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September 21, 2006

   

Community Diversity Assistants Program
Aims to Spur Dialogue in Intimate Spaces

photo of Betsy Gauthier
Betsy Gauthier '07

Advocates of residential liberal-arts colleges have long argued that much of the learning that happens on college campuses goes on outside the classroom, in informal settings like dining halls and dorm rooms. Reasoning that the spaces of everyday living offer some of the best opportunities for students to learn from a diverse campus community, the Bryn Mawr Office of Intercultural Affairs has joined the Office of Residential Life to create a program that aims to foster discussion of diversity and difference in the residence halls. Eight Community Diversity Assistants, student workers who are assigned to dorms, are charged with raising awareness of diversity issues and helping their friends and neighbors talk about them.

"Students were telling me that there was a perception that the Multicultural Center was the only place where conversations about diversity were happening," says Dean of Intercultural Affairs Chris MacDonald-Dennis. "We wanted to find a way to spread these conversations throughout the campus."

The program was launched last January. Last semester's experience, MacDonald-Dennis says, has helped him clarify goals and strategies for the coming year. Three of last year's CDAs — Lucy Edwards '08, Betsy Gauthier '07 and Tiffany Shumate '08 — have returned to the program. New this year are Sarah Alibabaie '09, Sarah Mackin '07, Mariah Pepper '09, Mia Prensky '09 and Hannah Waterhouse '09. MacDonald-Dennis says that he hopes the program will eventually grow to include as many as 15 CDAs.

"The students have different roles," MacDonald-Dennis says. "For instance, one will focus on issues of religious diversity, one on politics, one on sexual identity, and one on the concept of privilege." Events organized by CDAs in the dorms are open to all students, MacDonald-Dennis says.

The students, who were selected through an application process that required an essay explaining their interest in the position, developed their own projects with the guidance of the Intercultural Affairs staff. They meet weekly with MacDonald-Dennis. One standing event the CDAs will organize is a Monday-evening, dorm-based continuation of the "diversity conversations" that take place at the Multicultural Center every other Friday at noon.

"This will give people who can't make it to the MCC at lunchtime on Friday a chance to participate and expand the conversation," explains Gauthier, a premed psychology major who co-facilitated the first evening conversation in Rhoads Hall last Monday. She hopes that the dorm-based conversations will pique the interest of students and draw a broader audience to the events at the MCC.

"I've always been interested in diversity issues," Gauthier says. As a first-year student, she attended the "Tri-Co," formally the Tri-College Summer Institute, a weeklong orientation sponsored by Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore Colleges for first-year students who are interested in exploring issues of multicultural identity and leadership, especially as they relate to race, class and gender. Later she helped lead Tri-Co workshops as a student resource program.

"I learned so much through Tri-Co," Gauthier says. "I used to think of diversity just in terms of race, but Tri-Co opened my eyes to lots of ways in which we're different and can learn from each other. After my experience with Tri-Co, I thought, 'I wish there were a way I could continue this work on campus!' And then the CDA program was created. I'm excited about being a CDA, and I hope the program will grow."

photo of Betsy Gauthier
Tiffany Shumate '08

Shumate, a psychology major with minors in education and Africana Studies, is another of the returning CDAs. In Haffner Hall, she will concentrate on privilege and how it operates both on campus and in the wider world. She plans to work with several other CDAs whose projects intersect with her own and to explore ways in which privilege can be used in service of social justice.

"As CDAs, it's our job to push the envelope, to give people a space to talk and spur them to do a little critical thinking," she says. "We keep a finger on the pulse of the community, both inside and outside the college. For instance, last year I posted articles about Hurricane Katrina around the dorm and encouraged people to talk about the issues of race and class privilege they raised.

"The CDA program also co-sponsored an event with Teach for America last year," Shumate continues. "We talked about access to education as a civil-rights issue, and it was a really good experience. People had a lot of questions, and I was able to point them to the MCC as a resource for investigating those issues."

I think people are often intimidated by talking about differences, and I want to let people know that we're available, and the MCC is available, to help them with these conversations. Don't be afraid to cross the campus and climb the hill to the MCC!" she advises.

Gauthier agrees. "We all tend to focus on getting our academic work done and being nice," she says. "I want to encourage people to get beyond 'niceness' and say what's really on their minds. And I'd feel honored to help people deal with tensions and conflicts that arise from differences.

"We can really grow from those experiences," she concludes. "They need to happen for learning to occur."

 

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