By ERIN BAKER ’19
For many students, the conversations with the Admissions Office stopped after their first
few classes at PLU. But one counselor has made it her priority to help students both in the college decision and after they have committed. She does this because her job is personal, helping to increase the diversity here at PLU.
Melannie Denise Cunningham, the Director of Multicultural Recruitment, says she fights every day to make PLU a campus of diversity and acceptance. As one of the only African-American administrators on campus, her influence spreads from the Admissions Office to on-campus clubs, helping students feel at home in a new environment. Cunningham said she becomes more of a mentor to students after they come to PLU.
“My job is more than just the recruitment aspect,” she said. “I believe that it is everyone’s job to make the experience of the student successful.”
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 35.1 percent of Tacoma’s population identify as people of color, with 11.2 percent identify as African-American. At PLU, according to its website, 33 percent of the student body self-identifies as students of color. While this number seems to closely align with the overall population, Cunningham knows better. Cunningham said a deeper look reveals African-American, Native American, and Latino students are significantly underrepresented. Cunningham said she recognizes this and hopes to engage critical dialogue with all levels of the university community about this disparity in order to make change happen.
“It’s imperative that our university reflects the diversity of the community we serve,” she said with serious eyes. “If we are striving to be a university of the first rank, this has to happen.”
One of the major programs Cunningham works is the Fulfillment Fund. This organization is a college access program that works with students, especially those who are first generation or low-income. The program has bases in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, where the program leaders work with many Hispanic and African-American students.
Nayonni Watts, first-year, worked with Cunningham as a Fulfillment Fund student. After talking with PLU students who went to her high school, Watts said Cunningham greatly influenced her college decision and still continues to be a mentor.
“Melannie is definitely an aggressive helper and I mean that in a good way,” she said. “She is also a great motivator who always wants to hear what her students are doing and becomes excited to hear their progress.”
Watts never visited PLU prior to her decision to attend, which demonstrates the influence of her discussions with Cunningham. Cunningham said she takes pride in students like Watts.
“It warms my heart to know that an out-of-state student chose to make PLU their home simply on the trust of my word,” she said after an animated chat with Watts. “As a result, it is my absolute commitment to ensure their experience is the best it can be.”
Cunningham is currently assessing the university’s efforts to recruit and retain students of color. The report is expected to be out later this summer.