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Diversity attracts students to Winthrop

Sheila McMillan regularly receives calls from students thinking about attending Winthrop University.

The Columbia attorney gives them many reasons, but one stands out – diversity.

“I'm proud of them,” McMillan said of her alma mater. “They have the highest intake of minorities in a predominantly white university here in the state. To me, that is a very positive statement.”

The 1973 graduate visits the campus to talk to students and participate in panels – but even on a recent trip the diversity was a pleasant surprise to her.

“The best place to see it is at the student center,” she said. “I went in, and I was shocked. I noticed it was so diverse. Everybody seemed to be getting along.

“People would ask questions and talk to each other about classes. I was standing there with my mouth open.”

Winthrop today is a school of about 6,000 students. Minorities make up about 35 percent of the enrollment, of which about 27 percent are black.

Back in 1989 – the year McMillan became the first black member of the Winthrop Board of Trustees – the percentage of black students on campus was significantly lower – 9 percent.

That was also the year trustees hired Anthony DiGiorgio as president.

McMillan and others say the mission to increase the black population on campus – and therefore, the diversity – can be traced back to DiGiorgio’s arrival.

‘Very intentional goal’

DiGiorgio announced last month his plans to retire next year after what would be 24 years with the university. While recounting what he considers his educational successes, he discussed the efforts to boost minority enrollment.

“We very intentionally set out as a goal,” he said, “to have the Winthrop University student body represent the graduating high school population in an ethnic sense, in a racial sense.”

His goal was laid out in the university’s “Vision of Distinction,” a blueprint for the future that also included plans to upgrade and add buildings.

The mission was campus-wide, said Frank Ardaiolo, Winthrop’s vice president of student life.

“He gave the charge to make Winthrop University the institution of choice for African-Americans in South Carolina,” he said. “It’s a point of pride and great satisfaction that students who have traditionally been under-served...get the best of what the university has to offer.”

Faculty and staff had a focus in each of their outreach efforts, Ardaiolo said, and they begin before a student even visits the campus.

Each department has responsibilities and a plan to answer the question, “What are you going to do to appreciate diversity?”

Admissions office and campus representatives visit majority-black high schools, which are typically under-represented at the state’s universities “to let students know this is the place for them,” Ardaiolo said.

Prospective students who are black also can speak with Winthrop representatives who are of the same race.

DiGiorgio said those efforts also involved meeting with community leaders and attending dinners at mostly black churches.

Once a student is enrolled, Ardaiolo said efforts continue with discussions in general education courses, such as Academy 101, the course for freshmen, and a human experience-English class called HMXP. These classes include discussions about diversity.

It’s about getting students excited, DiGiorgio said.

“There’s no magic wand you can wave,” he said. “It’s very intense work and very well-intentioned people making it happen.”

The effort has earned national acclaim.

The Education Trust, an organization that promotes academic achievement for students on all levels, found in a study that among public, four-year colleges – excluding historically black schools – Winthrop equally serves white and black students while graduating them at similar rates.

The group lauded the school, saying it has closed the achievement gap where other schools haven’t.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation named Winthrop one of the 40 American campuses where minority students are beating the odds. It was the only South Carolina school honored.

The foundation noted the Vision of Distinction initiative and certain strategies, including the interaction in residential life communities on campus and a pilot program for black students in science, technology, engineering and math.

“Over time,” the foundation said, “these approaches have enabled Winthrop students of traditionally under-represented backgrounds to succeed at levels equal to or exceeding those of the overall student body.”

“Winthrop has become a place where students of color are extraordinarily comfortable,” DiGiorgio said. “It’s a warm, welcoming environment for them.”

‘Icing on the cake’

Cynthia Roddey, widely recognized as Winthrop’s first black student, chose the school in the 1960s at the recommendation of a co-worker. She wanted a school that had a library science curriculum.

