While ethnic and racial diversity at Emerson is still easier to find among the staff than in the classrooms, the makeup of this year's freshman class suggests a turnabout for multicultural students in a traditionally homogeneous student body, Emerson administrators say.
Others believe the school needs sustained efforts to combat a disparity between Emerson's percentage of students of color and national averages.
For the first time since 2002, the proportion of multicultural undergraduate students has increased to 16.1 percent and actually surpassed every year since 2002, according to Eric Sykes, Emerson's director of institutional research.
Over the past five years, declining numbers of international students-part of a national trend since 9/11, according to a November 13 New York Times report-outpaced modest increases among multicultural students.
This year, however, 17 percent of the incoming freshman class identified itself as multicultural.
The national proportion of multicultural students, according to the Department of Education, is still more than twice Emerson's at 33.9 percent.
Dan Pinch, acting dean of enrollment, suggested the actual figure could be closer to 17.5 percent because some students choose not to identify their race or ethnicity.
In 2005, only 13.8 percent of incoming freshmen identified themselves as multicultural.
The proportion of international students at Emerson stayed constant-for the first time since 9/11-at 2.5 percent, which corresponds with a nationwide increase in international student enrollment this year.
While the figures show progress on paper, substantial problems caused by a lack of multicultural enrollment persist.
Aja Moore, a freshman writing, literature and publishing major, said Emerson's reputation for lacking diversity preceded it, but still didn't prepare her for being part of such a small community of students like her.
"Being the only black person in a classroom, in my gender studies class, I feel like I have to speak for the whole black community when a question about race comes up, which I don't like doing," Moore said.
Moore now works as a student assistant to Tikesha Morgan, director of multicultural student affairs.
Morgan said her job is to help studentseel comfortable on campus.
"I like to make sure there's a place and a space for them to come if they're feeling like one in a million," Morgan said.
This year's increase in multicultural students hasn't made her job any easier.
Three weeks ago she heard someone had scrawled "White Pride" in a Piano Row elevator, so she decided to stage a discussion in her office about the meaning of "white pride."
Having spent a decade working in housing at other colleges, including Suffolk University, she knew chances were slim anyone would be held responsible, but felt it important to allow students to voice their opinions about the graffiti.
"These are topics that people don't want to talk about, but they should be talked about," Morgan said. "There's still a lot of work to be done."
Pinch was cautiously optimistic this year's upswing could be sustained.
"We have turned a corner, I believe, with this year's class," Pinch said. "Now that we've had some success we'll see if it's easier to have more success or if it's an aberration. We've got to see if we can take that next step and get to 20 percent [of multicultural enrollment]."
Pinch said Emerson President Jacqueline Liebergott calls him everyday to see what's being done to promote diversity recruitment.
He said she's made it a priority for the Admission office.
"The push is coming from the top, and that really has a way of getting people going," Pinch said.
Dr. William Smith, executive director of the center for diversity, has been at the front lines of the push to attract inner-city students, traveling to the South Bronx with Pinch, assistant athletic director Stan Nance, and Ronn Beck, assistant to Admission director Ramirez, to meet with potential students and working to improve Emerson's image within Boston in places like Roxbury.
"What we're beginning to do is focus on creating relationships in communities we have not traditionally communicated with, like the Bronx," Smith said. "We've had a lot of [information sessions] in Manhattan on the Lower East Side, so we decided, 'Let's go someplace [less affluent].'"
A busload of students Smith met in the Bronx came to the Open House Nov. 18.
According to Sara Ramirez, dean of admission, visiting Emerson dramatically increases the likelihood of a potential student applying.
Ramirez said representatives from the admission office have recently gone to open houses in urban centers like Baltimore, Atlanta, Detroit and New York to attract applicants from areas with more students of color.
She said admission has hired a new coordinator of multicultural recruitment, Chris Wright, who will begin organizing recruiting trips and strategy in January.
One of the biggest challenges facing administrators trying to draw inner city students to Emerson is making it a financially feasible option for them.
Several administrators said the economic burden often keeps poorer students from seeking out or applying to Emerson, but Smith was loath to accept excuses.
"It's poor kids generally, it's poor white kids, too, that never come here because we haven't engaged them," Smith said. "That's our problem. Why is it we can get this information to rich kids, but not to kids in inner-city schools?"