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An early voting station on the Southern Methodist University campus.EXPAND
An early voting station on the Southern Methodist University campus.
Meredith Lawrence

Green Grass and Blackface: One Southern Methodist University Graduate on Her Experience as a Minority on Campus

Southern Methodist University is notorious for its absurdly wealthy students, sports agendas and seemingly conservative values. The school recently publicly rejected the United Methodist Church’s decision to end all support of transgender individuals, putting SMU at arm’s length with an institution they have long been proud to be associated with. Yet, SMU will always be shrouded in a gray cloud of past scandals. Some of those scandalous affairs occurred during my time at SMU. Not only did I experience the best and the worst of the university, but I also managed to navigate a predominantly white campus as a middle-class minority female.

If you were ever curious to hear the unvarnished truth from the perspective of a brown student at SMU, here goes: The first time I knew it would be difficult to be brown at SMU was not because I was experiencing outright racism daily. The discrimination at SMU occurred at a more elevated and underhanded level. It was something you learned to get used to. As a child of first-generation immigrants, born and raised in Texas, it wasn’t uncommon for me to experience words that denoted "otherness" ranging from getting labeled as “exotic,” to “But where are you FROM?” rhetoric to "Go back to your country."

When I realized I had been denied access to parties, clubs and other activities not sanctioned by the university because I was a brown girl, I knew I needed to learn how to grapple with a different type of beast. I have many contradictory experiences with race at SMU. While the university did attempt to encourage integration between students, it didn’t often work. As freshmen, we were made to attend “racial sensitivity” workshops and were encouraged to have open discussions about our ethnic differences with the white majority. While the minority population was in regular attendance at these events, you could kind of count on the large white Californian population at SMU to attend semi-regularly.

When right-wing commentator Steven Crowder came to SMU, there was an uproar from the student population and the faculty. I took the opportunity to ask the students waiting to enter the rented out McFarlin Auditorium why they decided to attend. Not only did I meet the individuals who booked the theater for Crowder, I learned that most of those students did not even attend SMU. It was a clear indication that money is green and so is the grass, a common theme at the university.

There's a long-held inside joke on the SMU campus that President Gerald Turner raises tuition prices — and accepts really any form of payment  — in order to keep the university looking picture-perfect year round. This includes watering the grass at inopportune moments (even in the winter) and accepting any form of payment that will help him pay to keep up the cost of keeping the grass green year-round.

When Donald Trump was running for president, there was a big, crude banner hung at the front of a fraternity house for months declaring their support for his campaign. Situated on a main road that led into campus, it was only once the media picked up on the “advertisement” that the frat was made to take it down. The blackface fraternity party scandal was old news by the time it came out in the press. Did the university commit any kind of sensitivity training or apologize to the greater student body before the press caught wind? If so, it wasn’t made clear. When the majority of your campus is involved in Greek life, what’s a president to do?

The freshman orientation is a weeklong honeymoon period. Once you enter regular circulation, the afterglow fades and you are left to decide to “Go Greek or no go Greek?” More than 80% of SMU’s student population is part of the Greek system. I was in another minority group, the 20%, and would often sit in classes in which everyone already knew each before the class even began because they were in brother-sister fraternities and sororities.

Birds of a feather do flock together at SMU. Many of the sororities didn’t have many women of color. That viral UT sorority recruitment video, which featured an all-white cast, was very similar to SMU. Greek sorority photos at SMU often featured a dot or two of color at most, but at least they’re trying.

There are multicultural sororities and I did make many white friends whom I cherish to this day. Ultimately, it was my choice not to join a multicultural sorority, as it just wasn’t something I saw myself enjoying. There are plenty of student organizations that will fit your ethnic niche with low commitment and lots of fun. I made lifelong friends this way. If you can handle the drama, it’s totally worth it. But Greek life was also too expensive for a student like me, who had to eventually work two or three jobs at one time to support herself and her education.

My financial circumstance was unheard of by many of my peers and financial advisers at SMU. I had some personal experiences early in my career at SMU that had caused my financial backing to fall out. I was on my own. When I reached out to the financial aid department to inquire if I could continue at SMU, I was told it would be impossible. I didn’t know about “independent status” until I heard about it from a friend of a friend who went to the University of North Texas, where students who need to work to study are far more common.

Only after I inquired about filing for independent status directly did the financial aid department at SMU show any interest. From there, I had to gather three letters of reference from my bosses and friends attesting that they knew about my “situation,” fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, submit all accrued bills and W-2s and wait for a secretive board of unknown individuals to decide my fate. Did I mention I had to repeat this process every semester? Maybe it wasn’t SMU's financial aid department that required this of me, but some other weird rule related to financial aid. Either way, it was never explained to me. I received little to no guidance throughout this process but lots of sympathetic glances and concerned looks.

There is a large disparity between the wealthy and the average-income student at SMU. I met kids who assumed everyone owned a private jet, but I also met kids who would end up taking six years instead of the standard four because of their financial circumstances.

Getting a degree was a lengthy process at SMU. While the university consistently makes amendments to help the mandatory extracurricular programs move faster, the requirements to enter a school to complete your major get tougher, the fees climb higher and no one helps you navigate the new standards. A double-edged sword is a great metaphor to define the SMU experience, but by the end, you’ll know how to use it.

I loved the classes within my majors and had great respect for my professors at SMU. Most of them seemed as dissatisfied with the rising costs of tuition (seemingly to maintain the evergreen grass) and inconvenient parking tickets as I did. My professors were all either Ivy League grads or SMU grads. The class sizes were very small so it was unusual for them not to know your name by the end of the semester, which only happened to me once. Most of them were available to talk after class, none seemed as prejudiced as the student body and plenty of them thought way too much of themselves. SMU was made up of the “elite” professor types, with REAL hidden gems scattered throughout.

Am I proud to have graduated from SMU? Yes. Do I value the education I received? Yes. Would I choose SMU again if I had a second chance? Only if the mention of being an SMU grad continues to garner the same value in the workplace over the next five years. Pony up!

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