Khaleel Jenkins' journey to becoming Cal Poly’s starting quarterback started in City Heights, a low-income neighborhood on the east side of San Diego.
Born to a half-white, half-Filipino mother and black father, Jenkins spent the early part of his youth in a neighborhood surrounded by immigrant families from North Africa, Southeast Asia and Mexico.
He also saw a different side of San Diego. He was one of just a handful of black students in his graduating class at Francis Parker High School, an exclusive private institution where tuition is $30,000 a year.
“I grew up around a lot of white kids,” Jenkins said at Cal Poly last week. “It was kind of a shock to me. But through that, I was able to gain an understanding of this world that a lot of my teammates might not have been able to experience. It really shaped who I am.”
He knew what to expect when he arrived at Cal Poly three years ago. The lack of diversity wasn’t a secret.
Cal Poly has the smallest percentage of black students of all the California public universities — and it has been that way for a while.
Just 166 of the 22,188 students enrolled in fall of 2017 self-identified as black. And according to data provided by the Cal Poly athletics department, black athletes account for more than 26 percent of the entire black population on campus.
In athletics, 324 of the 535 student athletes identify as white, making up 61 percent of the student-athlete population. That’s higher than the 54.8 percent of Cal Poly's total student body who identified as white — the highest mark of any school within the 23-campus CSU system, as well as the 10-university UC system.
The lack of diversity is why Jenkins, a sociology major, said he’s not surprised when racist events occur on campus, such as the posting of racist fliers or the two recent fraternity blackface incidents that led to an impending investigation into the school's Greek system by the state attorney general.
But despite a large white majority and a mix of diverse students in the athletic department, many students of color said they feel welcome around their fellow athletes.
“There are some issues that they have here on campus and here in town, but when they are with their teammates and with each other where they can truly be themselves, they truly feel safe and comfortable,” Cal Poly athletic director Don Oberhelman said, based on his talks with student athletes. “I think it has been the students who created this atmosphere.”
Jenkins, who equates Cal Poly athletics to a more diverse and welcoming form of Greek life, said part of the reason for the lack of issues in the athletic department include shared goals, communication and the fact that student athletes of all ethnicities regularly interact with each other.
"I think a lot of the problem is when you look at Greek life at this school, they are very exclusive, and they don’t really have many interactions with people outside of Greek life," Jenkins said. "If you are not in the frat, you can't go to their party unless you know someone. (In athletics), we are welcoming to everyone, but we can still do better."
Jenkins said he hosted a cookout at his house for members of the football team the weekend after the first blackface incident April 7. The football team is one of the three athletic teams (out of 20) on campus in which minorities make up a majority of players, a list that also includes the men’s and women’s basketball teams.
“It was just so we could get away and understand that at the end of the day, regardless of what is going on around us, we are all here for the same purpose. Nothing like that is going to break us,” Jenkins said.
Now, Jenkins, other athletes and members of the athletic department say they aim to help lead the charge to help students of all races, backgrounds and sexual orientation feel included and safe on campus.
In the days following the first blackface incident, two student athletes approached Oberhelman and urged him to do something.
The first step, they decided together, was setting up a forum where those in the athletic department could vent their frustrations and share personal stories about how racism has affected them. About 40 of the 535 Cal Poly student athletes attended the event at Mott Athletics Center.
Oberhelman said that at the forum he heard two particularly heartbreaking stories of how his athletes had been victims of racism off campus.
“It has been enlightening,” Oberhelman said. “I think I had my blinders on a little bit with the experiences of all our students, not just student athletes, but our students on campus. We make this out to be this utopian society, ‘this place is amazing,’ and it is — this place is amazing, but it is not perfect. A huge flaw has been exposed.”
Dye Stahley, a junior and member of the women’s basketball team who identifies as black, was one of the athletes at the forum. It wasn’t the first time she was part of a difficult conversation about race dynamics in America. She said women’s basketball head coach Faith Mimnaugh regularly talks to her team about it.
“Part of what we are trying to address is the fact that people don’t have the language to talk about these problems,” Stahley said. “And a lot of these kids don’t know the scope of the problems that go on in the minority world.”
Stahley, Jenkins and Oberhelman all agree that athletes can help set the example for the rest of the campus, but they also agree there is a lot of work to be done — even in the athletic department.
“We don’t have a perfect system here; we are not the most diverse group ever; everything is not all sunshine and rainbows here in the athletic department," Stahley said. "But we do have that diversity, and we have had these uncomfortable conversations, so why not be the leaders and go out and show the rest of the campus what needs to be done?
A look at the numbers
The number of student-athletes who self-identified as black totaled 44 for the fall 2017 semester, making up 8 percent of the overall student-athlete population. That's more than 7 percentage points above the campus-wide black population, which makes up just 0.7 percent of the student body. Cal Poly is the only school in the state with a black population under 2 percent this academic year.
There apparently are also no head coaches of color leading the 16 teams at Cal Poly. (The university could not confirm the ethnicity of each coach because it does not maintain records on the ethnicity of its staff, Oberhelman said.)
Jenkins said all he cares about is having a coach that can get the job done, but he acknowledged the ethnicity of a coach can be a factor.
“All I care about is who can help me be the best student, best player, best person,” Jenkins said. “With that being said, with people of color holding positions of power, it does attract more people because you feel this sense of welcoming.”
Oberhelman agrees he needs to do a better job of hiring coaches of color.
“Our coaches are not representative of our student athlete population. That is something over time that can be corrected, but right now we have great head coaches,” Oberhelman said, adding he aims to improve diversity in the candidate pool during job searches.
Oberhelman, who took over as athletic director in 2011, said diversity as a staff has "improved tremendously" since he joined the school.
“We went from two female head coaches to four, for example,” Oberhelman said.
Recent assistant coaching hires include assistant basketball coach Kevon Davis and assistant football coaches James Jones III and Matt Ta'ufo'ou, all coaches of color.
“It’s a slow process, but I do think we are getting there,” Oberhelman said.
Perhaps more important than the ethnicity of the coach, according to Stahley, is making sure coaches engage with student athletes on issues that matter to them. That’s why she was encouraged when nearly all the head coaches showed up for a second student-athlete diversity forum held last week.
“It lets you know that they care about stuff going on with us,” Stahley said. “When we see them in the hallway, we are going to be excited to see them because we feel like they are there for us. I think it’s making a better team environment in the whole athletic department.”
Making it better
The main goal of the forum held last week was to begin the process of putting a plan in place to improve race relations on campus and within the athletic department.
Some of the ideas that emerged, Stahley said, were making other minority groups feel more included in the athletic world, becoming more involved with the Cal Poly Multicultural Center and continuing to have difficult conversations with white students on campus.
“For me, it was just acknowledging, 'OK, there aren't a lot of (black students) here, but maybe I am here to teach people who have never been around a minority what it’s like or how to interact with people like me.' I take a lot of pride in that,” Stahley said. “A lot of people don’t like teaching. They are like, ‘They should know,’ but the reality is they don’t. It’s not going to get better unless we are able to go out there and have a conversation and not be judgmental about it.”
Jenkins said he feels admitting more black students just to increase diversity numbers isn’t the solution to diversity at Cal Poly, but he would like see the school reach out to more diverse communities so they feel more welcome and become more likely to apply to the school.
“I am from San Diego; I know people there, and I am someone who is at Cal Poly and doing well. Use someone like me who can be a liaison, who can bring more people here from my community so (the diversity) doesn't flat-line," Jenkins said.
One day, Jenkins hopes, the school will look more like his old neighborhood.