Lauren Romero
Lauren Romero

I used to wonder why people would criticize this university for their lack of diversity when I looked at my peers in class and saw mostly people of color. Then I remembered I was a proposed Latin American and Latino Studies major, as were many of my classmates. When I began taking legal studies classes, I started to notice the inadequate number of students of color in the UC.

After this realization, I wandered around campus wondering why I had not seen faces that looked like mine. I began to feel out of place because I could not find common ground with many of my legal studies classmates. It wasn’t until this fall quarter when I was given the opportunity to attend the annual Student of Color Conference (SOCC) at UCLA that I found a community within the UC.

Throughout the course of the weekend, I joined students from every UC as we gathered in caucuses and workshops, attended spoken-word performances and took part in a march focused around the UC Student Association’s new campaign, “Invest in Graduations, Not Incarcerations, Transforming Education (I.G.N.I.T.E.).”

According to its website, the SOCC was created to provide a safe space for students to think of solutions to the problems in their communities. For its 25th year, the conference decided on their theme of “One People, One Movement” to promote unity among students of color and their allies. More recently, the conference focused on the issue of retention.

Throughout my time here at UCSC, I became friends with many people who chose not to come back to the school for many different reasons, most common being lack of financial aid and other forms of support. The fluctuating cost of education paired with personal difficulties proves to be especially detrimental to students of color.

According to the UCSC Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, only 2 percent of the undergraduate and graduate students are African-American while 26 percent are Latino, 20 percent identify as Asian and 40 percent identify as white.

These statistics do not come as a surprise when considering the similar demographics in the UC as a whole. As I learned at the conference, the issues surrounding the lack of diversity in higher education are common across the UC system.

More recently, students from UCLA have spoken out about the nearly colorless campuses. A group of UCLA students, the Black Bruins, created a viral video in which they highlighted the fact the university has more athletic championship titles than African-American male freshman. While walking up and down the hills of UCLA that weekend, I too realized the only faces of color were adorned by a conference badge and t-shirt.

During the caucuses and workshops, students networked and shared ideas on how other students and campuses are dealing with the same issues. When you’re a first-generation student like myself, this support is vital to your education. I often found myself without anyone to reach out to because many of my peers did not understand what I was going through.

During my first years here, I struggled finding someone to go to who would be able to assist me in financial matters or personal matters, like having to explain to my parents why I chose to attend a college 400 miles away from home. Having experienced various hardships as a student of color, I can understand why many students have not returned to the UC.

The Student Union Assembly (SUA) is given the responsibility of planning and executing this trip to the conference. I commend the SUA for taking on this task and I also commend them for finding a way to make it possible every year. With budgets waning, the SUA managed to increase the spending on the SOCC from $8,000 in 2009 to $12,000 in 2014.

I believe conferences like the SOCC give students a voice and empower them to increase retention and address other issues in their community. When students find a community where they can openly share their culture, discuss their issues with like-minded people, it makes for a better college experience. This platform provides individuals with a way to discuss issues outside of a classroom setting and establish a much sounder community.

In my time at the conference, I found I was not alone in having to deal with these issues. When I gathered in a caucus for Chicanas, I found many other women were forced to have the same conversation with their families and also dealt with similar issues. For once, it was nice to be heard and to hear a response along the lines of, “I know how you feel” instead of, “I have no clue what you’re talking about.”

The sighs of relief and the long breaths of comfort filled the conference room as each student used their new-found voices to air grievances, to partake in discussion and to talk about their experiences as students of color. It is for this reason conferences similar to the SOCC are vital to the retention and the success of students of color at the UC.