Diversity Forges Future For Paul Quinn College

October 27, 2011 by · Comments Off 

BEYOND THE BUBBLE

By Andy Garcia
atgarcia@smu.edu

Sitting over a laptop computer, Celia Soto clicks through course assignments and extracurricular activities. With less than 30 minutes before her next class, she organizes her academic life on the Paul Quinn College campus.

Less than a year ago, Soto was a recent immigrant from Mexico, working as a waitress and a sales clerk at a bazaar in Dallas to save money for a college education. Despite graduating with honors from Duncanville High School, she thought it would take “two or three years” before she could pay for school.

Today, Soto is a presidential scholar at PQC, with her four years of tuition waived. For Soto, it is a path to new possibilities. For the historically black PQC, located in Oak Cliff it’s part of an ongoing effort to evolve.

“We don’t see it as diversity, we see it as expanding our mission to places that others just might not have thought to look,” Paul Quinn’s President Michal Sorrell said.

The Center for Historically Black Colleges and Universities Media Advocacy, Inc awarded Paul Quinn HBCU of the year in March. Criteria includes ‘community outreach initiatives’ and ‘student engagement by way of enrollment’.

This semester, seven out of 193 students enrolled at PQC are identified as nonblack. Five are listed as Hispanic and two are listed as Asian on PQC’s registration demographics.

“The first day when I moved in everybody was like ‘welcome, how do you feel’,” said Soto, a 19-year-old legal studies and criminal justice major. “I feel so good.“

But PQC has faced problems in recent years. Academic and financial issues have plagued the college, resulting in the loss of its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 2009.

Since then, the college has worked to improve its reputation. For fiscal 2009 and 2010, the college accumulated approximately $2 million in budget surpluses.

By 2010, the college received accreditation from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. TRACS is a national accrediting body for Christian institutions. PQC is affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The college also works to help the surrounding Oak Cliff community by providing organic food through the operation of an on-campus farm.

In August, the Wall Street Journal examined historically black colleges working to expand their enrollment demographic. PQC was one of the school’s recognized for its efforts.

In June, Soto and other incoming students attended a summer bridge program at PQC to accumulate six academic credits and learn more about the college. She remembers that she was met with warmth from her peers.

“I [felt] like I’m home because they were really nice people,” said Soto.

Along with an interest in expanding their knowledge of other cultures, many of the first year students have a common bond through their relationships with PQC recruiter Jessika Lara.

Lara, whose family is originally from Mexico, was one of PQC’s first presidential scholars and graduated in Dec. 2010. She says she was so interested in PQC’s efforts to grow that she wanted to continue being a part of it.

Lara has helped recruit prospective students by bringing them to campus and getting to know who they are on a personal level.

Freshman business administration student Giovanni Macias considers one of the leading factors for why he chose PQC was his ability to talk to Lara whenever he needed to. He remembers text messaging her on a weekend asking her about the school.

“She gave me all this information about life here and she started convincing me, on a Saturday morning, too,” Macias said.

The time Lara spent with her recruits has developed in a bond among them all. Students often come to her office throughout the day to talk with her about their lives.

“We really are a close knit group,” Lara said. “They don’t leave my office.”

Throughout the summer bridge program, Soto formed lasting friendships. One girl she met, T’Edra Jackson, is now her roommate.

Jackson, an 19-year-old business administration student who hails from Baton Rouge had not interacted with Hispanic students before the bridge program. However, Soto’s race did not prevent the girls from becoming friends.

“She would come to my dorm and study, and I would come to her dorm and study and we just started bonding,” Jackson said.

In her time at the college, Soto has both offered and benefited from peer tutoring, and she was also encouraged by a member of the faculty to establish a Latino Association on campus. Soto says she has about 11 members comprising both Hispanic and black students. The group’s first campus event was in mid-September and celebrated Latino culture. About 40 students attended.

Zae Whitaker, an undeclared 17-year-old and one of the black students in the Latino Association, had been concerned about not finding enough diversity when he was considering PQC.

“I wanted it to be a school where there was diversity, so I could embrace more cultures because I already know what it’s like to be black,” Whitaker said.

Apart from his participation in the Latino Association, Whitaker is also working with a classmate to teach Latin dancing to members of both the school and the local community.