The faces of Humboldt State University are changing and that's a good thing. For everyone.
It's almost impossible to overstate HSU's impact on Humboldt County. First, there are the raw numbers — it employs some 1,500 people, paying them around $100 million in annual wages. Of its roughly 8,500 students, 15 percent are local, meaning it gives graduating high school seniors a chance to stay close to their families while growing their income potential. And the other 85 percent of the student body brings funds — from their parents, loans or grants — that are spent locally, infusing new money into the Humboldt County economy. Back in 2005, a study estimated the annual direct student expenditures flowing into the county top $68 million.
But — important as all that is — those are just numbers and it's a mistake to look at the university as just a community on a hill, an economic driver that stands apart from the rest of Humboldt. The university has profound social impacts that reverberate well beyond the mission-style gateways that mark the borders of campus.
Consider the people you know who first came to Humboldt to attend HSU but stayed here, having fallen in love with the North Coast. They are founders of businesses large and small, they are the families in your neighborhood, the teachers in your schools, the leaders you elect to represent you and, yes, the people who write your local news. Their appreciation for what we have here and the perspectives they bring from beyond the Redwood Curtain have been essential in shaping our communities. It's foolish to discount the importance of HSU's population as merely the source of economic spikes and irritating traffic.
The university and the greater community are at a crossroads. The demographics of HSU are shifting, as HSU works to follow a state mandate requiring that its student body more closely resemble the state's diverse population. Back in 2000, 67 percent of students at HSU identified as white. By last year, that number had fallen to 44 percent, while the school's Latino population increased almost fivefold over that period. HSU is becoming a more diverse campus in the middle of a county that's 84 percent white.
While it's perhaps not surprising to feel some growing pains with such a shift, they became crippling last spring, with the stabbing death of David Josiah Lawson, a 19-year-old black HSU sophomore, at an off-campus party. In the aftermath of Lawson's death, many students of color stepped forward to say they don't feel safe in this community or sufficiently supported on campus. And while there were expressions of love and solidarity from large swaths of the local community, others responded with hate and resentment.
This week's edition of the North Coast Journal is intended to pick up the conversation where it left off last spring when, after graduation, most students headed home, hundreds of miles away from Humboldt.
We have a story (page 6) looking at how HSU recruits students, why the faces on campus are changing and what the university is doing to better retain and support the young men and women who show up on campus every fall. And in our cover package (page 14), we solicited opinion pieces from a variety of voices in our community, on campus and off, asking them to share their views and perspectives on what HSU and the greater community can do to be more inclusive and supportive. It's a complicated and nuanced conversation, and our contributors kicked it off in many directions.
Change of any kind can be hard, often forcing us to assess status quos and unspoken truths. But change also brings great opportunity. Populations shift and communities evolve, even on virtual islands like ours, and we need to embrace that.
We can work toward enriching Humboldt through inclusion — making it a better place for all of us — or we can continue to ignore growing discord and feign shock when it erupts into ugliness and violence. The choice is clear.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the Journal's arts and features editor. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or Jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill. Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.