Exploring where we’ve been

A look at Union College’s racial diversity through the decades

Nigel Sumerlin

In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American in major league baseball to break the color barrier. Wataru Misaka made NBA history when he played for the New York Knicks in 1947 as the first Japanese man to play. Sonia Sotomayor was appointed the first female Supreme Court Justice in 2009, and in 2008, Barack Obama was elected as the first African American President of the United States.

As a country founded on principles of freedom and equality, The United State’s track record has been bleak. Genocides, segregation and internment camps are just a few of the dark blots in our history. But in 2015 we are well on our way up the progressive slope towards becoming a nation who embraces diversity in every facet of American society, ranging from the workplace to the House of Representatives.

Yet the journey to diversity has been tedious. More than 200 years since our country’s birth we are far from being a country where all cultures and ethnicities feel safe to express themselves. The key to reaching the goal of diversity lies in education, where the minds of young Americans are more malleable and open to accepting ideas and experiences.

Working to create environments who accept students from diverse cultures and backgrounds not only creates safer schools to allow the enrichment that diversity brings, but also benefits students who are unfamiliar with other cultures.

“I don’t think a college education would be complete without some kind of [cognitive] dissonance going on, without some kind of searching and saying ‘okay, what are my values, versus what are mom and dad’s values?’” said Dr. Linda Becker, Vice President of Student Affairs at Union College.

In recent decades, Union College has made substantial progress towards becoming a campus that has achieved ethnic diversity among its students. In a US News index ranking universities and colleges across the country, Union has earned a place at the top of the list among colleges in the Midwest region.

Unfortunately, Union has not always had reason to boast. Kyle Berg, a senior Language Arts Education major at Union College, wrote the award winning essay last year “Racial Discrimination and Segregation at Union College from the 1930’s to the 1960’s,” revealing a shameful piece of history at Union. Administrators during this period had tainted mindsets from a dangerous era in which diversity was vilified rather than encouraged. Some of these appalling pieces of history included forcing African American students to sit in the last three rows in the Rees Hall chapel, only allowing African American students to sit with Caucasian students in the cafeteria after receiving an invitation, segregating dorms and discouraging interracial relationships as recently as the late 1960’s. Their policies of discrimination tore deep wounds into the college that have only recently begun to heal due to the diligent efforts of a new generation of progressive faculty, staff, and students.

Part of this process has included a letter of apology to Oscar, a member of our community whose father attended Union College during a period of segregation and hostility toward diversity. Dr. Mark Robison, who directed “Fifty Years Later,” was approached by this man after the performance of this play, which focused on the successes and failures of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Their conversation, along with Kyle Berg’s expository essay, inspired Humanities Professor Chris Blake to write an apology letter to the alumnus in collaboration with Union College students J-Fiah Reeves, Stefani Leeper, Josh Ayala and Sean Hendrix on behalf of Union College for the discrimination he endured at Union College﹘a college that claimed to represent Jesus Christ.

Although Union College has made significant progress towards making our school safe for diversity, the work isn’t over. A project as important as this is never finished as long as there are people who are tempted to elevate some humans above others. Healing has begun for the wounds of the past, but it isn’t enough; we also need vigilance for the future. We, like the students who wrote the apology letter, must take the initiative to avoid complacency. It’s up to us to welcome and encourage diversity on our campus.

Nigel is a freshman pursuing a double major in history and psychology.

Celebrating where we’re going

It takes everyone to create change

Emy Wood

With today’s technology, it’s easier than ever to immerse yourself in other cultures. You can learn another language at the click of a mouse or experience world cuisine any day of the week.  In 24 hours, you could be on a plane to a sandy beach located at the other end of the world.

Right now though, you’re not on a sandy beach in Turkey, immersing yourself in another culture.

Instead, you’re in college, where it’s expected that you “broaden your horizons,” “grow your world view” and “become a diverse and well-rounded student.” The need for all of this? To prepare you to compete in the business world.

