Stress on diversity divides freshman class

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August 29, 2008

1:31 PM

Diversity — perhaps no word is quite as overused during Freshman Orientation. Its definition covers a multitude of exciting opportunities at the College of William and Mary, from community and campus involvement to the relationships we can expect after immersing ourselves into college life.

As an Orientation Aide, I saw a lot of ink and breath spent assuring new students that once they stepped onto campus, they immediately belonged — they had personal ownership of the College, one that would certainly grow with experience. As Interim Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler promised new students: “Who comes here, belongs here.”

If this is the case, new students are facing a barrage of contradictory ideas of ownership and inclusion, especially in relation to the word “diversity.” The idea of ownership also got a little interesting in relationship to diversity, as many of the programs designed to include students in the community of the College forced them to acknowledge their individual and separate identities. Students were dissected in the name of diversity.

The “Diversity in the William & Mary Community” session for new students required students to stand (granted, at their comfort level) for any number of multicultural, religious or other categories. No longer were they new students, sharing the common identities of confusion, nervousness and eagerness; they were now defined by their classmates as those who stand for their Judaism, their residence above the Mason-Dixon line or the fact that they knew someone who committed suicide.

In this way, ownership at the College became contrived as students were forced to confront and label diversity. An exercise meant to include became an exercise in typifying new students, whether they stood up or not.

The resistance to labeling a “typical” type of college student becomes an effort in futility, as new students begin to notice the same faces throughout the videos presented to them. I sat next to a freshman in one session who pointed out a student who was shown in literally every video representing the diversity of the student body. Upon repeated viewings this student did become the “typical” college student.

The purpose of the “engaged” session for “Diversity in the William & Mary Community” was to fight stereotyping, citing a study that says people sum their peers up in seven seconds. By forcing students to stand to represent their respective identities, then using the same students in every video, we essentially created the “typical” college student.

Students looked around and effectively summed up their peers by category. What started as an exercise in encouraging relationships actually encouraged stereotyping peers. Inevitably in small group discussions new students stay with their hall, and then the three people who stood up to show that they had family or friends who committed suicide would remain known only as that to large groups of new students.

Each new school year begins the same way for everyone — with fears of change, anxiety for classes and anticipation for the surprises of the year. The emphasis on diversity does not begin or end with Orientation, but it certainly shapes a new generation of views at the College. It is up to us how we treat each other, and it should be up to us how we relate to each other.

We are the face of the College to one another, and we are the face of the College to the world. We define it. Our shared past can’t be summed up by a nervous and wary stand, and it shouldn’t be our defining moment. Yes, embrace your differences and respect others, but don’t be defined by them.

New students, diversity is a wonderful component of the College, and certainly has its ups and downs, but don’t let yourself be limited by your ethnicity, your religion or your experiences.

It can work both ways, and we shouldn’t be known as a diverse campus by our pockets of multiculturalism.

Katie Dixon is a senior at the College.

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