It was a clear Sunday evening in August 2016. The Memorial Stadium loop was lined with organized booths of people calling out to University of Nebraska-Lincoln students, urging them to find the place where they belong.
Lincoln businesses had activities and prizes, and hoards of students could be seen carrying water bottles, shirts and other quintessential “Free Stuff Sunday” items.
Temi Onayemi, then a freshman, walked the festival with his fraternity brothers. As they were getting ready to leave, one booth in particular called out to him.
The Afrikan Peoples Union, a recognized student organization, was at the festival that day to connect with black students on campus they hadn’t met before. When they saw Onayemi, the members called out to him, asking if he wanted to know more about their organization.
Onayemi, now a senior political science and psychology double major, said he knew firsthand how the campus viewed him, even after only a few days living in Nebraska. On move-in day, Onayemi said a random student, someone he didn’t know, high-fived him for being the first black person he’d ever seen.
This encounter, he said, showed him that Nebraska was not as accepting of his race as his hometown of Chicago had been.
“You don’t ever have that experience with anybody that’s in Chicago. You’re surrounded by everyone with every race, every cultural background,” he said. “You come here and you understand people are so close-minded and sheltered and wary of your existence because they’ve heard stories or they see it in the media.”
Before he had a chance to even consider APU’s offer, Onayemi’s white fraternity brothers spoke up, saying he already had his community and didn’t need another one.
Onayemi had a choice: follow his fraternity brothers or speak up for himself.
“That’s such a pivotal moment,” Onayemi said. “That’s that choice between embracing the community I’m a part of or feeding into this one that’s already toxic for me.”
That day, Onayemi chose his fraternity. In the process, he said he lost the chance to have the community he truly needed during his first year at UNL.
In the fall 2019 semester, there were 668 black students and 37 black faculty members at UNL. For one black faculty member, there were about 18 black students. For one Hispanic or Latino faculty member, there were about 23 Hispanic or Latino students. And for one white faculty member, there were about 14 white students.
The number of white faculty, at 1328, outnumbered all other faculty ethnicities. The next highest ethnicity for faculty was Asian, with 178 faculty members.
This gap in minority faculty representation affects students like Onayemi, who said he did not meet a black faculty member until the end of his freshman year.
During his freshman year, Onayemi said he saw the aftermath of the 2016 election and that it made him realize how much he did not like the place he was in or the person he had become at UNL. Walking in late to a 300-student psychology class after the election, he said he was greeted with a sea of red “Make America Great Again” hats.
“Whether I met them or not, whether I called them out or not, it’s like seeing those hats was like, you are a representation of everything that I hate about racism and about school, this place I’m in right now and who I’m pretending to be in this state,” he said.
Onayemi said UNL needs more education about African American history, which is apparent to him by the way others act around him, from students high-fiving him to nonchalantly saying the N-word. He said it bothers him when he has to be the one to call out others for using the word.
“It’s very insensitive to have to be called out every single time in order to give an explanation,” he said. “It’s almost like they’re doing a case study on who they can say the N-word around.”
The first black faculty member Onayemi connected with was the late professor of political science, Michael Combs. A meeting that was only supposed to last through lunch ended up lasting hours.
“This is not only the first black professor I met, but this is the first professor that’s willing to talk to me like a human being rather than talk down to me like a student,” he said.
Christian Torres, a senior art major, said those in higher positions should keep their perspectives open in order to be inclusive because diversity allows students the opportunity to see themselves in leadership.
“It’s always nice to see someone with your background in a leadership position because you see yourself in that and it allows you to accept that things are changing and are different than they were in the past,” he said.
Onayemi said if he had never met Combs, he might not have ever stepped foot in the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center or been involved in organizations like APU.
“In retrospect, that connection was one of the most valuable things to me,” he said. “It’s crazy, but I think he started that conversation [of] how important it is to have black professors here, having that mentorship available for students.”
Torres said when he first came to UNL, some of the strongest connections he formed were with professors who shared his background.
“You get that sense of common ground with them,” he said. “Not that you can’t get that with other people, but there’s just something extra and special about it.”
Along with faculty representation, Amelia Maria de la Luz Montes, an associate professor for contemporary American literature specializing in U.S. Latinx and Chicanx literature, said UNL’s Institute for Ethnic Studies is a leading force in attracting and retaining diverse students.
She said one of her previous students came back to finish specializing in ethnic studies because his job would pay him more for having the specialization.
“That was huge,” she said. “That told us how important employers see their employees being knowledgeable about diverse issues.”
Torres said including the minority opinion is important, and it is easy for the majority to forget about the smaller groups. Especially at UNL, Torres said there are a multitude of different perspectives, and learning about different backgrounds improves everyone’s learning experience.
“I think it’s just a great idea to take advantage of everyone because everyone is so different,” he said. “It would be wrong to overlook everybody because taking advantage of everyone and where they come from and all their backgrounds is such a great way to invite conversations, to celebrate everybody.”
Eddie Dominguez, a professor of art, said UNL hired him 20 years ago during a time when it was one of many universities across the nation working on diversity. Since then, he has seen improvement in diversity.
“I think it takes time for things to unravel and to rebuild themselves,” he said. “I think that 20 years ago, when they saw there was a need, they became proactive and sought out opportunities for minority students.”
De la Luz Montes said educating students and faculty on diversity and inclusion is the best way to help students feel comfortable and welcomed on campus.
“I think the important thing is to make sure that this is known and to talk about it and have discussions on campus about it so that we are more welcoming of difference and diversity,” she said.
One way Torres said UNL can continue improving is by having places on campus like the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center for students to go.
“I think that’s really important to give people space to go because if you don’t allow people to have that, it makes people feel like they’re not seen or not being heard,” he said.
Dominguez said no one is to blame for any lack of diversity, but students should take the opportunities in front of them in order to achieve their goals.
“It’s not an issue to me of being a minority because I’m a minority and I struggled through my dreams, but they’re achievable even when there appears to be detours and stops to your dreams,” he said.
Montes said increasing diversity on campus relies on keeping diverse students here.
“I think the university is doing well with working toward attracting more students of color. However, it’s one thing to bring students or faculty of color here, but it’s another to retain them, and I think that’s what is needed,” she said. “We need more work in retention — retention of students of color and retention of faculties of color.”
Onayemi said he does see the work the university is doing to increase diversity, and students need to continue making their voices heard.
“I know where their hearts are at,” he said. “What I do want to stress is having people who are suffering from that lack of diversity to be in on those conversations.”
The friends Onayemi started college with didn’t understand how unwelcomed he felt on campus, he said. That drove him to ensure future students would be able to voice their opinions about diversity, whether it be to the administration or to their peers.
“I’m sure that there’s a black middle schooler or high schooler that felt the exact same way I did my freshman and sophomore year, where it’s like, I know I’m not supposed to be called [the N-word],” he said. “It is a choice between, ‘Do I want friends at this school or do I stand up for myself?’ and that’s another choice they have to make.”
When Onayemi left “Free Stuff Sunday” his freshman year, he didn’t know the impact it would have. Now, four years later, Onayemi said he would tell his freshman self to be proud of his race.
“I would tell myself to never be afraid to embrace my blackness, know who I am, that everything that I am and ever will be is enough,” he said. “If someone is supposed to set an example of what black excellence is on campus, why can’t it be me?”
This article is part of a series on diversity. For the complete list, read the introduction.