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Paving the way: College of Design program recruits underrepresented students

ISU senior Markus Flynn, the head of Iowa State’s Black Student Alliance, noticed something when he took a seat on the bus in his freshman year at Iowa State.

Sometimes, when there was an open seat next to him, nobody would sit next to him. So he started his own type of a case study. Over several semesters, he sat in different places on the bus to see if the location affected it more.

“What I came up with was, typically, the seat right next to me was one of the last ones to fill up,” Flynn said.

Flynn said he had noticed other instances where he thought he was being treated differently because he was a minority at Iowa State. In group projects, sometimes other members would assume Flynn doesn’t know as much.

As a black student in a predominately white college, Flynn has dealt with his fair share of conflicts. It’s part of the reason why he heads the Black Student Alliance, to help make change.

“Everybody knows that Iowa is one of the most homogeneous states in the country,” Flynn said. “So everybody knows there’s going to be a lot of white people.”

Out of the 30,034 students pursuing undergraduate degrees at Iowa State, 75.2 percent of them identify as white. That number has decreased by 12.9 percent in the past 10 years, but it is still the overwhelming majority.

The rate of students of color receiving their undergraduate degrees from Iowa State has increased by 3.9 percent in past 10 years. In 2015, 3,826 minority students were pursuing an undergraduate degree compared to 1,826 in 2005, according to Iowa State’s fact book.

“As long as we keep up with that pace and don’t lose that drive, change will come faster,” said senior Michael Day. “Not really everybody is against us, and we have to embrace each other as not only role models, but experience models.”

Day is part of Hometown Design, a program in the College of Design that focuses on recruiting high schoolers to Iowa State, particularly minority students. It’s another program at Iowa State that is trying to bring in more minority representation to Ames. 


Photo Courtesy College of Design

As the Multicultural Liaison for Iowa State’s College of Design during the past two years, Audrey Kennis recognized this need for more minorities in the classroom. It was prevalent in the College of Design, where 12 percent of students identify as a U.S. ethnic minority, according to the College of Design’s multicultural website.

“I think students recognize that this is a need,” Kennis said. “They look around the classrooms in the College of Design, and this is all around the university, not just Design. We are a predominately white institution, and you look around in the classroom and you’re one of the few [students of color].”

So Kennis decided to create a program that could help increase the representation of underrepresented students in the College of Design.

Kennis worked in admissions for five years before coming to the College of Design, giving her skills in outreach and recruitment. Those skills helped her come up with Hometown Design, a program where College of Design students could voluntarily go back to their high school and tell students about design opportunities at Iowa State.

She reached out to ISU students in passing to gauge interest before the program spawned in the fall of 2014. Many of the students were excited to go back and make an impact on their hometown.

“I was talking to [Kennis], and we started talking about this program,” said Rachel Ramirez, junior in graphic design. “A lot students don’t know much about the College of Design at Iowa State. If they did, they don’t necessarily know what is available to you there. So I wanted to expose high schools students to all of the different majors that the college of design has to offer.”

The interest turned into meetings where six students planned their trip to their hometown high schools over break. The group would discuss how to present to the class and help high schoolers realize that there are opportunities in college and specifically in the College of Design.

All of the students in the program are minorities, which helps the program target minorities high school students, Kennis said.

“The goal is to expose high school students to art and design,” Kennis said. “It’s a multicultural program because it’s made up of students primarily of color. It’s one to expose people that designers can be one of color, encouraging young persons of color in high school that it’s a viable option for them if they want to pursue that route.”


The professional design field, which includes graphic design, architecture and other majors the College of Design currently offers, is made up of slightly more than 20 percent of minorities, according to the National Endowment of the Arts.

Kennis said it is hard for minorities to get into the design field because they historically haven’t had a chance to work in those jobs. 

“Those have been more elitist type of career fields,” Kennis said. “Historically, you’ve had to have money to be able to go into those fields. Historically, people of color were not included in those spaces.”

The Hometown Design program is just one aspect that Kennis has implemented to try to increase the number of minorities at Iowa State, but there has to be help from outside of the college as well to change the tides, particularly employers, Kennis said.

But the change won’t happen overnight.

“The industry has to be proactive and work with the institutions to build a pipeline,” Kennis said. “It takes time to build a pipeline.”


After creating the program, many of the volunteer students started to get to work on their presentation to high school classes.

In the group meetings, each student would come up with his or her own scenario. Some revolved around making a new logo for a school in Texas, and others had to do with building the ultimate backpack. The point was to put the students in real-world scenarios to give them an experience of being a designer.

In senior Michael Day’s scenario, the high schoolers had to build the ultimate backpack in a set amount of time. They could add anything they wanted. After building their backpack, Day would bring them all together and combine them into one backpack, putting together all of the gadgets.

“A lot of the students had fun with it,” Day said. “One group had a fold-out backpack that fit a laptop and at the end we put all of the designs together.”

While the project may not have been exactly a real-life scenario, it still made the high schoolers think with a design mentality.

“It was really cool to see all of the students kind of take it in,” Day said. “Because it was their first time seeing something like that. They seemed to have a good time with it, and I was kind of poking fun at them to try and get them to be competitive.”


After only a year, students in the Hometown Design program have already seen their work come to fruition.

Day’s sister, who currently attends Northern Iowa, knew people in the class he was presenting to. After he presented to the class, he heard through his sister and talking to some students that the class actually enjoyed doing the project.

“I bumped into a couple of students when I went home that were in that class,” Day said. “I asked them, ‘Did you guys really enjoy it?’ And they said they really did. So that was kind of cool to see it work out like that.”

Kennis said there has been a gradual increase in enrollment since the program started, but she didn’t exactly attribute it to Hometown Design.

The program also brought students from Ames High School to the College of Design, so they could see and feel what it’s like to be in the college. While guiding the class throughout the day, Kennis said a few students expressed their interest in coming to Iowa State.

“I had four or five students come up to me and say, ‘We’re coming to Iowa State,’” Kennis said. “And they are here now. I know they were a part of this project and they ended up matriculating it, coming to Iowa State. Now was it a direct correlation to this program? I can’t say. But I know it did impact their decision.”

But the benefits of the Hometown Design program goes beyond helping young students come to Iowa State. It also helps the volunteer students gain experience in presenting and giving information, which is crucial in the design field.

“This is a great professional opportunity for our design students to go out,” Kennis said. “A big part of our design is presentation skills, learning how to present [and] how to convey certain information. So this is building their professional skills as they prepare to go out into the career field.”

Moving forward, Kennis wants to expand the program from just in-state students.

There is a large portion of students that come from out of state, and Kennis wants to reach places beyond Iowa, like Chicago, Minneapolis and Kansas City.

“Last year, we did it with people from the state, so we wanted to see how it work sending people across the state,” Kennis said. “The goal in the future is to open this up for all students. Open it up for in-state and out-of-state students.

“A lot of times students are going home over breaks and they may or may not have a lot of time. So this is one way they can use their time and be doing something positive and giving back to their community.”

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