Stony Brook University (SBU) hosted its first “Ignite The Student Leader in You,” a seven-hour diversity and inclusion conference on Saturday, Oct. 19 in the Student Activities Center.
According to the Student Diversity Leadership Conference Committee, the conference was created to help Stony Brook students expand their self-awareness, diversity awareness and help them discover ways they can create a more welcoming campus through inclusive student leadership.
“You’re making history right now,” Cheryl Chambers, associate dean for multicultural affairs and conference chair, said in her conference overview. “I am so delighted and proud that so many people on this campus want to develop new ways and approaches to strengthen our campus.”
Trying to make everyone feel comfortable and accommodated, everyone was mandated to follow “Respectful Dialogue Guidelines” during discussions. The guidelines were created to foster a respectful and collaborative conference experience, including avoiding making generalizations and respecting confidentiality.
“It’s really through talking and dialogue when we get to see things from different lenses and get to really learn about each other,” Chambers said.
During the conference overview, she encouraged students to be authentic and share their experiences and successes. “Get ready to get ignited!” she said.
The first guest speaker at the conference was Rick Gatteau, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, in which he shared a personal story of his. About six years ago, Gatteau traveled to China and he constantly had people taking pictures of him everywhere he went. Gatteau explained that it was the effect of not being in the majority.
“It was one of the first times of my life when I was not in the majority and it was challenging because it required me to adapt,” he said. “I realized that discomfort leads to growth and I gained consciousness on privilege.”
Gatteau emphasized that as a society, consciousness about microaggressions, stereotypes and bias must rise.
“I hope that through the conversations you’ll have today, you will experience an ‘aha’ moment,” he said. “Today is a chance to reflect, learn and become more self-aware and embrace our differences.”
The keynote speaker at the conference was Christina Vargas, Stony Brook alum and the chief diversity officer and Title IX coordinator at Suffolk County Community College. Vargas is responsible for developing and meeting initiatives related to diversity, equity and inclusion for faculty, staff and students at Suffolk.
During her speech, Vargas said that “people are like icebergs.”
“We all have a story and something to share, but it’s usually hidden beneath the surface,” she said.
While giving students background on her upbringing and time at SBU as a student, Vargas emphasized lessons she learned along the way.
She told students that things can change drastically in an instant, but they should continue to follow their strengths.
“You may have to change direction, but you’re still headed towards the same goal,” she said. “The university needs you because this work is ongoing and never done. Don’t give up.”
Vargas explained that part of the goal in building diversity and inclusion is to encourage students to authentically be themselves.
“I know that part of the reason why this conference exists is because Stony Brook University wants students to feel like a part of the community,” she said.
After the guest speakers, the conference was broken up into workshop blocks, where students could choose from a variety of workshops to participate in. “Recognizing Microaggressions and How to Respond,” “I Am More Than That,” “Students with Disabilities and the Impact of Inclusion on their Personal and Professional Lives,” “Intersectionality in Student Leadership” and “The Many Sides to a Story: Practicing and Advocating for Inclusiveness,” were subjects included in the first workshop block.
In “Recognizing Microaggressions and How to Respond,” presenters defined the different types of microaggressions: microassaults, microinsults and microinvalidations.
They compared them to mosquito bites.
“You can’t identify the source of the itch but you know it makes you feel uncomfortable,” Rayna Simon, administrative director of Undergraduate Student Government, said. “You can’t just get rid of it either, it needs to heal.”
They continued with the topic of biases and how there are implicit and explicit biases surrounding race, national origin, ethnicity, perceived sex, gender and sexual orientation.
In “I Am More Than That,” presenters from I AM THAT GIRL, an organization at SBU that works to help girls realize that their gender does not limit them, spoke about intersectionality, the theory that various identities overlap and contribute to systemic oppression and discrimination that an individual experiences.
They mainly focused on the “single story”’ narrative, in which a story is told based on a single account, not including other people who may be involved. In a discussion portion, attendees voiced their thoughts on the danger of a single story and how it can occasionally lead to a critical misunderstanding. They also talked about what intersectionality means to them and what labels intersect in their identity.
