Back in the 1950s, when African American Harold G. Booker applied to graduate school in chemistry at the University of Washington, the Office of Minority Affairs didn't exist.
Nor was there a Multicultural Alumni Partnership, and "certainly no vice president for Minority Affairs and Diversity," Booker recalled.
A 2007 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient, Booker spoke Oct. 27 at the 13th annual Multicultural Alumni Partnership's Bridging the Gap Breakfast. The breakfast was organized to recognize outstanding achievements of UW students and distinguished alumni, but it also celebrated the strides the university has made in its efforts to diversify the student body and staff.
UW President Mark Emmert boasted that a record number of students of color have been admitted in the last two years, since the university adopted a "holistic approach" to school admissions.
"We did a number of things," Emmert said, "to make the sure that the university is as open as it can possibly be to all of our people everywhere, regardless of their race, their ethnicity, or their economic circumstances."
Under the holistic admissions model, students are evaluated on the many different attributes they would bring to the university, rather than solely on their scholastic achievements and test scores. This model takes into account the disadvantages and hardships faced by many students of color and those from low-income backgrounds — hardships that may lead to lower grades and test scores in high school.
"We are hoping to emphasize not just a test score, not just a GPA, but in fact the whole student," said Emmert. "We want to take into account who this young person is, what they've accomplished, and what kinds of things they've had to deal with."
As it turns out, this new system of admissions, in conjunction with the increasing number of scholarships through programs such as the Husky Promise, has laid the foundation for increasing the enrollment of underrepresented minority students.
According to a report from the UW's Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, the undergraduate enrollment of underrepresented minority students — including African American, Native American, Latino, and Hawaiian/Pacific Islander — for Autumn 2007 was 8 percent higher than the all-time high of Autumn 2006, with a total of 2,868 students. In addition, the enrollment of underrepresented minority students in the university's graduate and professional programs has increased by 27 percent since 1998.
Although the future diversification of Washington's campus looks promising under the holistic admissions approach, Booker reminded everyone in the room that educational equity and student diversity weren't always at the top of the agenda.
Booker, who graduated with "Summa Cum Laude," explained that being the first African American admitted into the university's Graduate School for Chemistry was not without its difficulties, even for a student with his stellar academic profile.
"I was accepted," said Booker, "but only on the condition that I monitor all of the senior year courses in addition to pursuing my graduate degree."
"At that time," he said, "the university environment was cold, unaccepting and non-inclusive."
Booker's speech made it clear that the university has truly come a long way in its efforts to diversify and provide a welcoming and supportive environment for students of all backgrounds. However, amid the celebratory speeches, awards and scholarships, Emmert reminded everyone that there is still a long way to go.
"Although our six-year and four-year graduation rates are going up for every category," said Emmert, "let's not kid ourselves; we've got work to do."