The Challenge of Diversity on Christian College Campuses

Story after story testify to the struggles many students of color face at mostly White evangelical colleges and universities. But a growing movement of faculty, administrators, and former students is determined to help Christian campuses become culturally intelligent communities of faith and learning.

“Bittersweet” is how Joshua Canada describes his memories of working to improve the experience of students of color at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, when he was a student there.

As vice president of the Multiethnic Student Association at Taylor, Canada successfully petitioned the school to restructure its ethnic recruiter position and to re-establish its director of multiethnic student services position. He was also an original member of Taylor Black Men, a student group that provided support for young men who didn’t necessarily feel comfortable discussing the unique challenges they faced with White classmates.

“I was really excited that I was able to do that, but there’s also this sadness that I have now because, although I felt like it was important, it painted a lot of my senior year,” said Canada, who occasionally writes for UrbanFaith.

He was compelled to act, he said, because he feared that no one else would if he didn’t. “I was blessed enough that I had a lot of coping skills,” he explained. “I could ‘code switch,’ and sometimes get in that middle world, where I could deal with both cultures, but there were several students who couldn’t.”

It is those students that concern a number of professionals who work at Christian colleges around the nation, and especially those affiliated with the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. The CCCU, an international association of Christian institutions of higher education, seeks to provide resources and support for the students, faculty, and administrations of its member schools. Assisting students of color with their often difficult transition into the culture of predominately White Christian campuses has become one of its chief missions during its 36 years of existence.

Slow but Steady Progress

Twelve years ago the CCCU established a Racial Harmony Award to celebrate the achievements of its member institutions in the areas of “diversity, racial harmony, and reconciliation.”

In 2001, the organization’s board affirmed its commitment. “If we do not bring the issues of racial-ethnic reconciliation and multi-ethnicity into the mainstream of Christian higher education, our campuses will always stay on the outside fringes,” remarked Sam Barkat, former board member and provost of Nyack College in Nyack, New York.

CCCU schools have made “steady gains” since then, according to a report co-authored by Robert Reyes, research director at Goshen College’s Center for Intercultural Teaching and Learning and a member of CCCU’s Commission for Advancing Intercultural Competencies.

Robert Reyes: "We're supposed to be unified as Christians."

Reyes and his colleagues found that overall percentage of students of color increased from 16.6 percent to 19.9 percent at CCCU schools between 2003 and 2009 and graduation rates for these students also increased, from 14.8 percent to 17 percent, which still only adds up to a tiny fraction of all students at CCCU’s 115 North American affiliate schools.

According to Reyes, CCCU has a new research director and is developing a proactive research agenda related to these issues. This kind of research “creates a certain level of anxiety,” he said, because it categorizes people and theoretically separates us when we’re supposed to be unified as Christians. “I think it’s a misunderstanding of what the unity of the body is, and what unity means in the Christian faith,” said Reyes.

For those, like Reyes and Canada, who are engaged in diversity work on CCCU campuses, the task can feel like slogging through a murky swamp. UrbanFaith talked to current and former diversity workers at nine CCCU schools about their efforts and experiences. We repeatedly heard that students of color face unique challenges on these campuses and that CCCU schools are not always prepared, or willing, to deal with them. We also heard about successes and how challenging they can be.

The Problem — a Whole Different God

Multiple sources said students of color at Christian colleges are routinely harassed with racially insensitive jokes and comments by members of their campus communities, for example, and that this harassment is sometimes not taken seriously enough by school administrators.

When racism isn’t overt, students often feel like they won’t be accepted by their school communities unless they suppress their ethnic identities. Many students feel profoundly lonely on majority-White CCCU campuses, our sources said.

Dante Upshaw, for example, has been both a student and a staff member at evangelical schools. He recalled the challenge that worship presented when he was a student at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

“For the average White student, it’s an easy crossover. … It’s kind of this big youth group. But for the Black student, the Hispanic student, this is a whole different God,” said Upshaw.

