OAKLAND -- They're exchanging high fives at Holy Names University, after learning on Oct. 11 that U.S. News & World Report has named it the most ethnically diverse college or university in the country.
"As a university in Oakland, deeply committed to diversity, we are thrilled to be recognized," said President William Hynes.
Holy Names received a diversity rating of 0.80, beating runner-up Chaminade University in Hawaii, which had a 0.77, and St. Peter's University in New Jersey, which had a 0.74.
"Our formula produces a diversity index that ranges from 0.0 to 1.0," the magazine article explained. "The closer a school's number is to 1.0, the more diverse is the student population."
Praise for its diversity is nothing new for Holy Names, where Asians, African-Americans, Hispanics and other students of color account for 80 percent of the student population.
U.S. News & World Report has named it one of the five most diverse Western regional universities many times since the rankings were established in 1998. But this is the first time it was named the most diverse campus in the whole country.
Hynes said the school's commitment to diversity stems from the day it was founded in 1868.
"The sisters who founded the school were interested in teaching the marginalized, the disadvantaged," he said. "The second thing is that we are an extended family. We think we're children of the same God, so every student is taken on his or her own terms. And that's really good when you're living in Oakland."
Though Holy Names was founded as a Catholic school, its student body is also religiously diverse: 42 percent Catholic, 8 percent Baptist, 6 percent Church of Christ, 1 percent Lutheran, 1 percent Presbyterian, 17 percent other Christian, 1 percent Jewish, 1 percent Muslim and 1 percent Buddhist. The remaining 23 percent declined to state.
It recruits heavily in the local high schools, sending the most effective messengers possible: current students.
"Kids may not care what adults think, but there's something magical when someone who is only three or four years older than you is telling you what you need to do to be successful," said Michael Miller, vice president for student affairs and enrollment. "It's like hearing it from an older brother or sister."
Holy Names regards diversity as an issue of class, believing that if you admit enough poor students, diversity will take care of itself.
The first step was lowering the price tag by cutting undergraduate tuition in half.
"We wanted to have a pricing structure that makes it possible for a student of color to come here and get a four-year education without going bankrupt," Hynes explained.
Students can also defray their remaining expenses by taking work/study jobs, often in their area of interest.
"Student athletes can work in the gym; others can work in the library, where they have great access to research materials; and still others work as residence assistants and peer mentors, which engages them even more in student life," Miller said.
But recruiting minority students is one thing; making them feel a part of the campus community is another.
"Before they even set foot on campus, we meet with them and their families, so they can feel free to come here and be themselves," Miller said. "Our job is to give them a rigorous liberal arts education, not tell them to fit in."
The first thing incoming freshmen do on Orientation Day is make The Rite of Passage -- a ritual ascent up the 106 stairs leading from the main courtyard to the chapel as their families, faculty, administrators and staff stand on the sidelines, cheering them on. Then everybody celebrates with a big welcoming party.
A week later, the school hosts a dinner for the new students and their families, followed by a convocation lunch a few weeks after that. And every Thanksgiving is the occasion of a schoolwide banquet for students, faculty and staff.
"The attitude here is very different from 'You're on your own, go study, good luck, see you in four years at graduation,'" Hynes said.
Students respond to that embrace.
"I'm a transfer student from Turkmenistan, so I've only been here a few weeks, but it already feels like home," said sophomore Berdi Merdanov. "One of my favorite ways to break the ice with new people is ask them, 'How do you say, 'Hi. How are you?' in your language?' I've already learned how to say it in Filipino."
Students from closer environs also respond to the school's diversity. "I love being able to meet people from other backgrounds, other cultures," said senior Kristina Hayes, who grew up in Oakland. "It's opened me up to a lot of new and different things and helped me become the person I am."
Her twin sister, Kathrine, added, "I was originally going to go to what I thought was the perfect school, but when I visited the place I looked around and thought, 'I don't see anyone here who would be my friend.' So I came here, instead, and I've met a lot of people who don't look like me. But they're all my friends."