First-Year Students Learn Valuable Lessons during Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Workshop

By Lily Vining || Staff Writer

Photo Courtesy of EVERFI.

Ask students if it is important to promote diversity on college campuses, and the response will be overwhelmingly positive. However, ask the same students how to counteract implicit bias or develop cultural empathy and competency for a group that is radically different from their own, and the answer is less clear. This is where DEI training comes in.

On Wednesday, March 3rd, the Freshman Class Cabinet sponsored a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Training Program. The event featured Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Gretchel Hathaway, who joined the college this past fall in an effort to promote diversity education among students and faculty. Hathaway was joined by Maverick Irwin, president of the class, who helped to facilitate the presentation and discussions. The hosts walked participants through different scenarios to bring awareness to prejudice in everyday life and make them pause and reflect on their own unconscious biases. 

The presentation focused on topics like diversity and bias—terms that are frequently thrown around, yet few can define them precisely. Irwin emphasized that diversity is not limited to gender, religion, world views, ability, race, or a variety of other factors. He also acknowledged the intersectionality of identities as an essential part of promoting diversity and inclusion. On the topic of bias, Hathaway asked participants, “who holds implicit bias?” A wave of hesitant hands slowly rose on the Zoom meeting as students meekly recognized how ingrained beliefs influence their thoughts about others. After inviting students to take deep breaths, Hathaway introduced the next activity, where participants pictured their family dinner table and examined who had the most bias. “In terms of implicit bias,” answered Cabinet member Sarah Nicell, “we all have it.” The rest of the group largely agreed: though older generations often convey more explicit bias, the younger members of the family are not free from blame.

Another topic of the presentation was how to conquer cultural blindness and move towards competence and empathy. This addressed a seemingly inclusive comment that is, in reality, harmful: “I don’t see color.” However, saying this can be just as harmful as making explicitly racist remarks. By saying you do not see color, you are not respecting someone’s culture and racial identity. “My race is real,” Hathaway emphasized in response to this microaggression. She pushed students to work towards cultural empathy, respect for other cultures, and cultural competency, the willingness to learn more about groups they do not belong to. 

One essential, yet usually difficult, task that the workshop encouraged for students was addressing and mitigating their own unconscious biases. First, each person must recognize that they carry this bias, one that they likely learned early from their family, the media, or other social institutions. They must “use a flashlight” and look closely at this bias, then practice “constructive” uncertainty by questioning why they think this way and what purpose it serves. The presenters acknowledge that this will cause one to feel awkward and uncomfortable, but this is part of the process. After this step, it is time to engage with people you consider “others” and actively seek out role models who crush previous stereotypes. College is the perfect time to gain exposure to other cultures by exploring different classes, events, and clubs. While breaking down these biases is challenging work, college allows students to broaden their perspective while engaging in fun activities and events.

Irwin expressed his desire to make the campus climate more welcoming and inclusive, which can only be made possible if students consciously work to counteract their negative biases. “We all have a duty to attempt understanding through these difficult conversations,” remarked the class president. He also stated his commitment to having more DEI workshops in the future and hopefully making the training mandatory for all students. Education in diversity, equity, and inclusion is especially important for college students and young professionals since many have been exposed to a broad range of perspectives, people, and cultures for the first time. 

Instead of just advocating for more respectful and accepting climates on campus and in the workforce, we must put in the difficult work of acknowledging and combatting our personal biases and those in our community. Only once we incorporate all aspects of DEI will we be able to become more culturally competent and empathetic. In Gretchel Hathaway’s words, “diversity without equity and inclusion is just decoration.”

First-year Lily Vining is a Staff Writer. Her email is lvining@fandm.edu.

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