He was unfamiliar with the songs that were sung in chapel, for example, and found himself in conversations about what constitutes godly worship. “I was a young person having to articulate and defend. That’s a lot of pressure for a freshman,” said Upshaw.

Monica Smith: "We haven't gone far enough."

Monica Smith has seen the same phenomenon played out on her school’s campus. As assistant to the provost for multicultural concerns at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, she said students of color once complained to her about being judged for skipping chapel services that felt culturally foreign to them. They were told they should be able to worship no matter what kind of music or speaker was up front. “The retort was, ‘You’re right, so why can’t it sound like what I’m used to?’” said Smith, who also teaches courses in social work.

Smith and her colleagues have identified four specific areas of challenge that confront students of color at Eastern: financial, academic, social, and spiritual. “If students are struggling in those areas, they really can’t pay attention in the classroom,” said Smith.

The university is making headway, but it’s slow, she said. “As much as we have done administratively and in the academic arena, I still don’t know that our university’s administration has gone far enough with this.”

Institutional Challenges — Like Turning the Titanic

Upshaw served as a minority recruiting officer and assistant director of the office of multi-cultural development at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, in the early 2000s. He said the number of non-White students who were in pain over their experience at the school would have been as big as his admissions file.

He recalled leaving school one day to commute home to Chicago when he saw a student of color sitting on the stairs “like a lonely puppy.” Upshaw read the student’s demeanor as saying, “You about to leave me here, man? You’re actually going to leave and go to your home?”

Dante Upshaw: "Too many students felt alone."

“There were just too many students like that, where they felt so alone on this beautiful, immaculate campus with great food service and great athletics,” Upshaw said. “Those were some hard years.”

In response to the need he saw, Upshaw founded Global Urban Perspectives, a multiethnic student group devoted to urban issues. He believes it was successful in part because it helped foster healthy relationships.

“The fact that we were together in a safe setting where we were given space to be ourselves, I think that really struck a chord with many of the students,” he said.

It’s a wealthy system, it’s an established system, it’s a strong historic system, and it’s a very Christian religious system,” said Upshaw of the institutional challenges he faced at Wheaton. “Changing a system like that would be akin to turning the Titanic … It is going to take a long time, and it’s going to be real slow.”

Even so, Upshaw said he saw “the ship” turn quickly when influential individuals decided to act. Too often, though, he saw inaction born of the fear of alienating potential donors. Upshaw left the school, in part, because he was frustrated with the administration’s commitment to a broadly applied quota system that he felt undermined his efforts to recruit more students of color.

Additive and Subtractive Approaches

Although Joshua Canada is ambivalent about his experience at Taylor University, he returned there for graduate school and now serves as an adviser to the Black Student Union at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, where he is also a residence director. He said not all students of color struggle with the racial dynamics on their campuses and some students rarely do.

“In their ethnic development, they’re not dealing with this tension, or this is what they’ve done their whole life and they know how to do this,” said Canada.

Joshua Canada: "To be successful, our vision of being multicultural must be transformative."

He described two approaches to multiculturalism, one that is additive and one that is subtractive. With the additive approach, elements of non-European culture are added to the core culture, he said, and with the subtractive approach, people of color drop elements of their culture to assimilate into the majority culture.

“Students feel it, if it’s additive,” Canada said. “We did Black History Month. We did Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It’s a nice gesture, but people realize it isn’t who we are.”

“To really be successful, we have to come to a place where our vision of being multicultural is more transformative and then it really does change aspects of the institution. It really does change the big-picture experience, and not in a way that is unfaithful to the history of the institution, but that maybe acknowledges gaps.”

George Yancey is a University of North Texas sociologist and the author of numerous books, including Neither Jew nor Greek: Exploring Issues of Racial Diversity on Protestant College Campuses. (Canada’s UrbanFaith interview with Yancey prompted us to investigate the issue further.) According to Yancey, the task of student retention at Christian colleges is complicated by the evangelical community’s habitual conflation of faith and culture.

