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UI Students Share Experiences Of Discrimination, Ask '#DoesUIowaLoveMe'

University of Iowa students are sharing their experiences with discrimination at the school under the  hashtag, #DoesUIowaLoveMe. The campaign is attracting attention on campus and online.

At a rally Thursday, organizers urged members of the campus community to share their experiences of feeling underrepresented and under-supported. Dozens of students, faculty and staff came to listen and share their stories on social media platforms.

Many spoke of the pressure they feel as a person of color at the majority white school, in some cases finding themselves as the only student of color in a class. One student spoke of a roommate at the university requesting to transfer to a different dorm after finding out the individual is gay. Others shared stories of being criticized for speaking another language or speaking with an accent. 

Dawson Davenport is a senior at the university studying art, and a member of the state's Meskwaki community. He says it's difficult to look "different" from most of the undergraduate student body, which is an estimated 72 percent white.

“They tell us, you come here, we’ll help you get a better life," he said. "And then you deal with this indifferent stuff. And you see how you’re treated different in a classroom full of people who don’t look like you.”

Davenport said he'd like to see the school put more effort into recruiting native students.

“If we want to build a great college and a great community and an environment, we all need to be a part of that. We can’t be afraid of people who are different, or people who…bring a different perspective, who challenge things that have already been there,” he said.

Online, students called for more help for first generation students and those from immigrant communities, and cited issues with accessing disability services or getting an appointment to see a school counselor.

Faculty and staff are responding to students' stories, and reaching out online and on campus.

Cody Howell, a violence prevention specialist at the school's Women's Resource and Action Center encouraged others to consider students' experiences.

"#doesUIowaloveme isn't just a hashtag, but a chance for students to speak up and restore some humanity. Take some time today to read without judgment. Start by listening and remember that these are real people and we can all do better when we see from others perspectives," Howell wrote on Twitter.

Others pushed back online, pointing to investements the university has made in its Cultural & LGBTQ Resource Centers, and resources for academic success, mental health, financial issues, and support systems for students living on and off campus.

State Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Fairfield, said on Twitter he was "baffled" by students' statements.

"UI is a higer learning institution, meant to challenge you, prepare you for a dangerous world. Not coddle your emotions. It's your responsibility to love yourself. Expect nothing else from the world," Shipley wrote.

Still, President Bruce Harreld and Vice President for Student Life Melissa Shivers have issued statements saying they respect the students' experiences and are "committed to hearing their concerns and improving our campus culture."

In a message to the student body Thursday, Shivers called the students "courageous."

"I know it is not easy to relive your worst experiences," Shivers wrote. "I take incidents of harassment, discrimination, assault, racism, bullying, intimidation, and abuse of power very seriously and will work with other administrators, faculty, staff and students to improve our campus culture. Thank you for your bravery and honesty. We cannot do better if we do not know where we are challenged."

The university has been analyzing the campus climate and working on a diversity, equity and inclusion action plan for months, long before the #DoesUIowaLoveMe messaging campaign went public. That plan is part of a larger effort to recruit and retain faculty and staff from underrepresented groups, advocate for students from diverse backgrounds, and increase retention and graduation rates of underrepresented students, among other goals.

The university's formal diversity plan is due out in April.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter