April 10, 2016

BHOWMICK | Fitting In

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Before spring break, I had a compelling dialogue about diversity at Cornell with trustees and Cornell alumni. It was almost a then-and-now assessment of how far Cornell has come with respect to diversity and inclusion. It had never occurred to me that there is so much value in looking at an intergenerational perspective on challenging issues. It helps those who are interested and invested understand how far we have come as a community. The dialogue was unequivocally thought-provoking considering it survived my Spring Break-induced amnesia and that I am still thinking about it.

To give some context, this was a Breaking Bread event organized by the Center for Intercultural Dialogue. The event brought together students, trustees and administrators to compare their experiences with diversity at Cornell across an intergenerational landscape, over dinner. I think one incredible aspect of Breaking Bread that makes it successful is that we actually sit down and have dinner together. More importantly, we sit down and have dinner with people we would not normally be interacting with and we have conversations that don’t take place very often. A classic Breaking Bread example would be bringing together organizations as seemingly distinct like say, the Black Students Union and C.U. Hillel for a Cornbread and Challah themed dinner wherein some very meaningful conversation would ensue. The reason it works so well is because it taps at something Cornell has not leveraged enough — the potential of alliances.

At Cornell, we have impressive statistics describing diversity and inclusion. We are making impressive strides through initiatives like Global Cornell. We have organizations and safe havens for almost every interest group and committed teams brainstorming on more resources the community needs. We have numerous multicultural organizations and various efforts by student organizations towards diversity and inclusion. As a result, we have various pockets of wonderful work happening on campus but not so much work across them.

A stark reminder of how we can go so much further in terms of alliances is the fact that even today, at Cornell, it is not impossible to spend four years untouched and unchanged by the potential of diversity. For instance, it is not unlikely to think of a freshman from a predominantly, white suburban town, who joins a fraternity or sorority in their freshman spring, and spends four years socializing within a bubble that is predominantly white, upper middle-class and heterosexual. On the other hand, it is very possible for four international students from Guangzhou to spend four years at Cornell going to classes and coming home to an apartment where everyone speaks Cantonese, which is a bubble in itself. There are niche areas created for students from most social identities. However, informal institutions and norms prevent students from going beyond these niche areas.

Despite all of the reports and panels on diversity and inclusion, it is still the norm that Greek Life is a way of life which is by default associated with a certain set of social identities — white, relatively well-off and heterosexual. This may sound like a blanket statement, but if one does not fit into these default identities and tries to be a part of the college “mainstream,” some adjustments need to be made that are currently glossed over. Fitting into some organizations call for Cornell’s version of “model minority” behavior. For instance, if I am a low-income, racial minority student and I join a sorority, it will strain my relationships with groups related to some aspects of my social identity and may force me to make difficult choices at some point. These are challenging issues that are products of norms and larger historical experiences. However, the only way to change norms is through formal institutions.

One way to challenge norms associated with certain aspects of campus life would be to make intercultural experiences an integral part of our curriculum. Making the Intergroup Dialogue Project a diversity requirement option for CALS is one idea that works. I make this point because it would be rather sad if 20 years later, a Cornell student ruminates about her freshman year roommate from Indonesia and realizes she never really interacted with her. This could perhaps be because she did not know what to say to her or how to relate. This fear that stems from assumptions results in so many lost opportunities. This fear can be challenged through a dedicated attempt to prioritize intercultural maturity as an aspect of the Cornell education and experience. It is something the students will thank the University for as they reflect on how Cornell brought the world to them meaningfully on a very personal level. It is something that I treasure the most about my time at Cornell, but I am aware that I am fortunate that I had the opportunity to build alliances and relationships across differences. I am also aware that these opportunities are not a given for every student at Cornell unless we shift emphasis from creating more safe havens to interactions across them.

Aditi Bhowmick is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Abstruse Musings appears alternate Mondays this semester. She may be reached at ab738@cornell.edu.