On Wednesday, the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in a landmark case about race and college admissions. In 2008, a white student named Abigail Fisher was denied admission to the University of Texas, Austin.
Fisher sued the university, claiming she was denied admission because of her race. Her suit, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, could mean the end of admissions policies that take race into account.
The key argument in favor of affirmative action policies is the notion that diverse campuses benefit everyone. In previous cases, justices have ruled that a campus with a diverse student body promotes cross-racial understanding and a robust exchange of ideas, while also helping to break down stereotypes.
Today, University of Texas students say their diverse campus of 52,000 students does provide opportunities for students of different backgrounds to interact. But, some note, despite the racial and ethnic mix, divides and stereotypes still exist.
Minority Students Strive To Find A Niche
On a recent day at the university's Gregory Gymnasium, teams are playing intramural volleyball on four courts. On one court, a team comprised entirely of Hispanic students is squaring off against a group of mostly white players, in a matchup between the Hispanic Student Association and students who staff the school's Student Activity Center.
"It's a really good opportunity, I think, for people of different races and different backgrounds to come together for one sport," says sophomore Allison Killian. "We're actually interacting with each other through athletics."
For freshman Thomas Pena, opportunities like this are something of a first. Thus far, he says, his interactions with non-Hispanic students at the university have been limited. "I've talked to a few, but I haven't branched out completely yet," Pena says.
Sophomore Karina Ramos understands feeling overwhelmed — and sometimes lonely — at such a large university. "It's a big campus. You need to connect with somebody like you — it's really helpful."
Ramos has found a niche of sorts in dance classes, which are also helping her connect with more diverse students. This year, she's learning about African-American history through dance. And in a class of white, black and Hispanic students, she's learning about differences.
"You understand [other groups] better, you understand what they do better, why we don't connect as much," Ramos says. "And you can change that."
Many Different Groups, Not Always Mixing
That's not something Ramos, Pena and Killian experienced much before attending the university. All three say they went to high school with classmates who overwhelmingly looked like them.
They've found a much more diverse student body at the University of Texas. The demographic breakdown is just under 50 percent white, 18 percent Hispanic, 15 percent Asian and 4.5 percent African-American.
Ashley Reed, a freshman studying Radio, Television and Film, is hanging out at the campus' Malcolm X Lounge after a meeting of the Texas Gospel Fellowship, a predominantly African-American group. Despite the diversity on campus, she says students of different ethnic and racial groups tend to keep to themselves.
"Mostly, the black people hang out with other black people, Asians hang out with other Asian people," Reed says. While she loves her program at the university, she says that lack of mixing is a shortcoming. "I never was one of those people who was like, 'I'm definitely just going to hang out with black people, I don't fit in with other people,' " she says.
Jason Watt, an officer with the Asian American Culture Club, also notices the self-segregation. "White frat guys are with white frat guys," he says.
Watt says his club's events are open to all students, but members have been disappointed that turnout among non-Asians isn't higher, like at a recent event featuring Olympic speedskater Apolo Ohno. But the group hasn't given up, Watt says; it's now dreaming of getting NBA star Jeremy Lin to visit from Houston.
Achieving A 'Critical Mass'
The university argues that it's important to achieve a critical mass of students of different backgrounds on campus.
"Unfortunately for some groups, particularly African-Americans ... [they still] can be isolated in class. Maybe one, or maybe a small handful, in a class," says Gregory Vincent, vice president for the university's Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. "And until we can get that worked out, I think it's going to be an important goal to achieve."
Freshman Ashley Reed says she's felt discomfort being the only black student in class. In one class, she recalls, students were discussing different genres of music videos. "Then we get to documentary [style video], and it's Snoop Dogg's 'Nuthin But a G Thang,' " Reed says.
Reed suddenly felt like all eyes were on her. "I'm the only black person in that class of 15, and I'm like, 'Ooh — awkward," she says. "I definitely felt people were looking at me [thinking], 'What should I do? Would that be offensive to her if I started bopping my head?' "
Other students report that there are still stereotypes yet to be broken on campus. "People think all Asians get good grades," says Asian-American student Vicky Nguyen. "That's so not true."
Nguyen never really had Asian friends growing up in San Antonio. Her schools, she says, were predominantly black and Hispanic. It was only after enrolling at the University of Texas that she started hanging out with other Asians. Now, she says, she misses the loud, outgoing, slang-slinging person she was in high school.
"Everyone always says, when you come to college you change, you can totally reinvent yourself," Nguyen says. "And I think that's something I tried to do — and [now] I kind of just want to revert back to how I was."
