t mean they didn’t know. It was because they didn’t approve.

Strukel stated that UMN Morris’ diversity was a selling feature, contrary to what some might think.

MinnPost photo taken by Harry Colbert, Jr.
Grant Strukel and Dawson Kadlec at the University of Minnesota Morris, working on the intermural sign up table.

Strukel, a white man, said that he knew the school was diverse and that attracted him. Blue Earth, Minnesota is 90% white. I didn’t want this for my college experience. Half of my friends here are Native Americans.

Kadlec stated, “It doesn’t make sense that a liberal art school is too diverse.” (Sviggum stated that he received two letters stating that parents of prospective students believed campus diversity was why they chose Morris. “On the Twin Cities campus, you see a lot of diversity than here. It’s therefore shocking to speak about such a small campus.

Despite the fact that the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus is statistically less diverse than Morris (undergraduate population 64.5% White, 10.5% Asian, 5.1% Black and 4.5% Hispanic), because of its size, there are more Black students on the Twin Cities campus (1.515) than Morris’ total enrollment.

Sviggum is being called to resign

Many, including the University of Minnesota Clerical Workers union have called for Sviggum’s immediate resignation. Others strongly condemned his comments.

More than 100 UMN Morris faculty, staff and students signed a letter admonishing the regent. It stated that his comments were ” grounded on an unstated but no less real fear of racial or ethnic diversity generally and peoples of color specifically” and “by linking enrollment issues to demographics. Sviggum is incorrectly faulting students who are of color rather than addressing well-documented marginalizations and inequities students.”

MinnPost photo by James Nord
University of Minnesota Regent Steve Sviggum

“Who is Regent Sviggum describing as a prospective student?” It is a terrible idea for BIPOC students to go to college with white students. The question was offensive to many white students who recognize the importance of studying on a campus with a diverse racial composition,” the letter stated.

Sviggum did apologize, and it was sent via the University of Minnesota Public Relations Department.

“I want to apologize unambiguously for my questions and for any unintended harm my questions might have caused. Although they were not meant to cause harm, it doesn’t matter what my intention was. Sviggum stated that he was sorry for any offenses or harm done to anyone. “… I meant to encourage discussion about the declining enrollment at Morris. This isn’t a one-year phenomenon or a concern that emerged from the COVID pandemic. Instead, student enrollment has been falling for years (down 50% since its peak), and the future success of this campus is dependent on finding ways to reverse this trend.

MinnPost reached Sviggum to request comment, but he didn’t respond to our inquiries.

An unusual and troubled past

A display case describing the history of UMN Morris is located just to the right where Strukel & Kadlec were seated. A photo of the case is accompanied with text: “In 1890s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs wanted American Indians just like the rest of white population.” This text tells the story of how a school for boys was set up on the campus to try to accomplish this dubious goal. Although the school was closed in 1909, it was transferred to Minnesota. However, the law stipulated that Native American students would be allowed to attend such schools “at all times for tuition free.” UMN Morris still honors this provision.

Strukel and Kadlec, while not necessarily free, cited the low cost of tuition as a reason why they chose to attend UMN Morris. The annual costs, including books and housing, are around $26,000. The Twin Cities campus costs about $31,000. Additional $2,500 is required for certain schools on the university’s Twin Cities campus, such as the Carlson School of Management and College of Science and Engineering Studies.

MinnPost photo taken by Harry Colbert, Jr.
The University of Minnesota Morris Mission demands an academic environment that fosters collaboration, diversity and a deep sense of belonging.

Strukel or Kadlec might have offered a marketing campaign to the university, despite the declining enrollment at UMN Morris.

“We are unique because we are so far from the fast-paced world. Kadlec stated that here it’s not who’s near you, but who you have. “There is no Target or Walmart around to take my money so I have to be here with my friends on campus; that’s not terrible at all.”

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