Gizelle Clemens's first day at Trinity College was a busy one. There were icebreakers and introductions to other minority students, upper-class mentors and administrators. Then came a bus tour of Hartford's ethnic neighborhoods, pointing out places where students could go for a braided hairstyle or Latino music or a Jamaican dinner.
Clemens hopes to make all kinds of friends at Trinity, but she knows from her experience as a student of Caribbean ancestry at a mostly white boarding school that there will be times when she will crave the comfort of familiar company.
"Sometimes you don't want to be asked questions," said Clemens, whose family comes from St. Lucia and who grew up in Newark, N.J. "You just want them to understand you."
Trinity goes out of its way to help freshmen from minority groups feel comfortable, inviting them to campus a few days early to try to foster a sense of community they can fall back on -- if needed -- throughout their college years.
But Trinity, like many other schools, is walking a fine line: It wants to avoid encouraging the kind of separatism that often leads black and Hispanic students to sit apart from others in the cafeteria.
"We don't want you to be comfortable in your new friendships to the point where you don't go out and bring new people into your circle," was the parting advice of Karla Spurlock-Evans, the school's dean of multicultural affairs, at an introductory lunch for Trinity's PRIDE program -- "Promoting Respect for Inclusive Diversity in Education."
As colleges around the country welcome freshmen, many organize activities -- such as camping and community service trips -- to help students start college with at least a small group of friends they can build on. But there is also a reluctance to emphasize particular groups over the broader community.
Two years ago, Williams College in Massachusetts stopped bringing minorities and athletes to campus early. There are still some orientation events for minorities, but all students go through much the same program, designed to introduce them to neighbors and to the broader class.
At 2,188-student Trinity, Spurlock-Evans said, a program such as PRIDE does not prevent that kind of campus-wide bonding later in the week. But she said it is essential to show minorities the support they have.
"If you don't grab them in the first five weeks, they're gone," she said. "There would be no one to integrate if we didn't support them."
Nationally, 63 percent of students at four-year colleges complete their degrees, but only 46 percent of blacks and 47 percent of Latinos do, according to a recent report by the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit organization. At Trinity, those rates are considerably better -- 76 percent for black students and 83 percent for Hispanics, while the rate for all students is 88 percent.
Social segregation is an issue here. The most recent Princeton Review survey of students at 357 colleges ranked Trinity at the top of a survey of schools where campus life features "Little Race/Class Interaction."
Spurlock-Evans, who has worked at several other colleges, called the survey and its methodology nonsense. But while showing a visitor around the school's cafeteria, she acknowledged separation continues to exist. Although one section of the dining hall is no longer called by some "Little Africa," students from various non-white ethnic groups still tend to congregate there, just as white students congregate across the way.
"I know it's human nature," she said. "Sometimes when you get comfortable, there's not the need to range beyond."
Increasingly, PRIDE is trying to draw in white students in the programs and discussions it runs throughout the year. All students, regardless of race, are assigned a PRIDE adviser.
But program leaders acknowledged that involving white students has been hard. When classes were canceled for a campus-wide "Dialogue Day" last year, 1,500 students showed up. However, PRIDE leaders conceded that many came only on orders from their teachers and that some resented the race-centered conversations.
Many upper-class PRIDE mentors participated because their own PRIDE mentors helped them through tough times.
Sophomore Gonzalo Estupinan skipped the program as a freshman, wanting to stretch out his summer. But when he arrived, he had difficulty making friends and trouble with his studies. A PRIDE mentor saw him struggling in the library one night, pulled him aside and helped him turn things around.
"He taught me time management and other stuff. It was just the fact that he reached out to me where other students let me fend for myself," he said. "I think a lot of the reason I had trouble was because I didn't come to PRIDE."
Haron Atkinson, a recent Trinity graduate who is black and now a postgraduate fellow in the college's Office of Multicultural Affairs, said he had many meaningful friendships with white students here. But sometimes -- after a day of money woes or an awkward glance on the quad -- he needed the company of people who understood what it feels like to stand out.
"There were plenty of days when I just had the crappiest day ever, and I could just come in and decompress for five to seven," he said. "Some days, that was the only thing that got me through."