Skin deep

Editor's note: Because of the subject matter, the student in this story who is one financial aid, "Joe," will not be identified. 

For him, having his own closet was “the height of luxury.”

Joe’s new room was way better than sharing a bunk bed with his brother —  in the same room with his parents.

Even though his family didn’t have a lot, Joe always knew where the next meal would come from. The clothes he would wear the next day. The plan for him to go to the next public school.

He had what he needed, but it wasn’t easy. Especially when his mom got laid off and his dad searched for another job at Domino’s.

But now he’s at 10600 Preston Road with the help of financial aid. Now he knows the next meal is in the Great Hall. The next pair of clothes are grey shorts and an oxford shirt. The next plan is to be the first person with his last name to go to college.

He hears all the other kids talking about the colleges where their parents have legacy -- a concept completely foreign to him.

That’s what makes Joe different. Diverse. Not just the color of his skin or his religious beliefs or his socioeconomic status.

Because diversity is more than that.

Diversity isn't just one thing or another — black or white — it's not just a number. It's a much more complex concept. 

There are actually at least eight "core" identifiers for diversity (shown below). 

Socio-economic Status / Religion / Race / Sexual Orientation / Ethnicity / Gender / Mental or Physical Ability / Age

According to the National Association of Independent Schools

Marjorie Curry, sponsor of Dallas Area Youth Diversity Organization [DADYO], believes those criteria are crucial, but also identifies several factors unique to the school. Some of those identifiers she describes: being a twelve year marksman, coming from a public or private school and whether your mother works outside the home.

“There are so many different things that I think are specific to independent schools and specific to St. Mark's, but that's the great thing,” Curry said. “Everybody is different. We have things that are in common and things that are different, but we all come together to make this a special place.”

All these factors influence perspective and contribute to the ongoing conversation of education. Director of Admission David Baker describes what diversity means to him.

“Diversity for me, and for this office, is the notion of adding texture and depth to the academic conversation on campus,” Baker said. “The more people with varieties of backgrounds with different experiences have, the better that conversation gets.”

One of the students adding to that conversation is freshman Grayson Feick, who moved to Dallas from California over the summer. He voices a diverse perspective not visible from the outside, a perspective that differs in geography and culture.

“[In class] you draw on different stuff you've experienced and different backgrounds you have,” Feick said. “You also pull from different memories. Like in California, we did a mission project for the California Mission, stuff like that. So I pulled from that in history class, which was cool.”

As a student on financial aid, Joe also lives from a different point of view and brings unique experiences to the table.

“I definitely feel like I have a better perspective on things that I am privileged to learn,” Joe said. “I think that's what being diverse is all about. I think the diversity that schools want comes from the school wanting other people to see the world in a way that they've never thought before.”

According to Curry, diversity within the student body is all about preparing boys for lives of leadership.

“When you're a leader, you're going to be working with people,” Curry said. “And guess what, they're not all going to look like you. And they're not all going to act like you. And they're all not going to think like you. So that's the best preparation.”

Leadership extends beyond the classroom, and Feick notes the importance of having a real-world experience as a component of education.

“[Diversity] kind of mimics the population of the world, too,” Feick said.  “You can't really have everyone from one place, or it wouldn't really make sense. It's kind of nice because different people of different background can discuss stuff and have their points of views, and if it was all the same type of person, you wouldn't really have that.”

Randy Bowman, father of Malcolm Bowman ’13, grew up in South Dallas and now is the President and Co-Owner of Mitchell Ward Logistics. He also chaired the Parkland Foundation board and raised about $160 million for the construction of the new hospital.

He credits some of his success to his awareness of diverse demographics.

“My workforce is not monolithic,” Bowman says. “It is not all one demographic racially. It is not all one demographic with regard to religious beliefs or even lack of beliefs. It is not all one demographic with regard to sexual orientation. It is not of one region. It is not from simply one type of college.”

According to Bowman, a diversity of perspectives isn’t just important to education, it’s essential to be competitive in the today’s job market.

“If you were to be able to increase understanding of different populations and demographics by increasing diversity, what you’re going to do is you’re going to create a more harmonious student body, a more well educated student body, certainly a student body that is more prepared to go out and compete in the world.”

Baker acknowledges the importance of diversity, and the benefit of different perspectives.

“I think we are about a group of young men of character, who are striving toward similar kinds of goals all together,” Baker said. “Our diversities, our differences, are our strengths. That we are so diverse makes us stronger.”

Curry observes this strength in diversity within the student body and also outside of the school environment.

“I know we have a large percentage of racial-ethnic diversity, and I do think we also have socioeconomic diversity,” Curry said.

Bowman thinks the financial aid population at the school, while great in number, does not actually represent the impoverished or even those below middle class. The price of tuition is high enough where even middle class families often need financial assistance, which creates a gap in the spectrum of perspectives.

“The disadvantages of being surrounded by a homogenous population,” Bowman said, “particularly when you’re part of the group that comprises that dominant culture, is that you develop a blind spot, and that blind spot can manifest itself in several ways. Not the least of which is it can build in you a sense of complacency.”

As Bowman puts it, that blind spot, exposure to people of lower income families, can lead to misjudgements later in life. Great decisions are hard to make when “ignorance” is part of the “analytical process.”

“If you don’t really have a perspective of how it is that poor people experience life,” Bowman said, “then you’re probably not going to be able to create the policy around your company that’s going to truly take into account how it is that those policies impact those who are poor.”

Of course, there are practical limits in the admissions process of diversifying the student body.

“Money is a limiting factor,” Baker said. “The Board of Trustees and the headmaster certainly and everyone on the faculty would love to see money not be a factor. We would like to be able to admit all the guys that we want to admit who enhance the quality of this conversation, so there aren't any strict rules or guidelines.”

The standard of admissions is also an unchanging limit,  not lowered for any applicant, regardless of his background. Baker says the school does not to fill quotas, but rather admits the applicants that meet the standard and add to the educational conversation. From there, the school tries to make the tuition possible.

“I’m not trying to create an outcome,” Baker said. “There’s no attempt by anybody to socially engineer this. That never works for one thing. I’m trying to create an opportunity for a great conversation.”

Bowman, however, believes there are benefits to interacting with students from lower socioeconomic classes. Bowman sees himself as someone who was driven by “desperation” because of his upbringing, and he thinks students should be familiar with this type of motivator within the student body.

“Desperation is a completely different motivator,” Bowman said.  “If you’ve never competed against someone who’s driven by desperation, you don’t want to compete against that type of person for the first time when the stakes are higher.”

Ultimately, keeping the school’s standard of academic excellence as a priority is what attracts a diverse selection of applicants.

“Our best diversification strategy is to be an awesome school,” Baker said. “That’s the absolute truth. If you’ve got a great school, diversifying the school isn’t that hard because people will come to you.”

And Joe, who came to school for its academic excellence, now experiences how the school is helping him be the first in his family to go to college, a valuable and unique perspective that also helps the student body.

“It's really my job to make sure I get the education that my parents are paying for,” Joe said. “I feel like I need to study more than other people sometimes, and I need to understand what I'm talking about and be smart because that's the opportunity that my parents didn't get to have.”