Experiencing diversity first-hand and learning from others with differing backgrounds were the topics at hand for the Feb. 6 diversity town-hall forum hosted by Wanda Mitchell.
Mitchell was hired on Sept. 9 as the university’s first vice president of diversity and equity. She said that in her five months at the university, she’s seen that diversity is a big part of the student body, but it can be further improved to accommodate more collaboration within the institution.
“I came here because of the student population. A 40 percent ratio of ethnic diversity, 57 percent women at this institution, 85 percent of its students come from the state of Virginia. I think that says something,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said she held the diversity forum to get student input on how diversity can be more widely promoted at VCU.
“Just because you’re a diverse institution — racially and ethnically diverse, or you look diverse in other things such as sexual orientation, gender, nationality, religion — doesn’t mean you’re a really affirming, welcoming or inclusive university,” she said.
The majority of students in attendance were freshmen. Some of the feedback Mitchell received was to offer first-hand education in diversity.
“I’d like to learn about different cultures, and not just from a textbook experience, but from a first-hand,” said Ronston Jackman, a freshman psychology major.
Freshman business major Zhina Kamali said that she thought culture was something students experience in life, not in the classroom.
“The way I see it, diversity isn’t necessarily something that you can learn, it’s more of something that you live. When I step out of my dorm and walk to the Commons, I feel the diversity just walking on the street,” Kamali said. “I feel that I live it just by talking to someone new and talking to them.”
Although students thought that experiencing culture would make VCU a better place, one of the main issues that was discussed was how students could collaborate with other students from different backgrounds. Ideas for a “circle dinner,” was suggested by Camilla Hill, LGBTQ and women’s services graduate assistant in the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs.
“We’re inviting students from diverse backgrounds to sign up and they’re going to get randomly thrown into a group of people from a lot of different groups of our student groups,” Hill said. “Then we’ll send them to Shafer or Bleaker Street at a certain time and just ask them to have a meal together … we’re trying to involve social interactions.”
Another issue brought up at the meeting was how to accommodate non-traditional students and students who identify as LGBTQ. Mitchell and Hill noted at other universities across the nation, special housing was offered to those who identified themselves as LGBTQ. However, students thought this may cause more problems than solutions.
“I think it’s great to embrace diversity, but forcing diversity is something that we wouldn’t like to get into,” freshman Ibrahim Mahmood said.
With these suggestions in mind, Mitchell said that it will take time to implement these ideas into policy, but the school will start with the smaller problems and work their way up.
“(Students) indicated to me that there is so much about diversity that people don’t know that we need really intentional and strategic programming and education to make sure we educate our whole campus community, not just students,” Mitchell said.