Diversity is A State of Mind (or How a Frat Party Changed my Life)

Lately, as I have been traversing the state and the country recruiting prospective students, I have received numerous questions regarding the College’s diversity.  There are a number of ways to respond to this question.  One is the more quantitative response: The College is very proud of its diverse student body.  Approximately 23% of our students self-identify as students of color (a quarter of the most recent entering class are either Asian, Hispanic, Black, or Native-American).  We have students from all 50 states and 54 different countries.  Approximately 12% of our students are first-generation students.  We have students of numerous religious faiths and varying backgrounds.  This statements answers the question but only at a surface level.

I prefer to answer this question with a more qualitative response.  First, we all have to recognize that diversity is subjective and how diverse you believe a place to be has a lot to do with your perspective.  I was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa where the only noticeable diversity is whether you’re an Iowa State Cyclones fan or a University of Iowa Hawkeyes fan.  There was little diversity of any persuasion in my group of friends, my neighborhood, or my high school.  Everyone I knew was Caucasian, Protestant (except for me), middle to upper-middle class, and part of a nuclear family.  Usually, people who are born in Iowa stay in Iowa and eventually die in Iowa.  It’s just the circle of life there.

So for me, W&M was incredibly diverse in the more obvious ways (the sheer number of students of color I visually saw) and some more subtle ways (to be detailed below).   At W&M not only did I learn about diverse types of people, I also learned to appreciate diversity for its ability to challenge me, shape me, teach me, and inspire me.  I also learned that when you are a part of a very open and welcoming community such as William & Mary, diversity is talked about, debated, and most importantly, celebrated.  At William & Mary it’s not about cliques or staying within your comfort zone socially, it’s about exposing yourself to all types of different people and seeing what those people have to teach you.  It’s about promoting that which you find culturally important and about confronting that which may be foreign.  I currently have a student intern who is on the executive board of the Vietnamese Student Association.  That fact in itself is not terribly interesting.  However, when you learn that this student is herself white and Congalese that fact becomes more much symbolic of how diversity is expressed and championed at the College.  Because of the tolerant and welcoming atmosphere at W&M I strayed outside my comfort zone socially throughout my tenure at the College and met people who have changed my life all of whom were different from myself.  Some examples of this are listed below

  • On paper, my freshman roommate was a white woman from Richmond (not terribly exciting).  However, she is a naturally-born triplet (her sister also attended W&M) and she had lived 16 of her 18 years in Cairo (her father was a missionary).  Living in Cairo she grew up in a British school system.  She and her sister held high tea, every day, at 4:00 pm for four years.
  • I learned that some people refer to it as the “war of northern aggression” and their perspective on American history is different from my own.  They also had a much more genteel way  of living than I did.
  • I had several friends teach me how to observe the following: a Catholic mass, a Muslim call to prayer, Christian Science, and a Buddhist chant.  I in turn taught them how to celebrate Channukah by lighting the menorah on the Palace Green during Grand Illumination (Colonial Williamsburg’s opening of the holiday season)
  • I learned how to say hello in Spanish, French, Russian, German, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Arabic
  • I had hallmates who hailed from Australia, India, Croatia, Japan, and Pakistan.
  • I learned about both urban and rural cultures (and contrary to popular belief, even though I am from Iowa, I knew little about a rural upbringing).
  • I watched athletes play field hockey, lacrosse, and row crew (sports not often played in the Midwest)
  • I listened to rap, hip-hop, country, and emo music (music I had not previously heard)
  • I came to understand that piercings or tattoos do not define a person but merely reflect a particular aspect or style of an individual (I came to William & Mary with two piercings — one in each ear — and no tattoos.  I left with the same number of piercings and two tattoos)
  • I learned that any one person can change your life if you just give them a chance.  My freshman year a friend of mine who was pledging a fraternity asked me to come to his first party as a pledge.  Even though I was not myself in a sorority I happily agreed to support him.  When I arrived at the party I knew very few people and thus proceeded to stand in a secluded corner and people watch.  At some point, a very tall, loud, bald, shirtless, and tattooed upperclassmen brother began to question my wall-flower like status and asked me why I was not having more fun.  If this incident had happened in high school, I would have ignored the obnoxious man and laughed about him later with my friends.  However, given the atmosphere at the College I decided to strike up a conversation with this loud, obnoxious, young man.  Five years later, I married him.

These are just a small samples of the types of diversity I experienced at the College.  Please listen to and view the College’s Conversations About Diversity to learn more.

– Wendy Livingston

Categories: Admission, Diversity, Faculty & Staff Blogs

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