Like many other students, I attended the town hall meeting on Monday. While I was impressed by much of what I heard, I think that we need to remember the role each of us can play to promote diversity on our campus so that we do not become lost in a sea of good intentions and policy details. I noticed that many people at the meeting were focused on the school doing a better job of educating students about diversity, and increasing attendance of students from diverse backgrounds. While I agree that these are necessary and very important steps, I would argue that we need to look at this as more than a policy problem for administrators, and consider how each of us can help to make a difference. I believe that if we truly want to create a welcoming and inclusive campus, we must all work towards building individual, genuine, lasting, respectful relationships with people different than ourselves.
On a trip to Uganda in 2011, as part of a missionary group, I was surprised and deeply disappointed to see how a group of people with mixed racial and cultural backgrounds could utterly fail to get along with or respect each other. What started off as minor misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions between whites and Africans gradually led to people permanently breaking up into their own groups and spending all of their time with people who looked like them. I still remember how people talked every day about wanting unity and understanding, but somehow nobody stepped up to make it happen. At the same time, myself and a few friends spent our time in a mixed group, and I learned one of the most important lessons of my entire life: I realized that someone who looks completely different than me, and has a completely different background than me, can still understand me and be an amazing friend. On the other hand, I may not have anything in common with, or really understand, someone who happens to look like me on the surface. Coming to this understanding has completely changed the course of my life, and has led me to opportunities for friendship and personal growth that I could never have imagined.
Since 2011, I have had many similar experiences over the years. I have known many well-intentioned people who wanted diversity and understanding on an abstract level, but because they never took the (too simple?) step of spending time interacting with others as friends and equals, they were never able to accomplish this goal. It is much more impressive to say that you are championing diversity for oppressed people than it is to share an hour or two of your day with a friend who just happens to be black; and yet, when I look back at my own life, I can clearly see which of these choices has made the biggest difference. At the town hall, we heard a question on one of the notecards about how a white person can be an ally to minority students on our campus. My answer to this question is: by simply sharing enough of our lives with people, we naturally come to a better understanding of who they are and what we can do to help.
I hope and believe that Dr. Behre, the Office of Inclusive Excellence, and the SGA will continue their efforts to improve our school and make it a more welcoming place for minorities; I applaud the steps that have been taken so far. But at the end of the day, if we are to improve the everyday experience of minority students and show that we want them to be here, it will require the participation of every student and professor on this campus. In case this sounds painful, I would say: Moving outside of my comfort zone has allowed me to expand my life and share it with all kinds of incredible people. Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of the same opportunity?