By Michael Rodriguez
Sonia Aranza loved the road. Born in the Philippines and later growing up in Hawaii, the roads were often too short for more than an hour. She had never experienced country road trips in the Carolinas.
Traveling with her college friends allowed her to experience a road trip like that for the first time, and one of her favorite parts was stopping on the drive to have lunch and enjoy the countryside. However, she recognized that her one friend was physically uncomfortable with the idea. Aranza questioned why her friend was not enjoying herself, especially since she had experienced road trips and “car picnics” before.
Her friend explained that she had grown to hate them.
She learned that the reason they had picnics so often was because all the restaurants barred her family –– no blacks allowed.
“We never see the world as it is,” Aranza said. “Only as we are.”
Students and faculty gathered in the Brower Student Center on April 10 at 9 a.m. to celebrate the second annual Diversity Summit to celebrate inclusivity and diversity at the College.
The College has seen a major cultural shift in the last six months, with more students raising concerns about discrimination and bias that occurred both on and off campus.
The summit included guest speakers, open discussions about the College’s ongoing issues and a speech from College President Kathryn Foster.
Foster discussed the need for emotional transparency within the College community.
“We need be honest with ourselves and with each other,” Foster said. “We can’t pretend that we have it right yet, and we won’t.”
Ever since the racially-charged incidents last semester, the College has made an effort to establish an inclusive community for students.
Foster and Ivonne Cruz, the interim vice president for the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, discussed their efforts to provide the community with the resources it needs. Their work alongside the Anti-Violence Initiative and Counseling and Psychological Services has led to the formation of a Bias Response Team, which helps gather data to better tackle microaggressions and larger issues of discrimination. They also discussed the Diversity Education series, which are scheduled events with speakers who address various issues of student inclusion and interaction within the community.
“The College has never created an office like this before,” Foster said. “But we can learn from not only our findings but also from the attitudes of those around us.”
Despite their progress, many attendees still felt that the College has not done enough to warrant praise. Various students and faculty members brought up concerns about discrimination in housing, uncited disrespect from professors and how the lack of policy enforcement.
Foster appreciated their urgency, but recognized the detriment of time.
The event then shifted to a guest speaker who would reinforce that conversation. Aranza, a Global Diversity and Inclusion strategist, captured the attendees’ interest with her personal story about the need to create understanding between all people. She was ecstatic upon hearing about the College’s efforts to nurture such a community.
Born in the Philippines and having immigrated to the U.S. when she was a child, Aranza grew up in Hawaii, where she learned English by interacting with her fellow classmates and by taking trips to other states.
After studying communications at the University of Hawaii, Sonia worked in Congress as a secretary to a few statesmen where she met and worked with new people every day. She became more aware of the distance between statesmen and the people they represent. Sonia was uncomfortable with this thought, although she understood that it is easier for people to be left behind when the few govern the many.
The more she spoke with people, the more disillusioned she became and quietly resigned from her position.
She realized that simply listening was not enough for her. It was in that moment that Aranza took on the goal of fostering cross-culture connections.
“You have to be willing to step into uncertainty and unknowns to discover if anything else is out (there),” Aranza said. “Otherwise you are aspiring to mediocrity.”
Aranza continued to encourage relationship-building between people. She gave numerous examples about the importance of inclusion, connection and understanding the differences between individuals. She believes that by understanding these concepts, people can connect better with others as well as themselves.
In many ways, Aranza feels that empathy is best way to create diversity and inclusion. She expressed the importance of “an agile mind and an open heart,” which allow people to better empathize and connect with each other, an important lesson she learned from her friend on their road trip.
“Sympathy is often the best people can do,” she said. “Empathy is the bridge. You don’t have to be ‘one of’ in order to stand with.”
Those in attendance were captivated by Aranza’s words. Even the attendees who had doubts about the College’s efforts were comforted by her presentation.
After Aranza’s presentation, 12 smaller seminars were hosted. The attendees were encouraged to attend multiple sessions in order to gain as much information as possible.
Some seminars discussed the LGBTQ+ community, while others focused on how to engage global and local communities. The turnouts to these smaller seminars were high, with many rooms almost filled to full capacity and some needing to find extra seats.
Babayemi Aiyegbo, a licensed clinical social worker, a recent addition to CAPS and a coordinator of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives, gave a presentation on understanding the cultural responses of mental health.
In his presentation, Aiyegbo primarily explored how differences in skin color or sexuality were inconsequential to mental health. He highlighted how individuals can undergo similar trauma despite differing cultures.
Aiyegbo hopes to encourage an environment where all students are able to speak of their trauma without feeling ashamed.
“It’s about creating a more comfortable setting for those who struggle, so that they an come to us and we can go to them,” he said.
As a result of the Diversity Summit many students and faculty members left feeling satisfied. Everyone enjoyed themselves and absorbed what they had learned.
“What I learned today is that we have not yet found the right mechanisms for students’ voices to be heard,” Foster said. “We heard that, and now we need to work hard as a community to change that.”