University offices promote cultural curiosity among all students

Mason ranked 39th by U.S. News and World Report in most ethnic diverse national universities (Photo by John Irwin).
Mason ranked 39th by U.S. News and World Report in most ethnic diverse national universities (Photo by John Irwin).

Mason ranks in the top 50 most diverse schools in the nation in U.S. News and World Report's ratings. Mason received a 0.63 diversity score, in which closer to 1.0 means more diverse based on campus ethnic diversity, for 2012-2013. The diversity is evident by just walking around campus at peak hours; students and faculty of ethnic, socioeconomic, gender, sexuality and ideological differences are abundant.

"Between students' backgrounds, where they're from, whether it's geographical, regional or international students, graduate students, non-traditional, veteran students, I think that's really where a lot of diversity gets a lot of energy and continues to be a conversation on campus," said Joya Crear, associate dean of University Life.

Crear believes that students' engagement with their niche group is where Mason's diversity gets its energy.

"At Mason, I think diversity and a sense of belonging go hand-in-hand," Crear said. "So depending on where you find your niche or your niches, we could call that community. So I think a lot of students and faculty and staff find their communities here."

Diversity, however, is not always clear-cut. It is difficult to define because of the complexity of the word and the large amount of possible varieties it can encompass,

"I think about diversity as everything people bring to the table," Crear said on the difficulty of defining diversity. "In terms of the various identities they have the roles they play in their life, they things that they feel they have an affinity to, whether that is a hobby, an interest, neighborhood community, spiritual life."

But is everyone going to the same table-- or their own?

Crear believes that people go where they feel most comfortable, not out of bias, but because it is natural to gravitate towards similarities.

"That's everywhere. It's a phenomenon. You know and I think it's an acknowledgement of ‘I need to be able to connect with people who look like me or with whom I share some identity,’" said Marquita Chamblee, director of the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Multicultural Education.

When she was being interviewed for her position at ODIME, Chamblee asked students if the diverse groups mix and found out that they do not.

"I got interesting responses but the bottom line was well we kind of don't really," Chamblee said. "And what I hear from other colleagues at University Life offices, students express, white students, all, a lot of students, express, I came to Mason for the diversity and then I leave and I don't feel like I've benefitted from that."

Starting the conversation

"Within and Across" is the general theme for multicultural events this year, including September's Hispanic Heritage Month. "Within" highlights the internal topics, the “stuff” that a cultural group discusses.

"You'll see it in a lot of what we're starting to do because it acknowledges that we need to have within group conversations. African, African heritage students, we have our stuff," Chamblee said.

With "across," ODIME plans to break the barriers and get many different diverse groups to come together and talk about issues in the Mason community. It will follow the structure of the "State of Black Mason Conversation Café" that was held last year but will include students and faculty who do not usually find themselves talking about diversity issues with people who are not in their own niche.

"It's a real intentional effort to put different people at the table, and that includes white students," Chamblee said.

Another effort to embrace diversity at Mason is “The Blueprint Project: A Design of Inclusion.” This past summer, a group of freshman applied and were chosen to participate in the two-day project in which they were exposed to the diversity at Mason and developed skills to engage in the diverse university.

"It challenges, when  you start having those conversations that you really want to have, but you want to be politically correct, you want to be respectful, you're not sure how to ask the question," Crear said. "Our goal with The Blueprint program is for it to introduce those things to freshman early."

A place to voice an opinion about diversity is the Campus Climate Committee. It meets monthly to scope-out the feel of the university and to be sure that students and faculty are being respectful with their questions. It is made up of faculty and staff who then report to the Provost.

"We hold people accountable. We are trying to create a certain type of university here where not only are we are diverse, but we also want to have a climate that welcomes that diversity and that leverages that to our advantage," Crear said.

Exploring cultural curiosity

In every person, there is a natural curiosity about the unknown that often does not get fulfilled because students no longer have a kindergartner's mentality of just going and doing it, according to Crear.

"When I think about kindergartners, if I turn on music with kindergartners and said, just dance around for the next five minutes, we're just going to shake it all out. They'd be all over the place. They don't care what they look like, they don't care if they're jumping on people, they're not trying to do a dance," Crear said. "If I say that to freshman at Mason, everyone is like, she wants us to do what?"

According to Crear, students are often inhibited by their concern that what they are doing is not correct or appropriate.

"At some point, somewhere after kindergarten and first grade, we start internalizing what's the right way to do this and how I'm being foreseen and I can't say this and I can't say that," Crear said.

Not that there are not any rules to follow, but many come in the way of an enriching experience.

"I do think there are some rules that people do need to follow but at the same time I think when it comes to diversity we've almost gone a little bit too far in terms of okay, you don't have to be a certain way," Crear said.

But the rules to cross are those of cultural boundaries.

"I'm not Hispanic," said Crear, giving an example. "I can go to [Hispanic Student Association] meetings and hang out and sit there; I mean, they're going to be nice, they're going to be respectful, they're going to ask me questions, they're going to feed me, they're going to invite me to stuff. And kindergarteners just do that-- they just show up, they don't think about it. We go through a lot of drama trying to figure out how to even get in the door as opposed to just saying, I want to go in the door, I'm gonna go-- period."

Crear suggests to adopt a kindergartener's mentality and to just go for it.

"It will not be half as bad as the nightmare in your brain," Crear said.

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