If there’s one thing that SUNY New Paltz knows how to do well, it’s how to make an incoming student feel welcome. “I’ve never seen so much enthusiasm,” marveled Christian Lemoine of Floral Park last Thursday, as he unloaded luggage for his stepson, freshman Johnathan Fratus, outside his new dormitory. “We think he’s in good hands.” Johnathan’s mother, Daisy Fratus, agreed: “This campus suits him well.”
Approaching a member of the welcoming committee in front of Esopus Hall with a procedural question, Lemoine did a momentary double-take when the helper introduced himself as the college president. Dr. Donald Christian was all smiles on this gorgeous late-summer morning, with a bright blue sky, low humidity and temperatures in the 70s making Move-In Day a pleasurable exercise for all concerned. “It always feels like a fresh start,” President Christian commented as he watched the bustle of students coming back to college for the fall semester. “It feels rejuvenating, like making things right again.”
What makes this particular group of incoming students stand out? Young Johnathan, whose moving crew consisted of his white biological father, Joseph Fratus, his Asian mother and black stepfather, perfectly exemplified Dr. Christian’s point that “This is the most racially and ethnically diverse incoming first-year class in our history.” Transfer students, who also arrived on Thursday, also comprise a cross-section of America, with 34 percent of them from “underrepresented” ethnic groups.
“We put a lot of value on being an open and inclusive community,” noted Christian, who in July had to cope with considerable negative fallout from a respected faculty member and administrator, Dr. Gerald Benjamin, criticizing the past recording career of congressional candidate Antonio Delgado by saying that “people like us” don’t respond well to rap music. Both the president and SUNY New Paltz’s chief diversity officer, Tanhena Pacheco Dunn, were quick to disavow and condemn Benjamin’s comments, and Benjamin subsequently apologized for remarks that he admitted could be “reasonably read as racist.”
Christian credited a combination of factors for the diversification of the student body. “Our reputation as a friendly, welcoming, inclusive learning community continues to grow,” he said, adding that in recent years the college had put more focus on recruitment efforts in all five boroughs of New York City. The affordability of attending college away from home, in contrast to commuting to classes at a CUNY institution, continues to be a deterrent for some urban families, however, for whom “even the modest tuition of a SUNY school can be challenging.”
Creating a climate more conducive to local hiring of SUNY New Paltz graduates is another strategy that the college is pursuing to help attract students, according to Christian. He cited his work as chair of the Regional Economic Development Council as making him more aware of the “challenge in fulfilling workforce needs” in the Hudson Valley, and said that part of his role was to encourage employers to “broaden their thinking about hiring.” Art majors concentrating in ceramics tend to be “really good at tech,” he said by way of example.
Recent program expansions and improvements to campus facilities also serve to broaden SUNY New Paltz’s appeal, Christian said. “We’re starting a new Business Analytics program, which is the first at the undergraduate level in the SUNY system. Mechanical Engineering continues to be very attractive to students,” he noted. “We’ve seen enrollments tick up in our accelerated MBA program, which is in its second year.” The new speech clinic on campus has been completed, the new science building “well-settled-into now” and the new engineering building nearing completion and projected for opening in the spring semester of 2019.
Other factors having to do with the campus environment helped influence Katelyn Idelfonso of the Town of Newburgh, a first-year student with plans to become an art therapist, to choose SUNY New Paltz. Terming herself an introvert who “wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone,” Idelfonso said that she had considered SUNY Albany and SUNY Purchase, but decided that she liked the “hippie vibe” of New Paltz, as well as its natural setting. “A smaller campus seemed more personal,” she said. “This school gave me the best feeling when I visited it.”
As if to confirm this initial impression of welcome, just then a student in the team mascot costume of Hugo the Hawk stepped up to offer her a furry hug, which Idelfonso accepted with enthusiasm belying her professed shy personality. Hugo was accompanying a small army of student volunteers wearing matching tee-shirts that said Athletes in Action, who were enthusiastically helping incoming students tote their gear from their cars up to their dorm rooms. “It’s not required,” explained junior Nicole Sheintol, a Sociology major who’s also an avid soccer-player. “It’s just a tradition that we do every year.”