The SUNY New Paltz community came together on Wednesday, Feb. 11 as part of a “Town Hall” forum to share personal stories and discuss inclusion on our college campus.
The names of students, faculty and staff mentioned in this story have been withheld, due to the open-forum nature of the event. These personal anecdotes brought to light instances of micro-aggression, insult, dismissal and other sensitive topics surrounding inclusion.
SUNY New Paltz President Donald P. Christian opened the discussion addressing the audience with the purpose of countering ‘otherization’ and shrinking social distances among members of the New Paltz community.
“Our campus community cannot correct the ills of American society, but we can work to make our campus more inclusive, more equitable,” Christian said. “We have learned that having conversations solely in response or reaction to hateful acts or racist incidents is insufficient. These are conversations that need to happen at all levels of the institution.”
Joining Christian was Dr. Steven Jones, a nationally-recognized moderator who specializes in diversity. Jones prompted conversation about inclusion shortcomings on the campus, as well as its strong points.
First, Jones led the audience in a visual exercise, where he highlighted the importance of perception among issues of inclusion.
“Prepare yourself to hear other people’s perceptions,” Jones said. “Prepare yourself to not have your experience play criteria for whether someone else’s perceptions are valid or not.”
Jones made it clear that the meeting could serve as a judgement-free zone where students could share their own personal memoirs and thoughts freely. The discussion ensued first by a student-faculty panel, where members passed the microphone around to cover topics such as socioeconomic issues, racial discrimination, and both physical and non-physical disabilities.
Students, staff and faculty on the panel each had different backgrounds, varying everywhere from race and social status, helping to provide a representation for all sides of inclusion.
One strong point mentioned by several panelists was the attempt to make the faculty more diverse.
While the faculty may be seeing increased diversity, some students are feeling as though they are not welcomed on the campus and as a result, feel isolated, a faculty member said. A former student-turned faculty member mentioned that black solidarity is an important cause for students of color.
“When I went to school on this campus, the amount of black students on-campus amounted to twice as much. That is a great concern for many reasons,” he said. “We need to do a better job for creating opportunities for black students. You can’t have an increase of one at the expense of another.”
Another student panelist described her situation of physical appearance and how something so minor such as changing her hair for a day harbored an overwhelming amount of response about it. Naturally having curly hair, she finds that others will make comments or ask the reason why she flipped her look.
“When that happens it is the biggest news in the world,” she said. “To me it is just my normal life [but] things like that where people just comment on your appearance or things that are just a natural part of you, that hurts and I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain to anyone.”
Students that come from various socioeconomic backgrounds shared their struggles of not being able to afford and keep up with the financial burdens that college brings. In the case of one student, she has faced the battle of having expenses that faculty and administrators assume she could afford right when asked for.
“I can’t get $50 by tomorrow,” she said. “When you go and tell them that you can’t afford it, you get penalized and have to pay a late fee,” she said. “It is basically penalizing us for not being able to afford it. Me wanting to graduate on time is being jeopardized because of my family’s socioeconomic background. I work two jobs and I still can’t afford it.”
Some faculty spoke positively about the community identifying problems and crises. Making solutions for everyday lives and not just the lives of those who are being affected, but the campus community as a whole, for administration to faculty and staff to students needs to be done, a faculty member said.
“If it is affecting many groups in our community, it should be affecting us all,” he said. “When it comes to inclusion, if it is not an entire campus-wide change, odds are it is not going to improve.”
Another faculty speaker, one who described himself as a “straight-white male,” said he has never experienced discrimination in his lifetime, but can listen and observe to make sense of what that feels like and help students.
Some students feel that they are often looked to as representatives of minorities as a whole in the classroom — a notion that is impossible to fulfill, they said. The microphone was then passed to audience members in attendance to share their experiences. One mentioned concerns over the funding of the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) program.
Christian stood up and responded by saying many in the community are aware that New Paltz submitted a proposal for some SUNY funding through the “performance funding program” and specifically saw the funding increase in the EOP program by 100 students over a four-year period. He said EOP is successful for minority students because of the dedicated work of the advisors in the program and wants to increase state funding that involves expanding space for those programs. They are still waiting for a response to that proposal, he said.
At the event’s close, a third-year student said despite the active conversation about the topic, they did not feel that there were any solutions put in place.
“I feel that we discussed problems and we talked about what we have done well and what we could do better, but we didn’t actually come up with anything that would progressively fix any of the issues,” the student said. “Regardless of the visual diversity, the verbal diversity needs to be increased. I feel like that was not discussed enough.”
Future plans for the raise in inclusion in the SUNY New Paltz community is a progression with a diversity and inclusion plan. The plan is to develop this 15 to 20 member committee that will include faculty, staff some students, people in key offices and faculty who have expertise in these areas, Christian said.
“Having that committee in charge of not just with thinking about these things, but also doing things,” he said. “And providing a structure in ongoing network to move these initiatives along. I am optimistic that we will be able to make some headways and progress.”
Jones said the likelihood of pragmatic approaches to affect the inclusionary atmosphere on campus is high.
“When I hear a diversity and inclusion plan and council, those are the right steps to build the infrastructure to make both present day and long-term change,” he said. “I see the commitment from the right people in the right positions.”