Jordan Lean grew up in Prince George’s County, going to a public school with a lot of other black students like himself. So when he started his freshman year at Towson University, where he often had only a handful of black classmates, he felt “a little shocked.”
But Lean, now vice president of the Black Student Union and going into his senior year, said this year’s black freshmen will feel a little less out of place. That is because school officials say this year’s freshman class is not only the school’s largest, but also its most diverse.
“Coming in, for the freshmen, for them to see more familiar faces, that helps with the shock they’re going to face,” Lean said.
At 3,000 students, this year’s freshman class is the largest in the Towson University’s history, said school spokesman Sean Welsh.
It is the most “academically prepared,” with the highest high school GPA and SAT scores of any incoming class, said Bethany Pace, assistant provost for communication and engagement.
And with 46 percent of freshmen coming from a racial or ethnic minority background, Welsh said this year’s freshmen are also the most diverse class since the school’s founding as a teacher training institute in 1866. Nearly one in five is a first-generation college student.
With that growth has come a campus housing shortfall of about 2,000 beds, Welsh said. That shortfall includes the 197 beds added this semester when the university opened The Residences at 10 West Burke, a Marriott hotel turned housing complex.
Schatzel said as class sizes and total enrollment grow, the university will have to look for more solutions to the housing shortage in the coming years.
The proportion of minority students on campus has also swelled over the past decade, from 18 percent in 2008 to nearly 33 percent in 2017. In just five years, the percentage of students of color in each freshman class climbed more than 10 percentage points, from 35 percent in 2013 to 46 percent this year.
“It’s promising for the future of the minority groups on campus,” Lean said. “It’s promising to the student organizations on campus that represent those minority groups and marginalized communities.”
Leah Cox, vice president for diversity and inclusion, said Schatzel created her position in 2017 to build on momentum of making Towson University more welcoming to a diverse population. Her office works on outreach to minority populations, advising and other support for students of color.
“I think Towson has had a history of not always being welcoming,” Cox said. “But I think if you’ve been watching over the last five or six years, that’s changing.”
One draw for minority students, university officials said, is the fact that there is no achievement gap between students of color and their white peers. Cox attributed the lack of a gap to Towson’s focus on providing extra support like mentoring and advising for students who need help, such as first-generation college students.
Deb Moriarty, vice president for student affairs, said the school has intentionally reached out to recruit minority students, but that ultimately the school is becoming more diverse because “the world’s just becoming more diverse.”
Lean said student groups like the Black Student Union are an integral part of making the campus welcoming to minority students.
The Black Student Union recruits at area high schools and broadcasts the group’s work and events on social media, he said. Social media, especially, is a powerful way to attract minority students to Towson by showing students that look like them doing exciting things on campus like holding events or volunteering, Lean said. This year, the Black Student Union will do work to combat food scarcity in the city and county, he said.
Lean said starting at Towson University as a black student is not without challenges. Lean’s own freshman year, for instance, the election of President Donald Trump ignited racial tensions on campus, with some students voicing “hateful” opinions, he said.
The Black Student Union supports black students, advocating for them when they feel they are being racially profiled or harassed and making sure they are treated fairly in disputes, Lean said.
Moriarty said the Center for Student Diversity leans heavily on groups like the Black Student Union, making it a priority to back their efforts to support students.
Though he said black students can still face barriers, Lean thinks the growing proportion of minority students on campus will make things easier for those students. He said he hopes to see a day when black students are no longer in the minority on campus, but are “the equal.”
Cox, too, said that students of color often feel more comfortable speaking up or asking for help when more of their peers look like them, because “you know you’re not the only one.”
And having a more diverse set of peers could help make the white students more inclusive, Lean said.
“Seeing there are more of us around forces people to either think otherwise or subdue those thoughts,” he said. “Even though there will still be those people sprinkled in, I think Towson has shown we are a united front against hate.”