Multicultural office tries to reach out, unite campus
In Focus Editor
It was a sunny Friday afternoon. Notre Dame was sliding into the first weekend of the school year and students were talking about what to do and where to go on their first Friday night back on campus.
At Fieldhouse Mall, a crowd had gathered, as often happens on sunny Friday afternoons. A band was playing; there was free food and about 150 people were talking and laughing and eating and dancing.
What was unusual was that these 150 people talking and laughing and eating and dancing were of all different ethnicities; black students, Asian students, Latino students and white students were enjoying themselves at the Office of Multicultural Student Programs and Services Welcome Back Picnic.
It is a picture rarely seen at Notre Dame, with its 86 percent white student body and its even more homogenous traditions. But it was one that the MSPS, and its director Iris Outlaw, would like to see more often around campus.
"I think it's key that we're opening our arms and saying no, it's not just for students of color," Outlaw said. "It's for everyone."
The MSPS used to be called the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. It changed its name over the summer and adjusted its mission in an effort to become more definitive and inclusive. Outlaw said the office wants to reach out to majority students and spur the connections that too often falter between students of different races on this campus. To do that, it is sponsoring more events like the Welcome Back Picnic, and, for the first time this year, running a series of diversity workshops for freshmen. MSPS is also improving its educational offerings to reach a wider audience.
"That's where our expansion is going," Outlaw said. "The services we provide and the programs we provide are for everyone."
The office's core mission — to support students of color academically and culturally and to ensure they get a well-rounded education — remains the same. MSPS sponsors forums to discuss diversity issues, organizes mentoring and networking programs and provides a link between minority students and many University offices.
"We've done team building, communication, those sorts of things that are beyond the pigeonhole that our office gets put in by thinking that it's only for underrepresented people," she said.
But challenges abound.
Notre Dame has a long history of racial tensions. It was those tensions that led to a 1978 sit-in out of which the OMSA was created. A 1991 protest led the University to take further steps to try and improve the racial climate on campus. In recent years, these tensions have manifested themselves in cheering along racial lines at Bookstore Basketball games, and in debates over a number of incidents. As a result of these tensions over the years, Notre Dame has added and adjusted its efforts to encourage diversity, according to Sister Jean Lenz, assistant vice president for Student Affairs.
"There have been some real difficulties over the years," she said. "A lot of those difficulties have indicated the need for programs on such things."
But another challenge is more subtle, and perhaps more difficult to deal with.
That challenge is simply the attitude, at a school where so many students are so similar, towards the people who are not. And, Outlaw said, it has an effect on freshmen who have come to Notre Dame from a more diverse environment.
"You have the upperclassmen — they don't really come out and say `don't hang out with the black kids, don't hang out with the Latinos.' But behaviors, actions speak louder than words," she said. "And so you get these communications, indirect communications. Then you start moving over, and changing what has been your major philosophy."
Fighting those changes, and encouraging people to break out of the familiar, is the task at hand for MSPS and the students who work with them.
"Relations on campus are not the best and everyone has a little fear," said Brendan Dowdall, chair of the Student Senate's Diversity Committee. "It takes a little bit to get out of your comfort zone for students and talk to someone different than them."
Nevertheless, the environment is not what it used to be, according to Mel Tardy, a first year advisor and 1986 alumnus.
"Some things have changed," said Tardy, who is black. "Some things have not."
"There's more of an expectation that people understand diversity and they're more tolerant and more accepting," he said. "[But many minority students] still feel that they stand out in class."
The minority population has not grown much in the last 10 years, but it has changed. 1998 figures from the Office of Institutional Research show the number of Hispanic freshmen has grown in the last decade while the numbers of blacks and Asians have dropped slightly. Either way, the total percentage of minority students has hovered between 14 and 17 percent since 1988, when it rose from the single digits.
Tardy remembered his time at Notre Dame, when students would gather in the Black Cultural Arts Council office on LaFortune's second floor to relax.
"People would go there and hang out and study and talk about stuff that happened. It was like `What did someone say to you today?' But I think there was just this understanding that that was how things were," he said.
"I think that there's a greater expectation these days that we should be beyond tensions."
Getting beyond those tensions, and making scenes like the one that sunny Friday afternoon at Fieldhouse Mall more common, requires students to take chances, Outlaw said. It requires students to put aside their fears, rational and irrational.
"That's what we're trying to do, to tell people, `take a risk,'" she said. "No one has ever gotten mugged, shot, killed, [or] robbed because they happened to be the only white person at Latin Expressions or Black Images."
"That's a chance to learn about another culture that you may not have been exposed to at all."
All News Stories for Tuesday, September 5, 2000