“Study after study shows that diversity in the business world unlocks innovation and drives market growth,” claims Huffington Post in the article “Diversity is America’s 21st Century Strength.”

It should come as no surprise then to say we’ve reached the point of being a global community, where the need for diversity is stronger than ever.

“Nowhere is the growing acceptance and practice of multiracial relationships more common than on college campuses,” shares Aja Frost in her USA Today article, “Today’s College Students See No Problem With Multiracial Relationships.”

However, as Nigel Sumerlin mentions in his article, it wasn’t always this way. Even for Union, the need to accept others and expand worldviews was foreign not long ago.

Now, as we move forward in the 21st century and work to put our sheltered past behind us, the expansion of diversity is directly ahead. Still, we run the risk of being far from being a place where all ethnicities feel safe. To keep Union at its lead of being diverse, we as the students have to remember our past and where we came from to continually work forward in expanding our ideas.

While it may sound simple, perhaps a three course model to taking action would be: recognize, educate, celebrate.

Administrators already recognize the need for a diverse campus. Recruiters gather students from across the world. Our financial department offers more scholarships than any other Adventist college and a multiracial committee is being established to examine areas where bias may exist on campus.

Now, we, as the students, need to be at the frontlines of harnessing the power in variety on campus by being involved. Participation is the key to any change, and in the area of diversity, it’s the only relevant “solution.”

“The one enemy of diversity is not recognizing it,” said Ricky Amimo, a junior health sciences major from Kenya.

He points out a critical factor of potentially losing your culture while trying to blend with society. Of course, that’s a normal part of wanting to “fit in,” but its something of which we should be aware.

“When you think about diversity, you need to have something to compare it to,” said Amimo.  “You just can’t have a monotonous of uniform community. You need variety.”

But why such a need for variety? US News claims,“Learning from people whose backgrounds and experiences differ from your own sharpens your self-knowledge and self-insight by allowing you to compare and contrast your life experiences with others whose life experiences differ sharply from your own. By being more self-aware, you are more capable of making informed decisions about your academic and professional future,” claims US News.

Essentially, the goal is to expand our viewpoints beyond what we think we already know.

Luckily, we can have this variety by consciously doing more than just celebrating cultures, but making them a part of our lives. Attending events, expanding our social circles, traveling or eating foods we don’t know the names of are just a few examples.

Luckily, we have the chance to do all of this right now, in college. The challenge is just to take advantage of these opportunities.

“We come into the world with our parents’ biases. We tend to grow up with a set of values, perspectives, and tastes that we think everybody has until we start to broaden our perspectives. There’s value to looking from a different viewpoint,” said Dr. Linda Becker, vice president of Student Services at Union College. “The broader our understanding of what different perspectives are, the better we are able to value who we are and respect the other person, which is a huge gift of education.”

Don’t think that this broadened perspective will come as a part of our education without any action on our part as the student. The Mr. and Mrs. World Pageant wouldn’t be possible without participating countries. The reconciliation apology letter, as Nigel spoke of in his article, wouldn’t have been possible without four students’ initiative to take a stance.

The Adventist Colleges Abroad program wouldn’t exist without the desire to experience other cultures. Even classes such as COMM 425 Intercultural Communication would lose its emphasis if students weren’t willing to contribute towards the conversations.

The bottom line? Diversity takes action and the action needs to come from those who seek to experience the most from the diversity—us, the students; the minds who mold society.

We live in a society that, while diverse, will still pressure us into conforming. The moment we stop seeking opportunities to continually celebrate our differences is the moment our progress comes to a standstill.

Celebrate who you are, and celebrate who others are. Together. If you have an idea for celebrating your diversity on campus, share it. That’s how we move forward. Whether it’s through speaking at a V2 about your cultural background or giving a testimony, let your voice be heard.

Don’t settle for OK and we’ll continue being the diverse campus known as Union College. We may unite, but we are anything but uniform. After all, with 886 students and 29 countries represented, there’s plenty of diversity on campus.

Emy is a sophomore studying communication.