“There’s an issue in retaining students of color in higher education in general,” he told UrbanFaith, “but I think Christian College campuses have even more of a challenge because of some of the dynamics that are there. A lot of times, the way the faith is practiced is racialized. People don’t always realize it.”

Nurturing Dialogue

It wasn’t only African Americans, however, who recounted stories about the challenges students of color face at CCCU institutions. Jon Purple is dean for student life programs at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. He recalls the mother of an incoming student crying when she dropped her young Black son off at the rural Ohio campus, and not just because he was leaving home.

“She was in tears and was afraid to leave her son here, because of very real fears that some good-ol’ White boys might accost her son,” said Purple.

Continued on Page 2.

About the author, Christine A. Scheller

Christine A. Scheller is UrbanFaith's News & Religion editor. In past articles, she has explored her personal journeys in urban ministry and racial diversity. Email her at cascheller@explorationsmedia.com if you have news tips or story ideas.
  1. My son is from the Philippines, and we have a number of Asian relatives within our extended family. He was all set to enroll at a small Christian college in western Pennsylvania when, during a conversation with a friend of mine on the faculty, my son asked what the minority enrollment was on campus. Until he asked, I had no clue how white the campus looked through his eyes. My friend admitted that minority recruitment had suffered when budgets started getting tight. My son is now at North Park University in Chicago and, when I turned to look at him during an orientation session, I felt like I was looking at a foretaste of heaven. He was surrounded by a beautiful diversity of students–Asian, African American, African, Hispanic and Caucasian. There were other reasons my son chose that school, but I’m certain that having more students there who looked like him was a huge factor.

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  6. Unfortunately, this story leave one more sad than hopeful. The Body of Christ should not be havilng this struggle. People, get it together here on earth for surely there is diversity in the Father’s kingdom!

  7. As a 1981 graduate of Wheaton College, it is a little more than sad to see this is still going on. I resonate very much with issues not being taken seriously by faculty/administration. I used the same exact words “bittersweet” to describe my experience. My other issue was that I had grown up in a racially mixed environment (my dad was military) and in many ways, did not quite fit in with a lot of the other Black students who had come from all/mostly Black environments

  8. Thanks Christine Scheller for yet another thought provokling article. This one hits close to home since I am a product of Calvin College. There is much in this article that I could readily identify with. Of the many non Dutch Calvin students, I was one of the most cultually different ones to attend the school. I am a native southerner, a nontraditional student from a rural area, lower middle class, and pentecostal.

    Because all of my educational formation in the past had been in majority white settings I didn’t think that navigating ethnicity at Calvin would be so hard. I was wrong! One of the hardest things for me to adjust to was the fact that the Christian Reformed tradition has no pietistic leanings whatsoever. My previous conversations with Reformed folk was replete with extended readings of the Puritans whose practices were familiar to any Pentecostal. When I realized that my classmates would never explicitly pray out loud before eating their meals I knew that their understanding of spirituality did not mirror my own.

    I cannot say that I personally experienced much racism at Calvin due in part to my lifelong familiarity with white people and I must say that some of my most meaningful relationships were forged there. My professors, though demanding, supported me in every way and have aided my intellectual and spiritual development.

    Still, I have never felt so out of place in my entire life. There are simply no words to express the cultural isolation I felt in my four years in Grand Rapids. If I hadn’t connected to the large COGIC community there I would have lost my mind. I can think Bavink and Kuyper in my mind but I can’t live Dutch Neo-Calvinism in my life.

    All in all, I wouldn’t trade my experience at Calvin in for the world but I confess that I experienced many scars there that were shared by the other Black American students. I would go there again to be sure, but I wish that a Black alternative to Calvin existed. If there was such a school that was both CCCU and HBCU I would be very happy. Why isn’t there such a school for the Black Christian student? We need it.

    • Kenneth, Thanks so much for sharing your deeply personal and thoughtful comment. There’s much to consider in it.

