The view from the Grounds: Students talk diversity
|Learning al fresco — Students opted for the steps of the McIntire Amphitheatre last week rather than the conventional desks in most of their University classes. Here, they work on an assignment while enjoying the sunshine and fresh air.
The undergraduate experience
The sixth in an occasional series
By Dan Heuchert
Plug “diversity” into the search engine on the University’s home page, and in 0.09 seconds you come up with 29,200 hits.
Within that listing, one will find speakers and career days,
organizations and news articles, committees and cultural events, policies, programs and job listings — all related to the multiplicity of religious, ethnic and sexual identities expressed within the University community. There may not be another topic that more often is discussed, dissected and digested on Grounds.
But how does the diversity climate feel to students? Is any of this effort making a difference in their undergraduate experiences? It’s not an original question, but the answers are always as new as the person who
Nine students recently took some time out of a beautiful spring day to answer a few questions about their experiences with diversity at U.Va. The result is not scientifically valid, or even a representative sampling. Instead, it is a highly anecdotal snapshot of the opinions of nine randomly selected students with a little free time on their hands and a willingness to talk to a total stranger about a potentially thorny issue.
Drinking from the lake of diversity
Much of the news was good. No one said they felt unwelcome. All spoke of their appreciation for the opportunity to learn alongside — and from — people with other backgrounds. All were aware of programs that promoted the value of diversity.
Third-year Spanish major Danielle Varughese, an Indian American from Northern Virginia, said she appreciated “being able to learn from and have friends of different nationalities and backgrounds, different value systems and different ways of thinking.
“It makes me stronger in what I believe, and why I believe what I believe,” said Varughese, who is a member of both a Christian group and the Indian Student Association. “It’s a very solid learning experience.”
Second-year student Courtney Kook, a Korean American, noted that her Springfield high school was very diverse. “That makes things a lot more comfortable, especially when you meet new people, because the barrier of race is already gone. You already know how to communicate with people not like you. ... It’s so much more fun to have friends of different backgrounds.”
But Varughese and almost all of her peers interviewed noted that, despite the abundance of programs and the presence of large numbers of nonmajority students — fully a third of the undergraduate population identifies itself as something other than “white American” — something is lacking.
“We have the ingredients for diversity,” Varughese said. “We just don’t mix them together.”
Brandi Sharp, an African-American first-year student from Roanoke, said pointedly, “Just because it looks diverse, it doesn’t mean it is.”
That’s not for a lack of effort, said third-year Aaron Jennings, an African American from Chesapeake. Referencing the old saying about being able to lead a horse to water, he said, “We have the lake here. We have an abundant source of water. But not everybody is drinking.”
That notion was echoed many times, with some degree of frustration. Yet no one advocated making diversity training mandatory for students, apparently feeling that being forced to attend could create a resentful backlash.
|Undergraduate enrollment by
classification (Fall 2004 headcount)
White American: 8,758 (66.7 percent)
Asian American: 1,390 (10.6 percent)
African American: 1,139 (8.7 percent)
Unclassified: 750 (5.7 percent)
Non-resident alien: 645 (4.9 percent)
Hispanic American: 425 (3.2 percent)
Native American: 33 (0.3 percent)
Reaching out, or staying in?
The University’s speckled enrollment has led to a proliferation of
identity-based student groups, which often seek to educate their peers about their respective cultures. But they also serve as safe havens for their members — havens from which some students are reluctant to venture.
Hana Sarsour, a second-year student with an Arab background from Springfield, is a member of the Muslim Student Association and the Arab Student Organization. Last year, she roomed with a Muslim acquaintance from back home, partially because of her religious observance of praying five times a day.
“Sometimes, if you live with someone who’s not from the same background, it makes them feel uncomfortable. And then I feel uncomfortable.”
Though Sarsour has an American roommate this year, and has attended a Catholic service and visited the Hillel student center through U.Va.’s Children of Abraham Institute, she says she avoids racial discussions because she doesn’t want to offend anyone.
