As the people of this nation continue to grapple with living in a diverse society that has historically discriminated against racial and ethnic minorities, women, and LGBTQ+ people, the University of Richmond campus reflects this national climate. In this five-part series, The Collegian seeks to tell a few of the stories of non-majority students. These stories are by no means the only ones that need to be told, nor do they represent the experiences of all historically marginalized groups on campus.
Freddy Espitia chose the University of Richmond after his high school counselor had recommended it to him. But Espitia, now a sophomore, said he felt disappointed by the atmosphere he encountered during orientation.
Espitia participated in URISE, a pre-orientation program for students from groups underrepresented in STEM, and multicultural pre-orientation. The lack of diversity he then saw during regular orientation contrasted sharply with what he saw in these programs.
“Going from that to orientation was like a slap in the face,” Espitia said. “Just a huge contrast. And for something that's supposed to make you feel oriented and comfortable on campus, it did the exact opposite for me.”
Espitia felt out of place during orientation for multiple reasons, he said. For instance, orientation advisers involved in Greek life were already looking for potential new members during orientation, which led Espitia to feel excluded, he said.
Espitia said he had also felt left out by his fellow orientees. People naturally gravitate toward those like them, Espitia said, but this tendency can leave non-majority students isolated.
“I was one of two people of color in my orientation group, and so automatically, I just felt kind of out of place, and being gay and Hispanic, I was already a couple minorities,” Espitia said. “It just felt like there were so many reasons why people would not speak to me first that there needed to be stronger reasons why they would, as pushed by the university.”
In the absence of such a push by the school, people are unlikely to develop diverse friend groups and will instead continue gravitating toward those similar to them, Espitia said.
Espitia said he continued to encounter this atmosphere of exclusivity after the school year began.
He took action by joining student groups that focus on diversity or pushing for policy change, such as the Multicultural Student Solidarity Network, Students Creating Opportunity, Pride and Equality and Queer and Trans Advocacy Coalition.
“I saw a need on campus that wasn't being fully met by the administration, and so it kind of left that burden with the students, and I wanted to be a part of helping with the burden,” Espitia said. “When I was feeling out of place at this university, it was clubs like those and people like those and the people that led them that helped me to feel more at home.”
In addition to being involved with several student groups, Espitia also serves as a cultural adviser, mentors a high school student through the Scholars Latino Initiative, has a job in the Office of Common Ground and works at the Sacred Heart Center through the Bonner Scholars Program.
The Sacred Heart Center assists Hispanic and Latino immigrants, including some undocumented immigrants, with immigration rights, English-language acquisition and other skills, Espitia said. His decision to work at the center stems from the fact that both of his parents are immigrants to the United States and had dealt with adjusting to life here and gaining documented status after they arrived, he said.
“I know it was a really difficult process, and helping somebody sort of navigate that I think hits pretty close to home for me,” Espitia said. “A lot of these people are just so smart and capable. It's just obviously so difficult not being able to read even labels on food, something like that, or submit a job application and knowing that you can talk to your boss about your hours and not be afraid.”
Back on campus, Espitia's commitment to working for a purpose beyond himself is one of his most impressive qualities, said Canvas Brieva, a junior and a leader in both SCOPE and QTAC.
During SCOPE executive team meetings, Espitia often works to bring perspectives that otherwise may have been left out, Brieva said, and he does a good job of focusing on meeting the needs of the organization's community.
Lisa Miles, the associate director of the Office of Common Ground, works regularly with Espitia through his role as a cultural adviser and his job with the office.
“He's a good listener, a good community member,” Miles said. “[We want CAs] to kind of meet students where they're at, have this kind of philosophy about wanting everyone to be included but not be so strident about it that you turn someone off."
She said these qualities of awareness and caring had been part of what initially had led her to recommend that he apply to be a cultural adviser.
“Freddy has that perfect mix of real wisdom and a gentleness,” Miles said.
Espitia, a politics, economics, philosophy and law major, is not only promoting inclusivity and community within the existing campus structures -- his efforts also include working to change aspects of the system itself.
One example is the way that QTAC's work deals with promoting policy change at UR, such as through its recent successful efforts to add all-gender restroom signs on campus. Espitia helped gather information for this effort, Brieva said.
Espitia also communicated with some of the people coordinating changes to the orientation program to share the negative impression orientation had on him. He said he hoped they had taken his story into account when making modifications to the program.
Both Brieva and Espitia said the university was doing fairly well with attracting a diverse student body. The problem was what happens once these students from diverse backgrounds arrived on campus, Espitia said.
“I'd say there's so many divisions between both majors, races and gender here, more so than other colleges and universities,” Espitia said. “I think that there's less of a focus on diversity once the students are already here and how that contributes to the university. I think it's more of just we accept everybody, not to say that we see diversity as a resource to take advantage of to be better students, better world leaders.”
Melisa Quiroga, a senior who has worked with Freddy through MSSN and SLI, said she believes the university's campus environment is that of a typical college, but that the school's treatment of diversity still needs to improve. Like Espitia, Quiroga said university administration mainly used diversity as a tool for advertising.
“Personally, I think that diversity at this university is a promotion tactic used to increase the amount of students of color that attend the university,” Quiroga said. “My little brother got a flyer [from UR], and it showed a diverse friend group, but when do you actually see that?”
Despite these frustrations, Espitia has hope that change is coming, in part because the great diversity of the most recent incoming class may bring in more people who understand the importance of diversity, Espitia said.
Regardless of what measures members of the university administration take to promote inclusivity, there are a variety of ways students can promote a more inclusive community on campus, Espitia said. He suggests attending cultural meetings and events for even those clubs unrelated to a given student's race or sexuality and not blaming minority students when they associate with each other.
Additionally, Espitia said, students could make more of an effort to talk to people who are different than them.
“I think a lot of people mistake that with tokenizing people, or, 'I'm looking for a friend of this race,'” Espitia said. “That's not what you're doing. What you're supposed to be doing is thinking, 'I'm going to start talking to this person because I want to hear what they have to say.'”
Contact features writer Savannah Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.