Listen, We Need to Talk: Students Open Up About Diversity Concerns

By Becca Andrews, News Staff Writer

randrews1@unca.edu

9/10/2015

This past Thursday, new steps were made in the conversation about diversity on campus.

Starting the Conversation, an hour-long event in the Laurel Forum hosted by the Diversity Action Council, included a panel of eight students who shared their personal experiences. Then the rest of the hour was opened to discussion with the people in attendance.

Anne Jansen, an assistant professor in literature and language, kicked off the event by briefly describing the goals of the event.

“We are here to sort of start the conversation about diversity this academic year. This is part of a series with different events geared towards different audiences. We wanted to invite students, faculty and staff and administrators,” Jansen said. “We thought it was important to start with student voices — that’s what we’re all about here at UNC Asheville.”

Set up in the back of the room was the Post-it Project, a place where everyone could write down microaggressions they had experienced on Post-it notes and display them on a poster, Jansen said. Microaggressions are instances of brief discrimination, whether or not it is intentional. They can be verbal, behavioral or environmental, and communicate hostile, derogatory or negative ideas that a person does not belong or is not invited.

“We believe acknowledgment is a first step toward change,” Jansen said, “and so we will use these to help us see what all your experiences are.”

The student panel then took the floor providing many different perspectives. Some, however, expressed similar experiences upon coming to Asheville. Devyn Smith, an enrolled member of the Eastern band of Cherokee Indians spoke on the shock of being in the smallest minority.

“I knew going out of Cherokee that I would be a minority pretty much everywhere I go. I probably didn’t realize until I got here how small that minority actually is,” said Smith, a sophomore political science student. “I think the last statistic I looked up, we make up less than half a percent of the total population here. It’s extremely small.”

Amina Kone, another student panelist and junior at UNCA, said she experienced a similar culture shock. She moved to Asheville from Columbus, Ohio, which is far more diverse,  Kone said. She cited a specific incident that made her feel isolated.

“In my Humanities 214 class, when I was looking at the books we had to read, I saw Sundiata and I was really excited because I’m half Mali and it’s about an old Malian tale. Then there was one big lecture on all of Africa, and then we didn’t talk about it in class and he didn’t say anything about reading the book,” Kone said. “I identified with that story so well and then to not talk about it at all made me so upset. We did talk for twenty minutes about Africa but it was from the European perspective, it wasn’t from the Malian perspective. That was like, ‘Man, this wasn’t fair’.”

The panelists mentioned having experienced good with the bad. They listed Dahlia Hylton, Trey Adcock and Preston Keith as helpful influences.

Leslie Frempong, a senior political science student, said meeting people through the intercultural center helped her learn how to deal with microaggressions.

“When I learned about the term ‘microaggression,’ it definitely does build up. Meeting Dr. Hylton and meeting other people who understand the issue and learning how not to counterattack, but how to resolve it and talk about it without upsetting people,” Frempong said. “Because race is a touchy subject here on campus and it makes people uncomfortable. But it doesn’t mean being uncomfortable is a bad thing, it just means being outside of your comfort zone.”

Other students on the panel offered their unique stories. Christa Mullis, an autistic sophomore mass communication student from Indian Trail, talked about her experiences as a disabled student. Mullis said she had a journalism professor who told the class how to act while interviewing people. He told them to be personable, make proper facial expressions and eye contact, all things that are difficult for autistic people, Mullis said.

“It’s just sort of frustrating to hear those things. What was really hurtful for me in that class was he had this shorthand phrase to express that sort of behavior, he would say it a lot, ‘Basically remember to act like a human being,’” Mullis said. “But it’s not actually what defines human being. Everyone has different brains and different processing and learning and participating abilities.”

After the panelists had all spoken the floor was opened up to everyone in the room. The conversation immediately turned towards what the university was doing to promote diversity. Brittany Privott, an admissions counselor, addressed the question.

“Our job is to serve this institution, and our job in admissions is to be as inclusive as possible. I personally have been tasked with working with diversity and increasing diversity on this campus and I think one of the things that helps us most is dialogue,” Privott said. “You are more than welcome to come down to Brown and suggest anything. I mean, we’re open.”

The review process for admitting students has become more holistic, considering the whole student rather than just grades and test scores, Privott said. They also spend about 10 weeks visiting almost every high school in North Carolina with the Carolina Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers.

UNCA often loses students to larger universities like UNC Chapel Hill and NC State, which have more resources and scholarship dollars. But this year’s freshman class is the most diverse class the university has ever had, Privott said.

Pablo Best, a sophomore from Charlotte, said the reason students may not be coming here is because the city of Asheville is unwelcoming to people of color. Housing is expensive and public transit isn’t helpful, Best said, and it could keep students from wanting to start a life here.

Wesley Stevens, a trans student, spoke about how it can sometimes be dangerous to be visible.

“I usually dress in jeans and a T-shirt because when I don’t, I have been attacked repeatedly in Asheville. I had to quit my job because I was stabbed in the knee and I couldn’t stand up for that long. It’s really important for me, with the TSU on campus, everything’s anonymous. It’s a closed door process,” Stevens said. “You have to choose to be visible as a trans individual because it is dangerous. We have these protections in place and I have to say we are part of the Hyannis House through the intercultural center.”

Most of the students agreed that although progress had been made, there was still work to do. Belinda Grant, a senior biology student from Swannanoa, suggested a mandatory awareness course to teach tolerance and other values.

“There are always limitations in the world. There’s always someone who thinks you don’t deserve to be in this place or to have this job. It comes within yourself to not give up and to be like ‘Yes I’m black or Asian, or whatever, and I’m just as smart, just as capable, as this Caucasian person sitting next to me,’” Grant said. “Unfortunately, not everyone comes from the background or the families where that mentality is planted in them. They don’t grow up with that seed of self-confidence. It would be so beneficial to start planting seeds that way.”

Jansen mentioned many resources on campus such as student organizations, the Center for Diversity Education, 80 different diversity-intensive courses as well as the relatively-new Hyannis House, as progress that has been made in the past few years.

Similar events will be held throughout the year. Jansen and the Diversity Action Council will hold another discussion similar to Starting the Conversation, but centered around keywords, in January. Jansen said these events enable the community to hear and act on what people are saying, to move forward and produce positive change.

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