So this year, Nguyen has joined a few other student groups — in hopes of building a more diverse group of friends.
Controversial Incidents Stoke Tensions
On the eve of arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas, students paint a picture of a campus with its share of racial tensions. But they also describe a place where people are hungry for more genuine interactions — in the classroom and in every area of campus life.
This fall, emotions have run high over several incidents on and off campus. Campus police are investigating reports of bleach-filled balloons being dropped on minority students who feel they were targeted because of their race.
In a separate incident, a sorority hosted a controversial "fiesta party," at which students arrived dressed in T-shirts that read "illegal" and "border patrol."
Vincent, the University of Texas vice president, says it's imperative that all students understand how hurtful their behavior — even pranks — can be.
"Unfortunately, we mirror society. And we're still working through issues, even though things are getting better," he says.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In Fisher v. Texas, the key argument for affirmative action lies in the notion that a diverse campus benefits everyone. NPR's Andrea Hsu went to the University of Texas at Austin this week to see how those ideals shape up in real life.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good job. (Unintelligible).
ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: In the Gregory Gymnasium, it's intramural volleyball on four courts - no uniforms, but there is a unifying look of many of the teams. Take this court: on one side, all Hispanics; on the other, mostly whites. Turns out it's a matchup of the Hispanic Student Association and the SACsquatches, a team of students who work at the SAC, the Student Activity Center. As Allison Killian, a sophomore, explains, anyone can form a team.
ALLISON KILLIAN: So it's a really good opportunity, I think, for people of different races and different backgrounds to get together and kind of come together for one sport. We're actually interacting with each other through athletics, so I think it's a really great opportunity for that.
HSU: For Thomas Pena, a freshman, it's something of a first. In his time at the University of Texas, his interactions with people who aren't Hispanic have been limited.
THOMAS PENA: I've talked to a few, but I haven't branched out completely yet.
HSU: Karina Ramos understands feeling isolated in this campus of 52,000 students.
KARINA RAMOS: I mean, it's a big campus. So, like, you need to connect with, like, somebody like you pretty much. It's really helpful.
HSU: Now a sophomore, Ramos has found a niche - dance. She's learning about African-American history through dance. And in a class of white, black and Hispanic students, she's learning about differences.
RAMOS: You understand them better, like you understand what they do better or why we don't really connect as much and, like, you can change that.
HSU: Karina Ramos and the two others we heard from all went to high school with people who overwhelmingly look like them. At UT, not so much. White students make up almost 50 percent of the student body; Hispanics, 18 percent; Asians, 15 percent; African-Americans, 4-1/2 percent.
ASHLEY REED: I never was one of those people who was like, oh, I'm definitely just going to hang out with the black people. I don't fit in with other people.
HSU: I find Ashley Reed in the Malcolm X Lounge on campus. She's been at a meeting of the Texas Gospel Fellowship, a predominantly African-American group. Reed was born in Texas to a military family, grew up all over the place and now is a freshman studying radio, television and film. One day, students were examining different genres of music videos.
REED: And so, we're watching videos like Madonna's "Material Girl" and then R.E.M's "Losing My Religion," which is like the experimental video. And then we get to the documentary video, which is Snoop Dogg's "Nuthin' But A 'G' Thang," and, like, I'm the black person in that class of, like, 15. And I'm like, ooh, awkward.
HSU: Now Ashley Reed loves UT. But a shortcoming of the school, she says, is that communities of color stick to themselves.
REED: Mostly, like, the black people hang out with other black people and Asian people hang out with other Asian people.
JASON WATT: White fat guys are, like, with white fat guys.
HSU: This is Jason Watt, an officer with the Asian-American culture committee. Though the group's events are open to all students, they've been disappointed that turnout among non-Asians isn't higher. They dream of bringing in Jeremy Lin now that he's playing basketball for the Houston Rockets. They believe there are still many stereotypes yet to be broken.
VICKY NGUYEN: People still think all Asians get good grades.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That's so not true.
HSU: Vicky Nguyen never really had Asian friends growing up in San Antonio. Her high school was predominantly black and Hispanic. It was only after getting to UT that she started to hangout with Asians. Now, she says, she misses the loud, outgoing, slang-slinging person she was back home.
NGUYEN: Everyone always says when you come to college, you change, like you can totally reinvent yourself. And I think that's something that I tried to do and just - I kind of just want to revert back to how I was.
HSU: So this year, she's joined a few other student groups in hopes of building a more diverse group of friends. Students I spoke with here paint a picture of a campus that has its share of racial tension, but also where people are hungry for more genuine interactions in the classroom and in every area of campus life.
Andrea Hsu, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.