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  10. Christine,
    Thanks for bringing all this together into one article. This is really interesting, and for those of us on these campuses, really helpful. I knew some of the struggles Gabe went through while here, and I do believe things are more positive for students of color here now. This spring we went through (are going through!) some very grave events as some white students tweeted racist comments during the Rhythm & Praise Chapel, sponsored by the Black Student Union on campus. It has brought some things out the darkness in a really powerful way and I’ve been encouraged by the response of the administration and many of the faculty to make substantive changes. I think God is really in what is happening here at Wheaton, and I believe thoughout his Kingdom. Keep bringing these things to light, Christine. And to all the people you mention, I know you already know this, but for however long and in whatever context your work to bring about God’s redemptive work is never in vain. Everything you fought for, Dante, has prepared the soil for good things here at Wheaton. Everything each one has done in their own sphere has made possible more blessings for more students elsewhere. I’m blessed by each of you.

    • Brian,

      Thanks so much for sharing the good things that are happening at Wheaton. I’m glad to read about them, especially since I tried more than once to get in touch with Rodney Sisco for this story and he didn’t respond to my inquiries. I did speak to GUP director Sue Lee briefly, but that little bit of material didn’t warrant introducing another source into the article.

      I should also note that the article was not my idea, though, of course I had a personal interest in it and worked hard to report it honestly and without bias. Yes, my son Gabe had a very tough time at Wheaton, but he found such deep friendships and camradarie through GUP that both Sue Lee and his closest GUP friend delivered eulogies at his funeral.

      I’m already gathering material and sources for a follow up article about schools like Northpark that are highly diverse. I’m sure they have much to teach us all. Blessings to you.~

  11. Hang on to your hats. I teach at an urban institution that is greatly affected by waves of immigration–students from over 130 nations with over 70 languages spoken and representing hundreds of ethnic groups. These populations are gradually leaving New York, and their children are increasingly seeking out residential colleges. The diversity that is coming is going to blow your minds; it will not always be peaceful; and some of the conflicts will unfold between different populations of students of color. Institutions will need to learn to rely on classifications more sophisticated than US Census categories in order to understand the diversity, and to learn how international conflicts can reverberate on American college campuses.

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  13. As a graduate of a small majority white Christian college now working on a MA at a larger Christian college I want to deeply thank you for writing this article. I could relate to every single aspect of it. I would say that my undergrad, though hesitant in many areas, was authentic in their attempt to embrace and offer support for every minority student there. Also I found that many tension worthy moments with white classmates was less about racism and more about lack of knowledge. It’s a intricate ball to try and unwind, but there are many smaller schools out there getting the job done in their own way!

    As far as my graduate school goes. That’s a whole other thing. I find the higher echelons of education tend to shy away from authentic diversity to instead favor only the appearance of diversity… Yet my knowledge in this area is pretty limited as I’ve just begun there.

    Thanks so much for this article. As a black woman in the midst of the struggle I find much comfort in it!

  14. As a student at North Park University in Chicago, which is mentioned at the end of this article, I want to add that this is a prominent topic of discussion on our campus that is being addressed better than most Christian schools I looked at. We have multiple types of racial reconciliation programs, including one that goes to the South on a civil rights bus trip, and it is constantly addressed in chapel and around campus. Having “Purposefully Multicultural” be one of our three main values at the school I think that even though it creates tension, it has led to a much more open and inviting atmosphere for all the students on our campus where we can wrestle with the application of actually living that out as part of our Christian faith. I hope that more Christian schools around the country will begin to emphasize these conversations as well and this article is a great start.

  15. I beleive it was only in 2000 that the so-called Christian College lifted its ban on interracial marriages. Not long before that in 1995 or 1996, a church wanted to rebury a half white-half black baby in the black cemetery back in Georgia. It really tested the faith of one of our Christian brothers from Singapore that he decided to return home without completing the degree at Georgia Tech and had to collect himself before he returned to the US..this time to Purdue. He is now back home. I believe it was only a year ago that a church banned an interracial couple in eastern kentucky. Unfortunately the so-called Christians in this country are more interested in preseving their skin for future generations than dealing with sin and prepare for life after death.