Now a professor at Clinton Junior College in Rock Hill, Roddey has watched Winthrop’s progress with blacks and other minorities over the years.

One reason Winthrop has been able to retain a minority population, she said, is the variety of curriculums it offers – classes students want to take.

“They have made an effort to be diverse,” she said. “They have tried to speak to the needs of the minority students. They try to retain them and try to make sure they graduate.”

Roddey recently attended Delta Sigma Theta’s Jazz night. Winthrop’s branch of the historically black sorority has a scholarship in her name.

“The program represented different ethnic groups,” she said. “Even five years ago, I probably wouldn’t have seen that.”

Then again, she added, seeing students of all backgrounds interact on campus has become the norm at the university.

Some black students have noted Winthrop’s appeal to minorities.

For junior Kambrell Garvin of Columbia, Winthrop’s beautiful campus and academic offerings were ideal – but it was diversity that helped seal the deal for him.

“I wanted to go someplace that was reflective of the real world,” he said. “My first impression was in taking a sweeping look of the entire student body, I saw people from many different backgrounds talking, laughing and interacting.”

Garvin is a political science major and president of the Council of Student Leaders. As the student body’s representative to the Board of Trustees, he applauds DiGiorgio and the school for raising academic standards while increasing minority enrollment.

“We’re really proud of the fact that Winthrop is graduating more minority graduates, other than historically black colleges,” he said. “Winthrop is doing a really, really good job of attracting competitive minority students.”

As much outreach as Winthrop officials say they have done, junior special education major Alexis Clowney of Spartanburg said it’s still not truly marketed well as a place for black students.

“It’s not necessarily what you think of when you think of Winthrop,” she said, “but once they get here, people feel more comfortable.”

She chose Winthrop for its educational program, which she considers top of the line.

However, the school’s diversity was a factor in retaining her.

“It’s definitely something that kept me here and helped me enjoy the experience here,” Clowney said.

Other black students say that while diversity and the appeal to blacks wasn’t necessarily a selling factor, it has become an asset to the school.

Junior business administration and marketing management student Theodore Jones of Greenville was attracted to Winthrop’s narrow student-to-teacher ratio. But diversity did come up often in conversations.

“Every time I came to Winthrop, they talked about diversity and how diverse of a campus it is,” he said. “They didn’t focus on race either with diversity. Winthrop is diverse because we have different religions or people come from different areas. It’s diversity across the whole board.”

The diversity was also obvious to him in the university’s seemingly endless list of clubs and organizations.

Senior psychology major and women’s studies minor Cecile Gadson moved from Ohio to attend Winthrop. She has family in the Rock Hill area, but she enjoyed the friendly reception and talking to her black admissions counselor.

“It's added to the quality of my education at Winthrop, just having more diversity,” she said. “In a lot of my upper classes, we do a lot of discussions. We talk about race and gender issues. The diversity in class has added more to those discussions.

“Diversity was icing on the cake.”

‘How far we’ve come’

White students say they, too, have noticed the overall diversity on campus.

“There’s definitely a great mix of students, whether they’re black, Hispanic, Asian,” said senior biology major Ashley Stull of Myrtle Beach.

Like Gadson, Stull thinks it adds multiple levels to classroom discussions.

Freshman biology major Jacob Krause of Greer said Winthrop’s diversity has added to his educational experience.

“I can see diversity almost everywhere on campus,” he said.

As DiGiorgio prepares for his last full academic year as president, Ardaiolo, the student life vice president, ensured the university’s efforts to recruit and retain blacks and other minorities would continue.

It’s a good assurance for Garvin.

The student body president has had conversations with Roddey about how it felt to be the first black student on campus. He said Roddey talked about how faculty and staff were welcoming, but the general student body was not.

“I’m happy to report almost a half-decade later, that’s not the case anymore,” Garvin said. “That shows not only how far we’ve come as a university, but also how far we’ve come as a country.

“It took more than just African-American students. It took the entire student body.”