What does it mean to be a student of a marginalized group identity in a university lacking the cultural, socioeconomic, racial and ethnic diversity that is needed for those students to thrive? I can tell you from my personal experience that it means to be resilient, aware, flexible and most importantly strong. That’s what the marginalized students of the University of Colorado are: strong. The CU Diversity and Inclusion Summit started fast out of the gates with Carlotta Walls LaNier, original member of the “Little Rock Nine,” setting the tone for what would be a difficult and uncomfortable (but necessary) discussion. For those who don’t remember, The “Little Rock Nine” were a group of black students who made the national spotlight after the intense resistance they faced when they were the first to attend Central High School, an all white high school, after the Brown vs. Board ruling which ended segregation in public schools. Let me just say what a privilege it is to be in the presence of a person with the distinction only made possible by courage and leadership that was ahead of its time. A woman who was brave in her approach of looking for a simple opportunity. Like she says, “Our intent was to get the best education possible.” Let me regress to the original question, before this becomes about my feelings. I’m writing to share my interpretation of the feelings expressed by CU students because they matter to the university, community, and me. And they should matter to you too, because it’s not just a CU problem.
The range of the social issues that were discussed in the summit made it possible for everyone to feel engaged. Topics ranged from discrimination of the LGBT population to the impacts of environmental justice on sustainability (one of my favorites). But the real take home message of the summit was the impact of the campus climate on the students. There were two sessions over the two days, which if they stood by themselves they could have made a summit on their own: “Beyond Ferguson: Reactions for Graduate Students of Color on Race, Gender, Justice and Whiteness at CU” and “Can we ‘Be Boulder?” Some of us can understand the feelings of the students, and some of us cannot; but we can all acknowledge the valor that these young men and woman have, because to share their feelings leaves them vulnerable and open. It is hard for a person of color, let alone a student who at a young, tumultuous age is dealing with so much already, to wade in waters unknown and feeling like no one is looking out for them. These students come to this campus, and have a feeling of isolation, loneliness a feeling of not belonging or fitting in. They walk around campus and wonder: Why does nobody look like me? Why does it feel like nobody understands me? They walk through clouds of micro-aggressions, racism, genderism and all sorts of other “isms” because they’re not part of the dominant group, and it sucks, it really does. It is not a great feeling to be invisible and all of the students said that on campus they felt invisible, like their story doesn’t matter, that they are a someone who comes from deficit rather than an individual that brings something unique to the university.
It is such a visceral and damaging campus climate for these students. This is why it’s so hard to recruit but even more to retain these students. I’m just glad that they find solidarity in one another with student groups and the like. So what does it mean to be a student from a marginalized group on a campus like that of CU’s? My advice to you is to ask, don’t be afraid to have this talk. It’s not a bad thing if you don’t understand someone, I and many others would say we would expect that. But what you don’t want to do is ignore it or pretend it doesn’t matter, because it does. It matters on campuses around nation, in workplaces, out in the field, in the locker room, on the slopes, in your grocery stores and even in your home. It matters to those students who had the guts to share, it matters to myself and it should matter to you too.