by Josh Booth – Horizon News and Features Editor
For international students like Sophomore Redfa Titihalawa, attending college for the first time is not an easy transition. Culture shock, language barriers and homesickness, not to mention all of the other “firsts” faced by freshmen can cause one to feel excluded.
“The first time I came to the United States I had a sense of being alone,” said Titihalawa. “My English was not very developed. It made speaking with other people very difficult, and I felt disconnected from them. Eventually I overcame this and can now communicate with others easily.”
Issues like these are common on campuses across the United States, but in January of 2012, Hesston College decided to tackle this head on. The college hired two diversity consultants, Federico Zerger and Rosaura Cepeda of Vision Quest, Inc. For the next year, Zerger and Cepeda were in regular contact with designated team of Hesston faculty and staff members – the Inclusion and Diversity Leadership Team (IDLT) – helping them craft a campus initiative. They assisted the team as they developed goals for the campus, helped provide an organizational structure, and led diversity trainings for both faculty/staff and Residence Life.
Tony Brown, who works as an internal diversity consultant for the college, was a key figure behind the start of the Inclusion and Diversity Initiative. He’s known for a long time that Hesston needed to act.
“There are rapid demographic changes not only affecting our campus, but also the country as a whole,” said Brown. “Very soon the total population of ethnic minorities will outnumber the total population of those with European backgrounds. Our job is to educate the student body for the 21st century.”
And education was certainly needed. In March the consultants and the IDLT polled a group of faculty staff and students to assess the current and future state of diversity at Hesston College. Brown said the survey helped uncover a few concerns and opportunities, which were then used to create goals:
The existence of perceived “subordinate groups,” including those identifying with racial/ethnic backgrounds, those raised other than Mennonite, and non-traditional students
A lack of visible employee diversity
A desire to create true community (including opportunities in chapel and the dining hall)
An opportunity for education and understanding about diversity and inclusion among all students, faculty and staff
A desire to experience year-round diversity focused activities
Helping Hesston meet these goals and others is the Inclusion and Diversity Council (IDC). Sophomore Boni Garber is one of 12 student, staff and faculty members who form the council, which meets monthly.
“We, as the IDC, orient around our mission statement: becoming a more inclusive community,” said Garber.
The IDC strives for the inclusion of all types of minority groups, instead of trying to solve just one piece of the puzzle.
“While Inclusion and Diversity often sounds like it is more racially geared, the IDC also looks at the demographics of the student body in terms of gender, religion, environmental backgrounds, race, culture and other factors that contribute to diversity,” said Garber.
Inclusivity and diversity were key themes during August academic orientation, and the theme carried through into fall semester’s First Year Seminar classes. Playing the “Mennonite Game,” for instance, is one way students were told could make others feel left out in the cold. (The Mennonite Game is played by Mennonites establishing connections through last names, areas they are from, and the network of other Mennonites they know.)
Garber believes that one reason we struggle to be inclusive results from external influences.
“How people perceive others usually branches from the media,” Garber said. “Being inclusive and diverse does not mean simply looking at those things that the media tells us is important, but looking for what qualities makes a person who they are, even if it takes time to build that into our college community.”
The IDC has helped put some of their plans into action. They have added a segment into the Resident Assistant training, which includes being inclusive and how to handle diversity properly.
Brown believes students here have a great opportunity presented to them.
“Students should make effort to relate with different people. There are many different nationalities represented here on campus. Speaking to these students is an invaluable way of learning about different cultures.
Garber notes that it really is not difficult to be inclusive.
“Ask good questions, eat at a different lunch table, and make friends with people you normally would not,” she said. “The best thing is to try a little bit every day to do something you normally would not. Dare to be different.”
The student members of the IDC were sought out through recommendations by professors. If you have an interest in becoming a member or would like more information, contact Tony Brown (firstname.lastname@example.org).