How will Sewanee’s reputation change in the future?

Anna Pusok
Executive Staff

While the Office of Admissions works to create a more diverse and equitable recruitment process, students on campus have voiced concerns that Sewanee’s reputation in national news coupled with lack of training for students to talk about racial issues will result in a less diverse campus.

Many students wonder about Sewanee’s reputation after reported racist events at a Sewanee lacrosse game and the alleged attacks against the vice-chancellors home at Chen Hall, which were both covered by The Washington Post and resulted in a student walk-out against racism on campus. The Office of Admission says it doesn’t yet know how this will affect what high school students think about Sewanee.

Although it is hard to measure how the reputation of Sewanee will affect the application and enrollment rates in the next few years, events from the lacrosse game have already affected the University’s ability to invite guests onto the Domain, particularly for athletic events. Some athletic programs from visiting universities have contacted the University with concerns about Sewanee spectators, or have cancelled games.

Faith Vaughn, Assistant Director of Admission, said, “My team and I create messaging specifically for students of color and other marginalized backgrounds outlining specific resources relating to the Sewanee pledge, visiting campus, and how to apply.”

She further explained, “This year, our office created an Intercultural Recruitment team, to ensure that the application review process is equitable for all students of color in the first review. I also lead Perspective Sewanee which is a program that invites students of color and other marginalized groups to campus for an overnight visit.”

Perspective Sewanee is a program for admitted students, who would like to know more about the diversity of people and the multicultural opportunities at Sewanee. This session offers a safe space to discuss various topics regarding current student experience, multicultural platforms and resources available on campus.

The Office of Admission has counselors working with students from every region of the country, and they are all receiving questions about diversity, racism, political demographics, University policy, and campus safety.

However, Vaughn said, “[I] would be worried if prospective students and families did not ask questions about diversity or racism, especially after the lacrosse incident. These topics are extremely important to address and everyone should be aware of how the university is handling the situations.”

Vaughn said, “The day of the student walkout, I spoke with a visiting family who attended the demonstration. They were saddened about what the students’ experiences were, but they were proud that Sewanee provided a platform for students to vocalize change and how we should move forward.”

Ivana Porshka (C’21), president of the Student Government Association, said, “No [prospective students] specifically has reached out to me about concern. However, I, myself, as a prospective student four years ago, when I was looking for colleges, during my Sewanee tour, this was the first thing that I noticed that our campus is not very racially diverse, and it was a big inhibitor in my decision to attend here because this limits your perspective on the world, on our country, on different cultures.”

Porashka said, “I am happy that this has been brought to light because I think a lot of people have said after the incident at the lacrosse game and vandalism and harassment at our vice-chancellor’s house that this is two steps backwards that we have taken as a community. I understand what they are saying, but I would respectfully disagree. I don’t think we have taken steps backwards, I think we finally put it underneath the light to be examined properly.”

“We are being forced to confront not just our history but our current situation, which isn’t fixed and hasn’t disappeared,” Porashka said.

Ngan Nguyen (C’24), an international student from Vietnam, said before she came here she knew that “Sewanee was a very predominantly white school.

Only three Vietnamese students were attending Sewanee before her arrival. “When I decided to reach out to a Sewanee graduate from Vietnam she told me that the school is not very diverse.”
However, Nguyen said, “I think Sewanee is doing a better job to get more international students, like we have a lot of students from a lot of students around the world now,” Nguyen said. She continued that she felt comfortable attending Sewanee after seeing “how the international community is very close, and they are friendly enough to make you feel welcomed coming here.”

Nguyen is concerned, however, about Sewanee’s reputation as it enters national news. “Sewanee’s already a college in the South and there are a lot of conversations going on about the school’s history, so this adds up to that, and the school has still a long way to go now and build a more diverse community.”

Grace Barlet (C’23), a tour guide, said she only had one visitor on a tour asking questions about the signs around campus. “I think she was from Chicago, and saw the sign that was taped at Gailor Hall’s saying ‘Racism will not be tolerated. Racists should be expelled’ and she was asking what was going on. I told her that, honestly the same thing that is going on here, is also going on everywhere else in America.”

She continued, “We’re not any different, it’s not like racism doesn’t exist here, but because we’re a smaller community, and we do live under the EQB guidelines, we work really hard to get that under control and out of here.”

“I had to say something on the fly because we haven’t been trained on how to answer that. At the time I gave the tour, there was nothing from the Arcadian program that was like, ‘This is what you should say,’ so I had to come up with something,” said Barlet.

Some Arcadians reached out to Maria Watters, Assistant Director of Admissions, and they got an email back saying that the program is developing plans for training Arcadians on having those conversations, but nothing concrete has been done yet. “As far as I know, they have been working on it, but I haven’t heard anything,” Barlet said.

Peggy Owusu-Ansah (C’23), who is also a tour guide said, “people of color have always asked me about the racial climate here at Sewanee. It’s clear that it is a question that these families have always had to ask. Non-POC families have never asked me about racial occurrences and that hasn’t really changed. I heard one mother say something about the lacrosse game under her breath but never an outright question.”

“We can’t blame BIPOC for their race,” Owusu-Ansah said, “but we can address why non-BIPOC students believe that they can degrade others this way. So far it hasn’t changed much, I think just that people are more likely to listen. I have consciously mentioned multicultural events and groups ever since I became a tour guide, and I have mentioned even more now since the game occurred.”

“When people are ready to talk, I and many other students are willing to have the conversation but for right now, I think those coming on tours just want to know what next steps look like,” Owusu-Ansah said.