Students Seek to 'Engage Diversity' in Record Numbers
Aug. 13, 2015
BLOOMINGTON, Ill.— Associate Professor of Sociology Meghan Burke believes there may
be a correlation between the ongoing protests and unrest stemming from events in Ferguson
and Baltimore, and the record number of entering students who are enrolled in the
Engaging Diversity program she directs.
Engaging Diversity is a program for white, incoming first-year students at Illinois Wesleyan, set for
Aug. 15-17. This year the program welcomed 35 students, the largest number enrolled
since the program began five years ago.
In reading the students’ applications for the program, Burke said many mentioned recent
incidents with racial overtones. “They are impacted by the events in Ferguson, they
are curious about the racial-identity questions surrounding Rachel Dolezal, and as
white students, they want to understand racism,” said Burke.
The program seeks to build both confidence and competency around issues of diversity,
Burke said. “White students play an important role in creating a diverse campus climate.
Our goal is to help white students understand the challenges that domestic students
of color and international students face on a predominantly white campus. Ultimately,
we want to help first-year students become leaders and partners in campus diversity
Burke said pushing past the notion that the U.S. is now a color-blind society is a
part of the three-day program’s curriculum. “We do a lot of myth-busting about affirmative
action, for example,” said Burke. “Even though they come in excited about diversity,
we shake their worlds, gently, to help them see their own biases. When they become
aware of those, they can work with them more capably.”
A participant last year, Tyler Casebolt ’18 (Wauconda, Ill.) said a key aspect of
the program was the trust the participants placed in the program and each other. “We
could be comfortable saying a lot of things that we weren’t sure about, that we weren’t
sure how they would come across,” he said in a video explaining the program to incoming
students. “If I had to use one phrase [to describe Engaging Diversity], I would say
eye-opening, incredibly eye-opening. It gives…. an incredible amount of knowledge
about the differences we have and how to embrace those.”
Students involved in Engaging Diversity also join with incoming students participating
in International Student and MALANA (Multiracial, African-American, Latino-Hispanic, Asian-American and Native American)
pre-orientation programs. These programs are designed to assist new students in their
transition to Illinois Wesleyan and help students to establish networks among peers
and gain familiarity with support on campus. Each program has separate events, but
several joint activities – from luncheons to games to discussions about diversity
– help students build bonds of friendship early in their journey as Titans.
A study by Josi Banales ’14 evaluating the long-term impact of the program indicated
students who participated developed a more complex understanding of race, endorsed
fewer color-blind racial attitudes than they did before they completed the program,
and showed a more critical awareness of race. In her study, Banales interviewed several
students who said the Engaging Diversity program inspired them to participate in activities
that allowed them to continue their discussions and learning on racial issues.
Burke said anecdotal evidence also indicates Engaging Diversity participants go on
to become leaders on campus. Several have become very active in registered student
organizations; others show leadership by taking their interest in racial justice into
their major coursework. Other alumni started a registered student organization called
PRISM (People Reflecting Ideal Social Mindsets).
Burke points out that the Engaging Diversity program is just one among many facets
of an ongoing effort to develop and sustain a dynamic and diverse campus climate –
a major goal of the University’s most recent Strategic Plan. “We help white students
understand that diversity isn’t just something students of color or international
students bring to campus,” she said. “Every one of us plays an important role in genuinely
creating a diverse campus climate, and this program is a first step in helping students
be appreciative of that diversity and truly become partners in those efforts."