“I found my niche here, so I’m not trying to go outside it,” she said. “… I don’t feel like I’ve gotten many other viewpoints. It’s kind of my fault,
because I haven’t gone outside myself.”
Kurt Kronenberg, a white fourth-year student from Reston, says he perceives “a strong sense of various cliques, whether economic or race-based. You see it in the cafeteria, at bus stops.”
He wondered aloud if some of the efforts to provide safe havens for minority students might be at least partially to blame. He cited specifically the Office of African American Affairs’ much-lauded Peer Advisors program, which pairs incoming black students with black student mentors even before they arrive on Grounds.
“Certainly, some benefit has come from it, but the principle I’m not sure of,” Kronenberg said, suggesting that such early contact may steer black students into an insular community and close them off from their nonblack classmates. “I think that has to be looked at and retooled,” he said.
Third-year history major Katie Willis, a white student from Irvine, Calif., agrees that cultural isolationism is a problem. She said her favorite diversity outreach is “The Mix,” which invites groups that wouldn’t nor-
mally intersect — such as the College Republicans and U.Va.’s chapter of the National Organization for Women — to socialize together.
Racial incidents color views
Sarsour and Asma Hamid, a second-year Sudanese-born student who arrived at U.Va. via Malaysia and Sterling, both admitted they were initially wary of attending the University after learning of an allegedly
racially motivated assault in 2003 on Daisy Lundy, a multiracial candidate for Student Council president.
Although Hamid overcame her concerns after a visit to Grounds, Sarsour said the Lundy incident was more of a deterrent to others she knew.
The ongoing search for the serial rapist who has plagued the local community also has caused concern in the University community. Police
descriptions of the assailant have varied greatly, with one exception — that he is a black male, said second-year student Calisha Myers, an African American.
“It stigmatizes black males,” she said. She sees the attention paid to one attacker a bit overblown, “especially at the University, where the majority of rapes are committed by people you know.”
Jennings, a third-year student from Chesapeake, has first-hand
knowledge of affects of such stigmatization. During his second year, he paced outside his dorm, animatedly talking on his cell phone, which has a hands-free headset. Once he finished his conversation, he went inside and checked his e-mail. There was a dormwide alert from a resident
adviser. It warned of a black male wandering around outside the dorm, talking to himself, who might be the serial rapist, and gave a physical
“I realized that he was describing me!” said Jennings, who used the
incident as a basis for a sketch in the “Different Voices, Common Threads” orientation program last fall.
He laughs ruefully about it now, but wonders, “What if the police had come before I got back in the building?”
Incidents such as that make Jennings grateful for the safe haven of the Office of African-American Affairs.
“That’s why I love Dean [of African-American Affairs M. Rick] Turner so much,” he said. “When things happen, he hollers for us.”
Advising the diversity czar
With the University in the end stages of a search for a new chief officer for diversity and equity, students were asked to offer their advice to whichever candidate is eventually hired:
- “Don’t be frustrated,” Varughese ventured. “Just be really open to seeing the small parts of the University that are diverse. ... The beginnings are here and they are beginning to grow.”
- Kook and Kronenberg advised seeking more ways to mix students
together who might otherwise isolate themselves in homogenous groups.
- Hamid suggested “approach[ing] diversity from a whole different
angle, maybe solidarity between students, to make it more human. Try to incorporate people from different backgrounds who don’t fit into the usual [black-white] tension.”
- Others suggested that the University’s student outreach programs don’t quite feel authentic. “A lot of the programs the University puts on are kind of out of touch with what the students would do,” Willis said.
- Some suggested that there was little one person could do to attack the apathy of their disinterested peers, no matter how broad their mandate.
One more piece of good news
The students were unanimous on one point: given the chance to
decide again, they all would come to U.Va.
“Absolutely!” said Jennings. “This is my University.”