Campus remains dominated by students from East Coast, data shows
Students from high and low enrollment states weigh in on their AU experiences
Ask AU students where they’re from and you might hear some similar answers: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maryland or New York. But students from states such as Nebraska, Wyoming, Alaska, Alabama or New Mexico might be harder to find — or virtually non-existent.
“I feel like a lot of people have a really weird idea of where I come from,” Isabel Hasselbalch, a junior and native Nebraskan, said. “A lot of them think I’m from a farm and rode a tractor to school.”
Hasselbalch’s experience is not unique among students from states with low enrollment numbers at AU. The University’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment (OIRA) collects data on the number of domestic students from each state who applied, were admitted to and made deposits to the University from previous years.
From 2000 to 2017, some of the highest enrollment states, based on the number of student deposits after admission, include east coast states like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Massachusetts. In addition, Californian students make up a significant portion of the student body. Among the lowest enrollment states from 2000 to 2017, based on student deposits, were Arkansas, North Dakota, South Dakota and Alaska.
The experiences of students at AU vary based on the number of students from their home state that make up the student body, according to several AU students and faculty.
Hasselbalch, who represents the first generation from her family to leave Nebraska to attend college, said it has been difficult for her to disprove stereotypes of the Midwest as a student from a state with low enrollment numbers at AU. She hopes to see more recruitment in her home state to help dispel these preconceived notions.
Sivan Menache, a sophomore from Pennsylvania, said many students from New Jersey come to AU because “it’s not that far.” Menache said that the Pennsylvania students she has met have mainly been from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, as opposed to rural areas, where Menache is from. She would like to be able to have more students from rural areas to relate to, she said.
“I feel like we should try to make it a little bit more diverse and target people maybe from low-enrollment states,” Menache said.
Jeremy Lowe, as the associate director of admissions in AU’s enrollment office, manages the University’s recruitment processes. Lowe visits New Mexico and Puerto Rico to recruit high school students.
When a student from the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam or another U.S. territory contacts him when they visit campus, he “makes every effort to try to meet with them.” Lowe does not visit these locations to recruit students.
Although Puerto Rican student enrollment has increased in recent years, enrollment in the U.S. territories and New Mexico have typically been low since 2000, according to data from OIRA. Lowe said the distance between these areas and D.C. is a major reason why there is low enrollment.
Jorge Aponte Alvarez, originally from Puerto Rico, is a freshman who has lived in various other locations, such as Colorado, Kentucky and Hawaii, due to his father’s status in the military, he said. Alvarez spent his last three years of high school in Hawaii.
“Anytime my father has gone to Iraq or Korea, my mother and I have gone to Puerto Rico to live,” Alvarez said. “Since I’ve been able to move so much, I have a little bit of each place in me. Each place has made me who I am today.”
Alvarez “fell in love with the University” after attending the National Student Leadership Conference at AU during his junior year, he said. While enrolled at AU, he considered joining AU Hawaii Club to be part of a community that reminded him of home. Among the activities hosted by AU Hawaii Club is one in which students make Spam musubi, a Hawaiian snack of Spam and rice wrapped in seaweed.
Joline Badua, who is the president of AU Hawaii Club, was one of eight students in her class from Hawaii who enrolled at AU in the fall of 2015, according to OIRA. Both Alvarez and Badua, who graduated from Hawaiian public high schools, said that they hope to see more students from Hawaii’s public schools attend AU.
The Hawaii Club is not the only organization at AU targeting students from a certain state. AU Texans, which is headed by sophomore Evan Pfeffer, brings the culture of Texas to the University.
The OIRA found that 43 students from Texas made deposits for the fall of 2017, when Pfeffer was a freshman, which is about 2.5 percent of the domestic students in his class. Pfeffer’s club aims to build community among this smaller group of Texans at the University and last year raised money for people affected by Hurricane Harvey at a barbecue.
“Some AU students might get the impression that AU Texans club is kind of a right-wing organization, which is absolutely not true,” Pfeffer said of the club’s non-partisanship.
Evan Bowman, a freshman from Mississippi, said that he tries to combat similar stereotypes. Bowman told The Eagle that an advisor notified him that he was the only student in his class from Mississippi, and the data from OIRA confirms it.
“One of the things that pulled me to American so much is kind of escaping the stereotypes that Mississippi has — you know, kind of racist, loud-mouthed, far-right conservatives that are very religious — which is ironic because I’m a far-left progressive Democrat who’s atheist,” Bowman said.
One of the advantages of being one of the few AU students from Mississippi is being referred to among his friends as “the southern belle,” Bowman said.
Senior Elise Moore, an Alaskan, said that she has not had a negative experience being from a low-enrollment state.
“I wanted to start over and not know anybody,” Moore said of her decision to attend AU.
During Moore’s first year on campus, she had a dinner with a “couple of other” Alaskan students. She can not recall meeting another Alaskan AU student since then. Moore has appreciated getting to know people from different regions because she believes that the geographical diversity of students has exposed her to varying perspectives.
On the opposite end of the spectrum of AU enrollment is New Jersey, which, along with New York, often has the highest enrollment.
Ken Haltenhof, assistant director of admissions, who recruits students from northern New Jersey, said that the state is in a “sweet spot distance-wise,” which allows students to go home if they wish on weekends, but still allows them to spend time away from their family.
He also said that there is a cyclical pattern of students hearing about AU from New Jersey high school alumni who attend or have graduated from the University.
“I think it also helps them have a little piece of home with them on campus,” Haltenhof said.
Haltenhof does not think that New Jersey’s high enrollment hinders the University’s goals of geographical diversity. Each year, for domestic students, “there’s probably about 10 percent that are coming from New Jersey, which means that 90 percent are coming from all over the rest of the United States,” he said.
New Jersey’s high enrollment and cyclical turnover helped senior and New Jersey native Jay Wolfson feel more a part of AU student life.
“Knowing people that came here—it was definitely a big help, in terms of getting involved,” he said. “I’m in the AU Gaming Club and I probably wouldn’t have gone if not for a friend who I knew from home.”
Menache said that the Pennsylvania students she has met have mainly been from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, as opposed to rural areas, where Menache is from. She would like to be able to have more students from rural areas to relate to, she said.
While Hasselbalch runs into stereotypes about her home state, she said she takes pride in where she comes from.
“I like being from a unique place,” she said. “There are a lot of people that are interested in knowing about where I’m from and I also feel like I have a totally different perspective.”
This article originally appeared in The Eagle's November 2018 fall print edition.