One of two white full-time students at Morehouse completes freshman year
By Diana Penner
Indianapolis Star/NewsOriginal article can be found at:
That was the first Wittman had heard of the historically black, all-male, small liberal arts college.
As he neared graduation from Lawrence Central High School last year, Wittman zeroed in on Morehouse as the college that would best help him reach his academic and professional goals. This month, the 18-year-old National Merit Scholar finished his freshman year as a computer science major.
It's a fairly common story, except for this: Wittman is white.
National Merit Scholar Barry Wittman believes fear and ignorance prevent people from building relationships.
He was one of two white full-time students at Morehouse this year, experiencing what it is like to be in the minority as few white Americans ever do.
"It felt to me like I fit in better at Morehouse than any other place I've been," Wittman said.
Enrollment of white students at Morehouse, founded in 1867, varies from none some years to two or three in a year, said a spokesman. But the school historically has welcomed all students while serving its predominantly black target audience.
"Morehouse has always had a diverse, international faculty and staff," college president Walter E. Massey. "For years ... the school maintained an interracial vision and hosted interracial conferences in defiance of Georgia's Jim Crow laws."
Wittman grew up in a predominately white neighborhood in northeast Indianapolis, so attending Morehouse was a new -- but not unpleasant -- experience for him.
Whitman was raised in the Bahai faith, in which unity among all people and improving understanding and relations are central tenets. Wittman said he had thought about attending a predominately black school for years.
"It just seemed like an interesting opportunity to work on my own prejudices and to work on race relations," he said.
The key was finding an academic program that matched his interests and goals. When Morehouse offered that -- and a full scholarship -- Wittman chose it over other colleges, including Purdue University and the University of Illinois.
A black classmate at Lawrence Central took him aside to make sure he knew what he was getting into, but other than that, few people have questioned his decision, Wittman said.
His father initially wanted reassurance about academic quality, but that concern was answered. Neither of his parents had reservations related to the school's racial makeup, he said.
James Duke is assistant vice president for administration and curriculum at the Center for Leadership Development in Indianapolis. He also is a 1990 Morehouse graduate and president of the Indianapolis chapter of the Morehouse Alumni Association.
He said there were a few white students at Morehouse while he attended, and initially, their presence raises some eyebrows. But after students get to know each other, it's not a problem.
White Morehouse students seemed primarily motivated by the same factors that attract all students -- the academic offerings, the all-male environment and the cultural advantages offered by its location in Atlanta, Duke said.
In addition, they were able to experience the feeling of being an ethnic minority and learn to adapt to a majority group. That's something African-Americans face virtually every day, he said.
"I think it's fantastic that they have that opportunity," Duke said of white students at Morehouse.
Wittman won't know until next year whether he'll be the only Caucasian full-time student at Morehouse. The other student from the last academic year graduated. But Duke said he's heard from current and former students that Wittman is fitting in just fine.
Generally quiet and a self-described shy person who likes techno music and computers, Wittman enjoys classroom discussions as well as informal gatherings with classmates. Racism is a topic that comes up frequently, he said.
Among the things he has found is that there's a significant difference in the perceptions of that issue.
"A lot of white people aren't too terribly aware that racism still exists as an issue," Wittman said.
For instance, Morehouse classmates routinely offer examples of being followed around in stores or being randomly stopped by police. White people don't have those experiences with nearly the same frequency, he said.
Wittman is learning about basic similarities between individuals and cultures, as well as differences and how they affect relations.
His faith and belief system give him a framework in which to place those observations.
"On a personal level, skin color basically makes no difference. It's cultural differences that separate people, and to a deeper level, there really are no differences.
"Everyone wants to be loved and to be cared about. It's just fear and ignorance that prevent some people from building meaningful relationships."
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