Voices of Diversity at Ohio State Newark
Newark, Ohio, December 27, 2016 - In autumn 2016, The Ohio State University at Newark enrolled 2,536 students. We come from 65 of the 88 counties in Ohio. One-third of us are the first in our families to attend college. One-third are eligible for federal Pell grants for low-income students. And one-third are students of color, making Newark the most diverse campus of The Ohio State University.
This kind of diversity has come under increasing fire around the nation. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that there were more than 700 incidents of hate-based harassment in the first two weeks after the election, with 40% of these occurring in educational settings. The Columbus campus has had its own share of harassment, hate speech, and painful attacks.
None of this has been the case on the Newark campus. In a forum called by the Office of Multicultural Affairs just before Thanksgiving to explore the campus atmosphere, students reported that they’d experienced no incidents of hate-speech or harassment, despite the fact that many, if not most, students (half of whom are in their first year of college) report that our campus is the most diverse place they have ever been.
Our English 4150 Cultures of Professional Writing class decided to interview some of these students to find out what diversity looks like from the inside out at Ohio State Newark. Here are the stories we found (some names have been changed to protect student privacy):
De’Quana is a sophomore and an aspiring travelling nurse. She describes herself as a young woman of African American and Jamaican descent. De’Quana has shared some of the challenges of growing up as a minority: “You never feel like you’re equal to other people with different skin color because of how you are labeled.” De’Quana is therefore proud to have accomplished so much in her life. For her, Ohio State Newark has always been an open and encouraging experience. She has never felt that the campus, or anyone on it, has treated her differently or deprived her of opportunities for success. The diversity at Newark campus is very important to De’Quana. Having been raised in private schools, she always felt cheated from experiencing a diverse environment: “High school in particular was the worst for me because I honestly hated it. I never felt welcomed, I never felt comfortable, and I never felt others really even thought about the other minorities that did attend there. So I knew when I was choosing my college, I wanted to be a part of everyone's background, not just a particular group.”
Lola is an African American student from Columbus, where she grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood. She said that she was introduced to white people when she moved later in her childhood, but that she was still surrounded by black people in her neighborhood. Though she lives with her sister and niece in Columbus, she still commutes to Newark for classes, where she is now a senior at Newark, proudly overcoming a childhood with an alcoholic, unsupportive parent. “Diversity is important,” she says, “because everyone is different and if you are only around one type of person you get to be a little closed-minded and could make yourself scared of it. Everyone should be around people of different cultures because it opens up your mind to the world.” It’s one of the reasons she works in a diverse department on the Newark campus. She feels that it is the campus’s diversity that is the reason that nothing racist has happened here.
Ann agrees. She is a junior majoring in history with a focus in women’s studies. As a lesbian of Afro-Asian descent, she says this campus feels like one of the most accepting communities she has been a part of so far in life. Her parents were not the most supportive of her sexuality at first and her schoolmates growing up were not very accepting of her race or her sexuality. On the Newark campus, she sees “a large variety of people who all seem to coexist together rather well. While they may not always ‘combine,’ they coexist and each leads their own lives in a peaceful and respectful way.” She says she has not experienced any “outright bullying” in her three years here, “just the occasional side-eye or judgmental look. No one has ever spoken or acted in any sort of hateful or hurtful way to me on campus.” Ann says that it’s refreshing to experience this compared to her middle and high school years, and she hopes that future students provide the same welcoming atmosphere to others as they have to her. Near the end of our interview, she looked around the busy cafeteria for a moment, then smiled and said, “I feel accepted and included here.”
Acceptance is important for all students, and the transition from small town life to a city the size of Columbus can be a big change for many young people. Amanda is from rural Ohio, and found that being in a small town for her entire life made adjusting to the idea of life in a big city difficult. “While I had the grades and ACT scores to go to the Columbus campus, I chose the Newark campus, not only because it was the closest to my hometown, but because it was marginally smaller. Every time I set foot in a big city, I would get nervous and it would completely stress me out.” Newark has an appeal to many others like Amanda. It allows for a more personal environment for their education that rural students may look for in their educational lives.
However, not everyone feels as comfortable with the local town. African-American and immigrant students in the recent campus forum spoke of being followed both in local stores and on the streets of Newark. They shared strategies of never going off-campus alone, texting each other when walking between homes, and so forth. Astur understands these feelings. She is an early/middle childhood education major. Originally from Somalia but raised in Columbus, her culture plays a large role in her life--one that she says also plays a role on the Newark campus because it is so diverse. “Diversity is important in our campus, and I am proud to be part of this community,” she says. “In our campus, you see students that come from different background cultures, so it’s easy to fit in.” However, those feelings don’t extend to the community outside of the campus. She tries to avoid getting gas in Newark because she feels uncomfortable getting out of her car at gas stations, for instance. She confesses, “Because I am a women of color and I wear a hijab, and because Newark is not diverse compared to Columbus, I am sometimes concerned.” She feels safe on the Newark campus, thanks to the diversity and open minds of the students within the campus community, but she wishes that acceptance could also extend to Newark as a whole.
