A thick brown and white envelope laid on the table when Kiara Damon arrived home from school.
Inside awaited informational pamphlets and a letter congratulating her on her acceptance to Lehigh University. Among the documents and flyers — an additional letter:
“Congratulations! You are among a select group of students invited to attend Lehigh University’s Diversity Life Weekend.”
“Why would I want to go to that?” the high school senior thought, as she stood in her home in Brooklyn, New York.
“We want you to be a part of the Lehigh family, so we hope that you will continue to explore the wealth of opportunities available to you here before you make a final decision,” the letter continued.
Damon, ’21, was one of the students invited by the admissions office to participate in its annual Diversity Life Weekend, commonly referred to as D-Life.
The program invites between 75 and 90 admitted students for a weekend on campus to get a feel of what being a Lehigh student is really like. When considering invitees, the school prioritizes students of color who otherwise would not be able to make it to campus.
Before attending D-Life, Damon visited Lehigh’s campus twice. Both times she said she didn’t like it because it seemed like a predominantly white school.
However, after some persuasion from her mother, Damon reluctantly attended the single weekend that would change her mind and future decision.
“I came, and I met a lot of diverse people, and it was nice to see that they actually exist on campus,” Damon said.
Lehigh is what some call a “Predominantly White Institution.” About 4 percent of the roughly 5,000 undergraduate students are African American, with Latinx sitting at a slightly higher 9 percent. Overwhelmingly, 64 percent of the student body is white.
Over the course of the weekend, students attend workshops and panels, and meet with staff and current students. They are also hosted by current Lehigh students in either dorm rooms or off-campus apartments.
According to the Office of Admissions, the weekend is designed to expose prospective admits to Lehigh’s culture in hopes they choose Lehigh by the May 1 deposit day.
D-Life weekend was created less than 10 years ago with the goal of increasing diversity in the student body. It is what admissions refers to as a “yield event,” referencing the time period when students have already been admitted but have yet to matriculate at Lehigh. All costs for the weekend are paid by the Admissions budget, including transportation by plane or bus for students requiring alternate travel options.
Each year, complaints arise when D-Life alumni come to Lehigh as full-time college students.
“I felt like D-Life was just to get us to come here,” Damon said. “When I got here it was completely different, so it kinda feels like to me, D-Life was like a dream, almost like a (historically black college or university), and then you get here, and it’s nothing like D-Life, which was black and Hispanic and Asian. We got here, and it was just white.”
Damon is not the only student to feel misled.
Scott Grant, ’16, is a second-year graduate assistant for the Office of Multicultural Affairs. He has played a role in D-Life through hosting and helping to coordinate activities since he came to Lehigh for his undergraduate degree in 2012.
Grant says the misperception of Lehigh’s racial makeup has remained consistent over the years.
“A lot of students do feel as though they have been ‘hoodwinked’ or ‘swindled,’” Grant said. “I don’t know what they are going to do to change it, but that is definitely something that has been consistent throughout the six years that I have been here.”
Ymani Bethea, ’19, who has hosted D-Life students, said she has heard the same complaints.
“People have told me like ‘D-Life kinda lies to you a little bit,’ especially the people of color,” Bethea said. “(Admitted students) feel like they were slightly lied to because you do all of these things with diversity and then you get here and that’s not the way it is when you walk into a classroom.”
Malika Kumbella, ’19, said D-Life weekend was when she saw the most diversity throughout her career at Lehigh.
“I liked getting to see and hang out with people who more looked like me on campus, but once I became a student, I realized they make this whole different impression that this is what campus is like all the time,” Kumbella said.
While some student criticisms of D-Life have truth to them, vice president of equity and community Donald Outing said Lehigh’s intent is not malicious. He said the goal of the program is to give prospective students an opportunity to visit, and Lehigh has always been transparent about racial breakdowns in its admissions information.
“You know the demographics when you come here,” Outing said. “Nobody is trying to disguise who we are and what we are. We are underrepresented in students of color, which is part of why we have the weekend to try to encourage more students of color to matriculate to Lehigh, of the population that apply.”
Outing said he understands where students are coming from. He said the misconception persists because visiting students interact with a concentrated population of Lehigh’s community and often times, the population that is interested in them coming here is mainly those of similar attributes and backgrounds.
Although his office does not run D-Life, Outing said he has established a collaborative relationship with Admissions.
One of these relationships is with Jade Eggleston, the assistant director of diversity recruitment. Since she assumed the role two years ago, she said the admissions office has acknowledged concerns about the difference in the racial makeup of the program and Lehigh as a whole. The office has particularly been working to dispel the misperception of the program’s objective.
“Students come to D-Life, and they are surrounded by all of these students of color, and then they come to campus in the fall and are like, ‘This is nothing that I anticipated,’” Eggleston said. “So one of the things that we did last year was a panel called, ‘Stay Woke.’”
The panel was run by Tyrone Russell, the former director of Multicultural Affairs. Eggleston said as an African-American male, he was able to be transparent — sharing testimonies from current Lehigh students about their experience transitioning into college.
Eggleston works with students who were yielded from D-Life, the program’s E-board, a campus group called Admission Ambassadors and the two admissions diversity interns to continue to improve the experience of the program.
Both the admissions office and Outing hope to grow D-Life and continue expanding diversity on campus. Despite criticism, the perception of the program itself is largely positive, successfully increasing diversity at Lehigh. Yields from D-Life increased from 40 to 60 percent in 2017, contributing toward the class of 2021 being the most diverse in Lehigh’s history.
While D-Life serves as a key event in diversity recruitment, Outing said it must fall into a larger strategic plan to increase the pool of applicants of students of color.
“We can increase the yield, but the yield of what?” Outing said. “So we have to really increase the pool of students of color who are interested and are applying to Lehigh.”
Grant said any negative perceptions of D-Life aren’t about the weekend itself, but rather the on-campus culture once students arrive. By increasing diversity and strengthening institutions for these students once they arrive, racial barriers won’t seem as apparent because the environment is more inclusive.
“I would love to say (to a Diversity Life student), ‘This is not how it is all the time, but what is consistent is that you will have a family here and the institution is focused not only on recruiting you guys but keeping you here,’” Grant said.
Damon, who has had both positive and negative feelings about Lehigh, said she has adjusted to the cultural shift.
She said she is happy her mom made her attend D-Life and recognizes it is difficult to make the experience realistic, while also continuing to yield students. She said the problem lies within the school’s culture and hopes to see more improvement in the future.
“Actually, I don’t think it’s that D-Life should change,” Damon said. “But more that Lehigh should change.”