In a state where colleges struggle to recruit a diverse student body, New England College in Henniker reports that currently 36.2 percent of its 1,135 resident students identify as African American, Hispanic, Asian or more than one race.
Michele Perkins, who has been the college’s president for 14 years, said that at one time people told her the goal of campus diversity in a rural area of the Granite State would be “impossible or very difficult.”
“I didn’t believe it,” she said.
Growth in diversity has come during her tenure, particularly over the last six years as recruitment expanded beyond New England and the mid-Atlantic seaboard and as prospective students who visited campus began to see a more diverse student body.
The school identifies racially diverse students by purchasing demographic data submitted as part of standardized testing and then targets those students for recruitment.
This isn’t unusual in higher education, but New England College makes a point of focusing on students in working class neighborhoods in places such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia and parts of Florida.
“We’ve been doing it for years,” she said. “Persistence will lead to success.”
“We’ve invested a lot in identifying students from all over the country. A lot of them are first-generation college students. Usually, when you are a first-generation student, you have financial needs. We are very generous in our scholarship and grant programs.”
She said the school is in a position financially where it can work to ensure that if a student wants to attend, that student can afford to attend.
“Probably, we are in a financially better shape than some institutions,” she said.
“We are tuition dependent. We don’t have a big endowment, but we’re as generous as we can afford to be.”
Financial assistance was a key for Ty’Aaron Ennis, an African American student who graduated from a charter high school in Boston before coming to New England College.
“NEC offered me a lot more money than what I was being offered at other schools and that’s kind of what drew me here,” he said.
“They covered the majority of the finances. Then I became an RA in my sophomore year and that covered room and board and a meal plan.”
Javaughn Taylor, who will be a senior in computer science and game design in the fall, said generous financial aid was a major factor in his decision to attend the school. He grew up in the greater Boston area where “My street was all minorities, Hispanics, Blacks,” he said.
Coping with New Hampshire’s demographics proved to be an adjustment that exemplifies the challenges facing schools seeking to attract and retain students of color regardless of the financial incentives.
“New Hampshire is strictly white,” he said. “We’d get looks or side looks in the community, or in the store.”
In predominantly white New Hampshire, minority students can encounter trouble fitting in or even some forms of discrimination.
“Can there be racism in their lives in Henniker?” said Perkins. “Sure, there can be implicit bias, not necessarily overt or pernicious but to say there are no issues with race no matter where you are in the world is denial.”
Ennis, 23, said that while he has succeeded, he has mixed feelings about his experience in rural New Hampshire. Despite the school’s diversity, he found that many of the students did not have much experience relating to Black people.
There were instances of microagression – subtle, indirect, discrimination – and use of the N-word, perhaps due to a lack of understanding among people unaccustomed to being around Black people, he said. He found greater understanding when he lived in Boston.
“Some students here never were around Black kids and they didn’t know how to say things, what to say, how to interact, which can lead to issues.” He said he had some “run-ins with townies.”
Small town New Hampshire can be isolating, according to Ennis.
“If you don’t have a car, you’re kind of stuck in this town, with not much to do,” he said. “I have a car now and still get bored,” he said.
That said, there is a snowball effect once diversity numbers start to climb.
“When it got a little over 20 percent, the efforts to persuade students to apply and to enroll became not as difficult,” Perkins said.
“Students would come to campus, visit, walk around and see people like them. Seeing students on campus like themselves makes it much easier to enroll,” a sentiment echoed by other college administrators across the state.
New England College has an Office of Diversity and Inclusion that is part of the overall effort to provide a student support structure including advising, tutoring and mentoring.
Taylor said his experience at the college has been generally positive.
“On the way, I’ve met so many great people,” he said. “Staff members have helped me grow and given me opportunities.”
Ennis said the school provided strong academics and contacts. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and will continue on at the school in a master’s program in international relations.
Ennis gives the school a conditional recommendation.
“Yes and no,” he said. “Yes, because NEC does have a lot of opportunities you won’t find or are hard to access. You can thrive here if you know how to see through the BS. You’re here for an education. Keep that in mind. There could be some bumps in the road, but keep a clear mind and you’ll see right through it.
He found himself defending the school in a discussion with a local resident who was critical of the college.
“He tried to downgrade my degree and I took offense to that,” he said. “My whole mindset is this is not Harvard, Yale or Vanderbilt. A lot of connections from professors emerge in the classrooms that really commend them, including from places like China and Egypt and agencies like the CIA and FBI.”
He became involved in extracurricular activities, inviting politicians to campus and having a chance to sit down and talk to them. He also served as student treasurer and did two internships involving voting and voting rights.
But, Ennis said, he won’t be sticking around after he gets his master’s degree.
“I do intend to go back to Massachusetts, back to my original culture, my family and friends. I like to be in a more noisy area. I like noise.”
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.
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