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The Daily Tar Heel

The Friday Interview: Sitting down with UNC Diversity Recruiter Terri Houston

“The struggle continues!” That’s what Terri Houston had to say to anyone who might suggest that now that America has a black president, minorities have arrived at an even playing field.

If you haven’t met Houston, there’s a decent chance you’ve heard of her. She’s sung the national anthem with Chancellor Holden Thorp at athletic events, and is a ubiquitous presence on campus.

She recently stepped down as UNC’s interim chief diversity officer and is back in her former role as senior director of recruitment and multicultural programs in the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs.

Houston recruits minority students, those from low-income and rural areas and first-generation college students. Once these students arrive at UNC, it’s also Houston’s job to help engage them in campus life.

Targeted recruitment has been around for a while, and it has literally changed the face of UNC. Back in 1968, the historically white campuses of the UNC system were just 1.7 percent African American, and the federal government was threatening statewide desegregation orders.

It was in this context that Project Uplift, a recruitment program for high-ability students from underrepresented backgrounds, began bringing high schoolers to campus.

Forty-plus years later, “PU” is still going strong, while UNC’s African American enrollment has grown to 11 percent, Latino enrollment is booming and total minority enrollment has hit 30 percent.

So we should be satisfied, right? Well, not quite.

To Houston, a measure of the University’s diversity is in the lived experiences of students once they arrive. By that metric, we’re doing pretty well.

Houston referenced another institution where she previously worked: “We were experiencing a lot of racial tension, and the students were constantly protesting.”

African American students felt so unwelcome, she says, that they discouraged others from applying.

“When prospective students and parents would tour campus… students would stand on the corner, if they saw a family of color, (and shout) don’t come to this institution.”

“Carolina on the other hand,” she laughs, “(is) a completely different story … I often have parents and students who visit and I tell them to randomly pick a student and ask them about their Carolina experience. I guarantee they will say, ‘I love this place.’ And they do — no matter their race or ethnicity.”

But Houston worries UNC’s students of color display a different level of passion than their predecessors. She pointed to a photo in the newspaper from the tuition protests, trying to find a face of color: “One! Maybe two!”

There’s a false sense, she argued, that “we have arrived — that there is equality, that there is justice, that there is an even playing field. I want our students to realize that the struggle continues, and we must keep fighting.”

Put another way, UNC may be a welcoming place, but that’s no excuse for complacency.

“We have to make sure that students who have the privilege to come to Carolina continue fighting to allow others the same privilege.”

Houston referenced UNC’s history of students of color organizing for a common cause: “I’m hopeful we can return to the days when Carolina students had a very active voice and presence on campus ­— which led, for example, to the establishment of the Stone Center as a free-standing building or to the creation of programs like Project Uplift.”

“I believe Carolina’s a great place,” she told me. “But I hope that students can realize the power they have to work for the greater good of others.”

Mark Laichena is a columnist for The Daily Tar Heel.

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