“To me intersectionality means meeting peers needs no matter what the differences are,” Chelsea Villalba, a senior social welfare major, said. “It’s respecting that everyone is different and no two people are alike.”
In “Students with Disabilities and the Impact of Inclusion on their Personal and Professional Lives,” Carolyn Jankowski, assistant dean of the School of Professional Development, provided student leaders with a deeper understanding of the goals and hopes that a student with disabilities might have for their college experience.
“My goal is to help students find ways to be more inclusive because I think that people are more afraid of the unknown, so they don’t approach a person with a disability,” she said. “They need to be more understanding that a person with a disability is still a person.”
In “Intersectionality in Student Leadership,” students had more of a one-on-one conversation where they learned how student leaders can benefit from the framework of intersectionality, and cultivate communities and relationships between multiple and overlapping identities.
One exercise had participants make a list of their different identities, ranging from religion to skin color.
“These are the things that make us who we are and without these points, I wouldn’t be who I am today,” Virja Shah, a freshman biology and psychology major, said.
In “The Many Sides to a Story: Practicing and Advocating for Inclusiveness,” Aaradhana Natarajan, a member of the Asian-American E-Zine, presented strategies for fostering discussion around diversity and increasing inclusiveness in both promotional and advertising outlets.
“I liked learning about the resources and it was interesting to learn what is out there for us on campus in terms of diversity and inclusion,” Vanessa Alulima, a senior biology major, said.
Between workshop blocks, a lunch buffet featuring multi-ethnic dining options was offered to attendees.
“We will be talking about diversity all day, so we had to have multi-ethnic food,” Chambers said.
The second workshop block included topics such as “Healthy Activism: How to Ignite the Spark without Burning Out,” “Metaphors and Activities as Teaching Tools,” “Fact or Fiction: Common Misconceptions of Different Identities,” “Who Would You Save?” and “Career Competencies: Mastering the Skills Employers Want.”
In “Healthy Activism: How to Ignite the Spark without Burning Out,” Cassius Connor, an event coordinator for the College Democrats, spoke about the burnout that students face when they take on too much, specifically when they take on too many projects to benefit others.
“When a fire gets sparked up within me, the struggle is how to keep that going,” Evelyn Lopez-Rodriguez, a junior social welfare major, said.
The workshop also touched on how frustration and euphoria are the first signs of burnout.
In “Metaphors and Activities as Teaching Tools,” students had a round table discussion where they were able to share metaphors, activities and educational opportunities related to topics on diversity and social justice.
Robert Drago, an area coordinator for the Division of Campus Residences, explained how wind can be a metaphor for privilege — both are invisible and can push someone either forwards or backwards.
“I love this manner of speaking because it gives me language that makes a point without attacking,” Kara Wissing, a junior social welfare major, said. “You can’t hear a metaphor and not take it into consideration.”
In “Fact or Fiction: Common Misconceptions of Different Identities,” students discussed different beliefs or assumptions about various groups of people and whether they perceive them as true or false.
Misconceptions discussed included “gay men are effeminate, loud and promiscuous” and “elderly people are incompetent, physically weak and slow.”
During a speech at the beginning of the workshop, Sanaa Nadim, co-director of the Interfaith Center and chaplain of Muslim Student Association, told students that in order to create a society without racism, people need to start working together.
“Racism is an ailment and an ailment needs a cure. It takes the will of a people to hope and dream and work together to attain,” she said.
In “Who Would You Save?,” students shared their experiences with discrimination.
During this workshop, students also had an open discussion on “When They See Us” a Netflix miniseries that was inspired by the true Central Park Five case where five young black and Hispanic boys were found guilty and jailed for a crime they didn’t commit.
After the workshops, Dr. Jarvis Watson, interim chief diversity officer, gave his closing remarks.
“The world out there is all about dividing, but you guys were all about intersectionality today,” he said.
The most important thing for students to do is to leave a legacy behind that they know will benefit someone else, Watson said.