‘We need to do more’: diversity within Emerson and the class of ‘26

By Maddie Barron

Conversations surrounding racial and economic disparity within the Emerson community followed a series of mandatory meetings hosted by Emerson’s Division of Student Affairs and the Social Justice Center in the Little Building. 

The meetings were held after a note containing racial and homophobic slurs was found on a staff member’s office door, made public by an email from the Department of Housing and Residential Education on Sept. 27. 

Emerson College remains a primarily white institution with most students falling into higher socioeconomic groups. According to a 2017 New York Times article, the median family income of an Emerson student is $147,900, with 64% of students coming from the top 20% of American earners. 

In 2022 data shared by the college, 54.8% of this year’s incoming freshmen are caucasian and only 14.3% are Pell Grant-eligible. Ranking seventh in US News and World Report’s Best Regional Universities (North), the college also ranked sixth in Princeton Review’s “Financial Aid Not So Great” as well as 476th out of the 1,983 schools ranked in CollegeRaptor’s 2023 college diversity statistics. 

Despite these demographics, according to Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Justin Sharifipour, diversity within Emerson is improving. 

“I think, historically, the [industries] that we teach have had barriers to students of color and people of lower incomes,” Sharifipour said. “We are trying to fight against patterns and trends that have existed for many years. To that effect, we’re actually getting a reversal [of trends] from those industries.” 

Compared to 2020 data, the number of white first-year students has decreased by about 2% in 2022, while all other racial categories—excluding a 1.1% drop in Hispanic students—increased. 

“As someone who is Latina, there is a good variety of Latin[x] people [at Emerson],” said first-year student Natalia Suarez. Cultural groups like AMIGOS, a Latinx-culture campus organization, enhance the identities of every Emerson student, Suarez said. 

Will Perino, a first-year visual and media arts major, said he feels loved and accepted in his identity as a gay man at Emerson. Emerson is regarded as an LGBTQ-friendly institution, earning a spot on the Princeton Review’s Top 25 Most LGBTQ-Friendly Colleges. 

“To my knowledge, Emerson is a very inclusive campus,” said Perino. “There’s a lot of groups for different people.”

While some members of the Emerson community feel represented, others are acutely aware of the gaps in inclusion on campus. 

First-year theater and performance major Mah Camara noticed a stark contrast between the demographics of the Student of Color Pre-Orientation and her classes. Camara noted she was the only Black person in some of her classrooms, adding that her integration into the general student body exacerbated the lack of diversity on campus. 

“It’s hard to discuss diversity when you are the only person of your background there,” she said. “It’s uncomfortable being the only Black person in class.”

Charly Pena, a first-year communication sciences and disorders major, said being surrounded by white, wealthy students made her feel alienated as a first-generation, low-income, Afro-Latina student. Her identity only added to the pressures of college, making her feel as if she must outperform students facing fewer obstacles because “so much is at stake”. Pena’s peers are figuring themselves out and enjoying college culture, relishing in time she can’t afford to waste. 

“I don’t think I was ever aware of my race and my ethnicity more than I am now,” Pena said.

Not only does she bear the weight of academic prowess and involvement, Pena’s non-marginalized classmates look to her for answers regarding issues pertaining to her intersectional identities, seeking unnecessary vulnerability. 

“It puts a lot of pressure on people of color to not only fight with [class expectations], but also have to educate people constantly,” she said. 

Despite faculty efforts to maintain rapport, according to Financial Wellness Director Carol Smolinsky, many Emerson students in marginalized communities feel disconnected from campus offices and are wary to ask for support. 

Pena reported feeling “uncomfortable” with alleged off-hand comments made at her in the Financial Aid Office. 

“I was talking with a [Financial Aid officer] and the microaggressions really started to come out,” Pena said. “He was like, ‘you probably don’t even understand what I’m saying.’”

During the meeting, Pena alleges, the financial aid officer seemed hesitant about her goals of becoming a speech language pathologist because it requires a graduate degree. She claims he underestimated her understanding of her career goals and the financial requirements it would take to get there, noting her family’s financial situation. 

Smolinsky says staff in the Admissions and Financial Aid departments have been analyzing what internal changes can be made while also working to improve accessibility and communication with students. Additionally, the Financial Aid department has been working with the Anti-Racism Collaborative to receive training and education.

Smolinsky did not address any specific complaints but said she values when students hold their faculty and staff accountable. 

“That is something I appreciate with Emerson,” Smolinsky said. “When students feel something is wrong, they love this place enough to say something.” 

Emerson offers a variety of support and programs for all communities, including Emerson’s Creative Circle Scholars Program, a new program that gives 10 Pell-eligible first-year students full ride scholarships and substantial funding to transfer students for their entire time at Emerson. Many of the 2022 first-years who received the CCSP funds were first-generation students, according to Sharifipour. 

Emerson also offers additional resources to first-generation students and low-income students. Smolinsky pointed toward the college’s Money Matters program, an initiative that provides all students one-on-one financial counseling and financial literacy workshops. Emerson also partners with iGrad, a hub with resources to help students understand loans, learn to budget, and receive curated financial advice and planning. 

In addition to financial support, Emerson connects students of color with a variety of offices designated for their needs. The Office of Intercultural Student Affairs offers space and support for all cultural student organizations, along with promoting diversity and equity through training courses. 

The Office of International Student Affairs helps international students satisfy immigration and legal requirements and ensures they receive the emotional support necessary to live in a different country. The Social Justice Center works to support students of color and international students, and includes the Healing and Advocacy Collective and outreach for victims of identity-based harm.

“We are working to change in a way that supports the students who are here and acknowledge the discomfort they may feel because they’re trying to exist in a space that was not historically for them,” Smolinsky said. 

Smolinsky is passionate about supporting students from marginalized communities, especially after those students are accepted into Emerson. She believes staff should prioritize active outreach to foster a community that encourages diversity. 

“We need to make sure that if that door is wide open, we’re delivering on that [support] on the back end when [marginalized students] are here,” she said. 

Both Sharifipour and Smolinsky not only remain hopeful for the incoming class, but for future generations of Emerson students. 

“There’s more to be done. Anyone who says we are satisfied with it, we’re not,” Sharifipour said. “We want to do more. We need to do more.”  

Meg Richards contributed to the reporting of this article.