LINCOLN — When she's not in class, TeyAnjulee Leon can go her whole day at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and never interact with a white person in a meaningful way.
The senior fine arts major is vice president of the Afrikan Peoples Union. That group and the university's multicultural center give her pockets of campus where she is surrounded by people who look like her. She still has those meaningful interactions with white people, but she feels as if she has to seek them out.
“The fact that I have to try at it is weird,” Leon said.
Ethnic-based groups such as the Mexican American Student Association and the Afrikan Peoples Union have grown steadily along with the minority population at UNL, which is now more than 11 percent.
Many students like Leon find needed encouragement and acceptance in ethnicity-based organizations. But the rest of the university's student groups also remain largely homogenous, and students say what's missing is a relationship between the two.
Efforts are already underway to bridge the gap that was exposed this semester after a series of incidents drove outraged white and minority students to speak up.
Homecoming skits offended many students with depictions of black and Hispanic culture. A student senator, now facing impeachment, used racial slurs in defending free speech during a student government meeting last month. The N-word was written in chalk outside a campus fraternity house.
The incidents and subsequent outcry caught the attention of administrators, and a dialogue about race has begun in earnest on a campus that many students say is socially divided along racial lines.
A campuswide campaign called Not Here, Not Now, Not Ever was launched last week by administrators, starting with an open forum and a call for ideas.
UNL's student government started recruiting efforts this semester to draw in more multicultural candidates. And the university's multicultural center is looking for ways to encourage more students to accept those invitations when they come.
Alicia Dominguez, a graduate student, wanted to be an involved campus leader during her undergrad years. But when she looked around and saw mostly white faces, she feared she would end up being some organization's “token Latina,” speaking for a whole group instead of just herself.
So her campus activities — and friend groups — were mostly filled with people she felt comfortable with and who could relate to her experience as a first-generation college student and Latina.
“If I tried a new group and I wasn't received well, or if it felt like a chilly welcoming, I'm probably not going to try it again,” Dominguez said.
Her experience, and that of many minority students at UNL, is in line with what research has shown at predominantly white campuses throughout the country, according to André Fortune, director of the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center at UNL.
Even those students who seem like logical candidates for wider leadership roles tend to stick with organizations specifically for their ethnicity, Fortune said. They devote so much of their time to those groups, they often don't have time to become involved in others that may provide more interaction with different types of peers.
Starting with next year's incoming class, Fortune's staff will help students see the value in going beyond the ethnic-based organizations.
“It's great to join those organizations, but there's also some value in getting involved in things like student government,” Fortune said.
Kriston Burroughs didn't see that value right away, but he felt a payoff when he did get involved.
Now a graduate student, Burroughs counted among his friends during his undergrad years many members of the Afrikan Peoples Union.
But he also felt he needed to network to reach his own goals. A student who served on the board of the Nebraska Union — the only black member at that time — encouraged Burroughs to succeed him there.
Burroughs did, and he's proud to look around and see the fruits of projects he weighed in on, such as painting the union walls Husker red. He also persuaded three minority students to apply when he left.
“It's cool to see that I was in those conversations, and that's how I'd market it to other students of color,” Burroughs said. “Why not get on a board where you can have your voice heard?”
That personal influence is what brought more minorities to that board. But the same system keeps dynasties of friend groups in charge at campus organizations such as the Association of Students of the University of Nebraska, several senators said.
Though elections are campuswide, the ASUN informally relies upon current members who work through their own fraternities and sororities to nominate candidates.
The end result is a student government — which sets fees and speaks for the students — that is composed of the same social circles as the previous year: mostly white candidates from mostly white Greek organizations.
Numbers provided by the Office of Greek Affairs show that, last spring, about 250 of the 3,200 students in Greek organizations identified as a minority or multiracial. Though that number is almost double the number of minority students who were participating 10 years ago, it's lower than the overall 11 percent of undergrads who are minorities, and includes students involved in multicultural Greek organizations.
Student body President Eric Reznicek said that ASUN is already working on ways to reach out to a larger group of students to serve as candidates.
Reznicek, a senior finance major, said the organization doesn't keep track of senators or candidates by race. But he said few minority students have been involved since his freshman year, and he and other senators agree they can't just wait for students to come to them.
Reznicek has already seen results from that outreach: When he emailed students involved with the multicultural center to seek possible candidates, he got 51 responses.
“It's fair to say those are 51 students that probably wouldn't have been involved in any capacity beforehand,” Reznicek said.
A new student organization has also cropped up to confront the harmful stereotypes that can keep people apart.
Rachael Washington, a senior music major, is president of Students Overcoming Stereotypes (SOS), a group she co-founded this year because she wanted to create a space for people from different cultures to get to know one another.
The Lincoln native is biracial and has often been told she doesn't meet other students' expectations — both from black students, who say she is “acting like a white girl,” and white students, who expected a black woman to act differently.
“I just want to scream that people don't act a color,” Washington said.
She hopes the SOS group's events will draw a wide variety of people together to simply become friends. It's what Washington feels is missing at UNL, and she said lots of students love the idea of it. But so far, only five students are committed members. She knows the premise itself is uncomfortable, but she believes it's necessary.
“We want to be an organization where everyone is uncomfortable, but willing to want to learn and accept,” she said.