Amanda emphasizes that the diversity of the campus helps all its students, black and white, urban and rural. Because she’s a white woman from from a small town, she’s encountered the assumption that she may be prejudiced against others for being different from her. But in fact, she especially appreciates the Newark campus because of an incident from her 7th grade year. “A girl entered into my class who is a woman of color, Hispanic. She was ill received. In fact, many of the students started the rumor that she wanted to kill them because she was different. I stood by her and fought against their prejudiced thoughts. She ended up serving in school suspension for something she did not even do. Even after the teachers stood up and tried to diffuse the situation, we--me, her, and one other friend--continued to be harassed and bullied. Many people called us lesbians, because why else would we try to protect our friends from the bullies?” That kind of harassment is refreshingly absent from the Newark campus.
Although the campus environment is welcoming, it is not perfect, and incidents that have occurred leave lasting pain. Three years ago, Eliana, an Orthodox Jewish woman studying foreign language education, faced difficulty her first semester in the dorms, a difficulty she had trouble discussing even years later. She wears a tichel, a kind of headscarf, and long-sleeved shirts and pants. “As far as I had known, everything between [my roommates and I] was fine. But they were making videos on Instagram mocking how I cover. On 9/11, people at the dorms were very strange and mean to me, but I paid no mind to it.” Later the same day, Eliana downloaded Instagram and saw the videos of her roommates tying bed sheets and towels to their heads. Another student, a Sierra Leonean Muslim, informed her about a similar Twitter post and apologized for people’s ignorance. “The tweet said something like ‘It’s a great day to be Muslim’ and my picture was attached, on 9/11. I felt terrible, having to explain to the guy across the hall that I wasn’t actually Muslim and that even though my roommates meant to target me, they really in turn were sideswiping the Muslim community.”
Eliana went to a friend working in the campus Office of Multicultural Affairs and was instructed to submit her experience to the OSU violations complaint site, BART. [The BART site “receives, monitors, refers, and as necessary, coordinates university responses to hate and bias-related incidents that . . . may involve bias or hate as a result of age, ancestry, color, disability, gender identity or expression, genetic information, HIV/AIDS status, military status, national origin, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or veteran status,” according to their website. Students file a report here: Student Life Bias Report. The Newark Dean’s office contacted her and worked with her to move dorm rooms quickly and safely, and they asked that the posts be taken down. Eliana packed her bags and moved into a temporary dorm until the start of the spring semester. “The worst part about this experience was that even though I maintained myself and kept my cool, there was talk that I threatened the girls with my radical Islamic beliefs and made them scared as Christians. Despite my character, people bought into the stereotypical angry ‘Arab-Hebraic Middle Easterner’ storyline.” Eliana responded by showing them how wrong they were. She reached out personally to apologize for any misunderstanding, and says she has forgiven the situation.
Thankfully, not all negative racial interactions are as awful as those experienced by Ana, and they tend to be the products of ignorance rather than contempt. “People just assume I’m Mexican,” says Euclides, a Guatemalan first year political science major. “Not everyone from South America is from Mexico. Stereotypes are hurtful,” he explains in his friendly comedic voice. Students believe that more opportunities to get together with each other would help break down any stereotypes and foster real understanding, so the natural waxing and waning of campus clubs on a commuter campus can be problematic. For instance, the LGBTQ club, once quite active, has shifted into a group that has little information and no meetings. “It’s not that people hate gay people, but no one wants to be first to come out to their friends,” explains John. “Everyone assumes that just because you like the same gender, that you must be into everyone in that gender. It can create some awkward situations when many of your friends think that everything you say is innuendo.”
Older students have more resources to handle such misunderstandings. As a senior, Steven has lived through profound changes in the campus climate during his eight years here. A proud gay man, Steven has been an active member of the community at Newark Campus through his roles as an Academic Coach and his time working in the Office of Multicultural Affairs. Whether on or off campus, Steven is proud to be who he is and has no qualms expressing himself. “I feel comfortable anywhere I go,” he states. “I am a pretty open person, and I couldn't care less what others think of me. You either like me or you don't; whichever case one chooses is their choice.”
Another senior agrees that, while there are always issues that need improvement, progress has been made as the campus has grown increasingly diverse. Karlos is an African American English major who has been at Newark for four years. The campus environment, he notes, is becoming not only a safe place for each group of students but a more integrated place, as well. “Especially during my first year here, what I noticed was that a lot of African American students tended to pool together during their free time, and a lot of white students or Somali students did that too, pooling with familiar faces, familiar cultures. But lately I’ve been seeing a lot of different ethnicities, even different personalities, integrating more, walking together, talking and laughing together on campus. There is still a lot of pooling...but it’s becoming less so.”
From our interviews, we have come to realize that together, the students at The Ohio State University at Newark aren’t just sitting in classrooms. They are on the front lines of the struggle for equal rights and treatment of everyone around them, no matter where they are from or what the color of their skin or their gender or sexuality. The Ohio State University at Newark is a campus where we students can learn from, embrace, and love each other even though we all come from different backgrounds.
Cultures of Professional Writing Class:
Dr. Elizabeth Weiser