October 20, 2013

BHOWMICK: Diversity and Inclusion at Cornell: Wishful Thinking?

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In the past decade, Cornell University has been all about expanding its horizons to make room for talented individuals from every corner of the world. The statistics boast of ever-increasing variance within the Cornell demography. It is absolutely possible that when you’re sitting in class, there are students from at least three different continents in your row. The collective efforts of President Skorton’s diversity initiative, the admissions offices, the Student Assembly and the enormous conglomerate of student organizations on campus have created diversity in letter. But, does it actually exist on a more tangible level? Does the average Cornellian care to push the boundaries of his or her comfort zone to be conscious of diversity on a daily basis?

I believe that Cornell’s vast diversity can be a veritable truth only when every member of our community is sensitized enough to bother with inclusion on a more personal level. I am well aware of the preconceived notion that an American student would rather not intervene in a social circle of say, international Chinese or Indian students, because they would probably end up feeling left out. So, why bother?

But, the truth is, when international students lose strength in numbers and are thrown into an idiosyncratic American setting, they feel overwhelmed, or even intimidated. For instance, when there are student-run elections on campus, an international student will always be more hesitant to enter the race than any other candidate for reasons which may or may not grounded in reality.

It is also true that in order to blend in when home is literally seven seas away, you absolutely have to be outgoing and exuberant. If you’re an introvert and international, college will be rough waters for you. I am among those outgoing international students who have tried to test the waters on the other side. As a result, I am often left feeling stuck on the fence between two communities, belonging nowhere in entirety. I’m not saying I am unhappy or discriminated against, but my identity as an international student is definitely forced to keep going back and forth because my two worlds do not merge on campus.

Stereotypes have always existed and always will, but my concern is eliminating vulnerability among international students. College should be a great experience for every person irrespective of who they are or where they’re from and whether or not they are inherently sociable people. We will not need multiple resources exclusively for depressed international students if every person at Cornell were a little more sensitive to the fact that the person sitting next to them in class is probably a gazillion miles away from home and still gets startled by the array of options at Starbucks. Just saying ‘Hi’ or giving a smile is not awkward.

Moreover, here’s some incentive to actually go and talk to the kid with the funny accent in your class: In a few years, life will in all likelihood be monotonous, and people will be angrier and more frustrated.  This may be the only time we can actively live and learn through the diversity in our classrooms.

Diversity is a resource and I believe students at Cornell could make better use of it. Trust me, 20 years down the line, when you boast about how your friend from college is the new Prime Minister of Burkina Faso, your kids will think you were way cool at college. One way to invoke the current blandly indifferent status quo could be to send every person at Cornell off to study abroad, but since that is technically impossible, we can at least start with conversation and get to know people — people who have not had the exact same life as yours. This goes both ways. As international students, we brag about being third culture kids and global citizens, but how many of us actually are any of those things? Bottomline: Homogeneity is boring. Embrace diversity everyday.