Veronica Eseka is a self-described workaholic. In the 2018-2019 school year, besides her course load as a second-year student at UC Santa Barbara, she was a resident assistant in Manzanita Village, a Michael D. Young intern, the director of student affairs and outreach for the Coalition for a Better UC, a member of the Black Student Union and a mentor for the Honors Program.
Ask her what her weeks were like and she would tell you simply: “Busy.”
In many ways, Eseka’s long list of commitments and desire to be involved on campus represent the hardworking, driven individual many people picture when they think of an honors student. But ask Eseka herself if she feels the Honors Program is for her, and she will tell you: “Absolutely not.”
Eseka, a sociology major with an applied psychology minor, came into the Honors Program as a freshman at UCSB. But now, at the end of her second year, she does not believe that the program was made for people like her.
“It’s the truth that when you think of honors, you think of really, really smart, and who is usually seen as really smart? It’s not necessarily, ‘oh, the Black girl.’ It’s [the] white man,” Eseka said in an interview with the Nexus.
Her experience with the Honors Program underscores an issue that has loomed over the department’s staff for years — the program’s demographic fails to reflect the diversity of students that exists in UCSB’s student body as a whole.
In the 2018-2019 school year, UCSB boasted one of the most diverse student bodies of any college in the nation, snagging 14th place in “Best Ethnic Diversity” among public national universities by US News & World, as advertised by the university at the time. But the Honors Program told a different story.
Almost half of the 1,713 students in the honors program in 2018-19 school year identified as white or Caucasian, despite white or Caucasian students making up only about 30% of the total student body.
Chicanx/Latinx and Black/African American populations in the Honors Program represented less than half of their respective proportions in the student body, according to numbers from UCSB’s Office of Budget & Planning in the 2018-19 school year. Chicanx/Latinx students made up about 12% of the Honors Program compared to 29% of the student body; Black/African American students made up about two percent of the Honors Program compared to five percent of the student body.
As one of nearly 40 Black students in the program, Eseka doesn’t always see diversity at program activities, such as honor seminars, and she said the university could be doing more to support people of color.
“The chance of me being the only Black person in that class is really high and sometimes maybe as an honors [student], you might get second looks, like ‘Are you in the right place?’ and you have to be like ‘Yeah, I am,’” Eseka said.
To Eseka, feeling comfortable in the Honors Program is key to recruiting and retaining people of color.
“Diversity is really necessary to encourage more people to come to the program and then to stay in the program, so you don’t feel lonely or feel left out or singled out.”
And of the new honors students enrolling for the 2019-2020 school year, diversity statistics aren’t improving.
In the incoming group of freshmen – the class of 2023 – invited to join the Honors Program, almost half of the students are white. Chicanx, Latinx and African American students collectively make up less than 10% of the honors-eligible students.
Jeffrey Stopple, associate vice chancellor for undergraduate education, is one person in the honors departments who has kept the issue of diversity on his radar. When he first started to look more closely at the honors department about three years ago, Stopple noted several concerns with the way the program had been functioning, particularly with how the program included and supported diverse student populations at UCSB.
“There was a high rate of attrition, of students not staying in the program. There was also a concern that the program didn’t represent the diversity of UCSB [because] it was not particularly diverse,” Stopple said.
But three years since Stopple’s arrival, the diversity of students in the program still lags behind the diversity of the campus as a whole. Stopple said his office has worked in several ways to modify the program to support students of color.
One of those efforts is the collaborative Q&A panel discussion put on in May 2019 by Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) and the honors department. Over a hundred first-year students who were on track to meet the honors requirements were invited to attend the information panel to hear from current EOP honors students.
Stopple said the panel, which he started in 2017, has been effective in recruiting more diverse students to the program.
Eseka spoke alongside Stella Delgado, a UCSB third-year history of public policy and anthropology double major, as panelists during the event. The two discussed EOP students’ concerns about the “intimidation” factor of the Honors Program. Some students felt the “elitist” reputation of the Honors Program was something that gave them reservations about applying, Delgado said.
For Delgado, the program’s lack of diversity points to “the different challenges students of color face on campus and the different challenges students from lower-income communities also face.”
“As a student of color and a low-income student, I’ve had to maintain having a job for most of my time at UCSB, which has taken away from academics,” Delgado said.
Students can enter the program in two ways: by being invited into the Honors Program when admitted to the university or by applying to the program the summer after their freshman year.
Rising sophomores are required to adhere to a 3.5 GPA and 36 letter-graded units requirement to enter the program, Stopple said. Students can apply for the program in July and are admitted so long as they meet the GPA and unit requirements.
Stopple said GPA is a “crude” metric and that he “would prefer to do something different.” But for now, due to “limited resources,” the honors department cannot incorporate more criteria for their application process besides the “purely quantitative” measures currently in place, he said.
Stopple did, however, lower the GPA requirement for the honors program from 3.6 to 3.5 in June 2017 in order to include more students in the program.
There are several advantages that come with being in the Honors Program; one, Stopple said, is having priority enrollment, which allows honors students to be among the first to enroll in classes during pass times.
Other advantages that come with being in the Honors Program include access to special academic advising, extended library privileges and academic and community service opportunities.
The promise of one-on-one time with professors, building relationships for letters of recommendations and beefing up resumes with honors status draws many students to the program.
“It’s the truth that when you think of honors, you think of really, really smart, and who is usually seen as really smart? It’s not necessarily, ‘oh, the Black girl.’ It’s [the] white man.”
Michelle McKee, a recent graduate of the Honors Program, said “it’s very hard to get one-on-one time with the professors and to really talk with and work with the professors” without having the advantages of the Honors Program.
She joined the Honors Program after her freshman year and said the perks benefitted her education at UCSB.
“The day-one pass time is a plus,” she said. “But I also just knew that there were a lot of great opportunities if you were involved in the Honors Program including these really cool honors seminars and I’ve just been able to take so many interesting classes that I wouldn’t have taken otherwise.”
Another UCSB honors student, Michael Stallworth, said his experience in the Honors Program helped him get settled into the university and allowed him to “work with other people who are like-minded and just want to… achieve as much as they can.”
Stallworth noted that a diverse honors program would indicate a university that adequately supports students of color and students from unique backgrounds, something still in the works at UCSB.
“It just shows that we have people from different communities who are able to be successful at UCSB and still be able to take advantage of the opportunities that are offered,” Stallworth said.
Although the experience of each student in the Honors Program varies, many agree that increasing and supporting diverse populations in the program remains an important goal.
“I know how much more opportunities and advantages I get being in the Honors Program between volunteer opportunities, earlier pass times, separate advisors,” said Zeina Safadi, an honors fourth-year political science major. “And so it would be disheartening to think that it was only to a specific group of students.”
But Eseka said the root of the problem is in the way minority students perceive the Honors Program, and given the unique challenges they already face at UCSB, honors could be exactly what these students need.
“You hear honors [and] you think ‘I’m not meant for this,’ not because you don’t have the credentials, but just because… historically, as a low-income first generation minority, you’ve… had so many barriers that have prevented you from getting here faster or at the same pace as others.”
For Eseka, the Honors Program makes achieving her academic and career goals a little bit easier. The distinction of being in the Honors Program in college is an edge that she said she needs to accomplish her goals after college.
“That’s one reason why I keep on going because I know I’m gonna hit so many barriers. It’s just gonna make it one less hoop.”