Without affirmative action, colleges face a tough path to diversity

Submitted by Nell Gross on

Adonyas Argaw, a second-year college student in computer science at the University of Washington – who is Black – has noticed that UW’s campus is much less diverse than the Shoreline high school he graduated from. “It’s like a complete 180,” Argaw said recently while working on homework at a tutoring center on campus. “There, your entire friend group is a bunch of different races, but here, it’s much harder to do that.”

“If you already feel like you’re alone on an island here, it’s hard.”

The University of Washington, like many other institutions of higher education in the United States, has sought to create the kind of diverse student body Argaw would like to see. But for 25 years it has had to do so without one critical tool: affirmative action. That is because affirmative action has been illegal in the state since 1998, when the state’s voters passed Initiative 200, which prevents government entities from using race as a factor in hiring or admissions. Eight other states have also banned affirmative action: Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Oklahoma. Texas joined that group because of a court decision and other courts have chimed in on affirmative action, contributing to the nation’s patchwork of rules on this issue. The movement has spread slowly, but that might be about to change...

Mausom Tamang, originally from Bhutan, spent his early childhood in a refugee camp in Nepal until his family was granted asylum in the U.S. and moved to Kent when he was 8. Tamang qualified to use the UW Instructional Center because he’s the first in his family to go to college and because of his refugee status (he’s a member of a Hindu minority group that has struggled for recognition in Bhutan, and which includes more than 85,000 people who’ve resettled in the U.S.).

Tamang, who grew up in Kent and graduated from Foster High School in Tukwila, still lives with his parents and commutes two hours to and from UW each day. When he started classes at UW in the fall of 2020, it was in the midst of the pandemic. Getting help in courses of sometimes more than 700 students on a Zoom call was a bewildering experience. “It was a big struggle,” Tamang said, “not knowing how to navigate through classes. The worst thing was I didn't have guidance. I didn't know how to ask for help.”

After nearly failing several classes and afraid of disappointing his parents, Tamang says he fell into depression. Then he found the Instructional Center and connected with a tutor online (the Center was all-virtual during the early pandemic). “I was kind of nervous the first time, but I met with one of the instructors and started to build relationships,” he said.

Through the Center, Tamang found he could get the one-on-one support that had been missing in those huge classes. “I could ask, ‘Hey, how do you solve this?’ That’s what really helped me succeed, and my grades started to improve.”

Now a third-year geography major focusing on data science, Tamang hasn’t found much of a Nepali or Bhutanese community at UW yet, but he’s built friendships through the Brotherhood Initiative, a peer support program for men of color on campus, which also helped him build confidence. “Knowing how to go out of your comfort zone is one of the most crucial things you can do here,” Tamang said.

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