Prior to transferring to Stony Brook University, I attended the University of Maine, a school with an 82% white student body. It was located in Orono, Maine, a town closer to Canada than my home in Queens, N.Y. Many factors went into choosing this university. One reason was because I wanted to attend a school in a rural environment far from home to challenge myself. The other two were finances and research opportunities. One thing that I did not consider, however, was the school’s diversity.
After living in Woodside, Queens — which is predominantly Hispanic and Asian — I overlooked what a big factor diversity played in my life. Having been born in an Egyptian household with brown parents, I didn’t realize how my cultural environment became an important part of my identity until I was pulled out of it. I went to a predominantly white high school, so whatever diversity or lack of culture I didn’t have at school, I got at home from my mother’s cooking or from the sounds of Arabic soap operas like “Sokoot Hor (Free Fall),” playing in the background. For years, my siblings and I had swapped out certain English words for Arabic words, so two languages were always being spoken in my household. I had become so accustomed to being surrounded by a multitude of backgrounds, that I was in shock when attending UMaine.
Despite having made great friends and memories, I felt a growing void. I was surrounded by people who looked alike, spoke alike and had similar life experiences. A majority of them went to the same high schools, played the same sports and hung out at the same locations. This observation was not something that was unique outside the classroom, as I found it happening quite extensively in many of my classes. Professors would ask questions and everyone would regurgitate answers, often echoing similar discussions that are colored in all-white experiences. This did not allow for many in-depth conversations about topics outside of their perceived comfort zones.
They could not allow themselves to look outside of the tiny bubble they had created, and this led to many ignorant conversations surrounding politics and immigration laws, amongst other things. While it is fine to stay within your comfort zone and share the same life experiences with others, it simply does not allow any room for growth. As my classes began to blend together, I felt like I wasn’t learning anything new. Had I known this prior to attending, maybe I would have never gone in the first place.
This leads to an even bigger problem: the way colleges choose to advertise diversity on campuses. If you go to any university or college website or pick up a flyer or calendar, you’ll see students of different races, ethnicities and beliefs with clubs and other organizations that support those same people. When arriving on campus, however, it’s a completely different story.
The clubs at UMaine that support those students are often underfunded and understaffed. They are overlooked by universities and are often overshadowed by other clubs. A clear example of this would be when The Feminist Collective wanted to put an event called “Love Your Melanin” alongside the Black Student Union (BSU). Ciarra Jazzay, a psychology student and one of the heads of BSU, immediately approached The Feminist Collective to put a stop to the event. “The event was created in order for ‘allies to help people of color on campus learn to love themselves’ with the implication being that we hate ourselves so much that we need white people to tell us how to love ourselves,” Jazzay said. “It was the epitome of white paternalism with a dash of cultural racism. Also in their slideshow for the event they included the paper bag test and an image of kidnapped Africans who were sold into slavery.”
With a little over half of our campus being made up of minorities, Stony Brook University is considered to be one of the best non-Historically Black Colleges and Universities in terms of diversity. This yields the question of how to define “diversity” on college campuses. Can campuses get away with calling their school diverse if they just admit students of different ethnicities, but don’t provide any opportunities for those students to actively get to know one another?
At orientation, we are given diversity inclusion lectures and taught about microaggressions. There are also resources that are put in place, and Stony Brook University has also chosen to implement a new core requirement of taking a diversity class. However, while 65.2% of the school is not white, 34.8% of the school is, which is still a large number considering it is a homogenous population. Regardless, the new implementation of required courses like these are moving us towards a better school community. Pondering these questions on a deeper level was not possible at UMaine because much of the campus was oblivious to the problem at hand.
When considering attending an institution of higher education, diversity should be one of the top three factors the enrolling student considers. To that same effect, colleges and universities should make better efforts to make sure their campus is diverse. Students need to interact with others who do not look, speak or think like them.That is how you grow as an individual and member of society.