Student diversity leaders are encouraging their peers to fight
By KATE STEER
Associate News Editor
Have you ever looked around campus and thought you were seeing clones?
This phenomenon seems to be common at Notre Dame, but amazingly, some people here do defy the stereotypes.
"Not everyone wears Abercrombie and Fitch or comes from the same culture," said Dillon Hall multicultural commissioner Paul Ybarra.
Where does the desire to fit one prescribed "ideal" come from? What can students and the University do about these issues? Is there any possibility for improvement or will these situations exist indefinitely?
Some faculty and students are currently working to improve race relations on campus. With offices such as Multicultural Student Programs and Services (MSPS) and a multicultural or diversity commissioner in each dorm, the University is making efforts to raise awareness and curiosity about other cultures.
But some situations are known for being divisive among students.
"They say the most segregated time of the week is in church, the second being at the dining hall," said Patrick White, multicultural commissioner for Fisher Hall. Visible situations like these, that make groups seem impenetrable, operate as roadblocks to progress. Students who do not belong to a given group perceive exclusion, while those involved may not.
"I don't think about it — you're eating a meal with people you're comfortable with," said Jane Ong, who serves as multicultural commissioner for Farley Hall.
Iris Outlaw, director of MSPS, sees the key to breaking down these barriers as being able to step outside of your comfort zone and learn new things about different people and cultures.
White sees his role as that of an educator.
"As multicultural commissioner, I serve to facilitate dialogue in the dorm, to expose everyone to other cultures." In this capacity, he can help to encourage people to move away from what is familiar and comfortable.
But what is the purpose of this position? Cynics say that the average Notre Dame student is apathetic and dispassionate. If this is true, will this service reach the average Notre Dame student? There is, of course, no way to categorize all the students at this University as one and to only cater to that one image.
"So many Notre Dame students come from privileged backgrounds, and through no fault of their own, they haven't been exposed to other cultures," White said. He said that giving people the opportunity to experience something different is only the first step. "You have to go out of your way [to experience other cultures]."
But some say this is not enough.
Outlaw said her department has realized that past efforts have not been sufficient. The recent name change of the office, from the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs was a part of an attempt to alter the approach to campus diversity.
This year is the beginning of many changes aimed at involving majority students. "I think it's key that we're opening our arms and [saying], `No, it's not just for students of color, it's for everyone,'" Outlaw said. "[MSPS] is about exposing the rest of campus to some things that may seem foreign and strange at times … So it's an educational component."
Outlaw cited stereotyping of her office as a reason for the relative lack of success in reaching some students. People often misconceived the function of OMSA as being an office that served only minority students, that it was the underrepresented student's Office of Student Affairs.
Ybarra is part of this effort. He perceives his role as the presenter of opportunity to the unaware. "If you want to learn about different cultures, different ways of thinking, it's available," Ybarra said. "I think by simply displaying different cultures, it can put into people's minds the idea that it is welcoming here."
Ong approaches her position with a similar attitude.
"There's a potential for students to get involved, but excitement needs to be built," she said. "Most [Notre Dame students] are open-minded, willing to learn, the opportunity just hasn't been presented."
Fulfilling his job isn't enough, Ybarra said. Other students need to become active participants in the multicultural atmosphere of Notre Dame. "When you do things with multicultural clubs, it tends to become your own little world," he said.
Ong has experienced the same phenomenon. As an officer in the Filipino American Student Organization she has been in situations where the point seems to be lost. "Sometimes you get so involved with planning that it doesn't seem like you're reaching out," she said.
If those involved in a given multicultural club are generally students who come from that particular culture, then a chain reaction is started that ultimately results in the support of a stereotype. Ybarra said that the majority students are not the only ones at fault in the situation.
"Self-separation is common in a lot of us," he said. "You're going to hang out with people who have the same cultural background — it's easier."
In general, there is not enough involvement in these clubs on the part of the majority student, members said.
"By being a part of these societies, you're already looking toward open-mindedness, toward accepting other cultures and understanding your own," Ybarra said. If this step were taken, attitudes on campus would change drastically, he said.
Will such a move help to dispel common misconceptions about minority groups on campus? Ybarra said that a place like Notre Dame has the potential to succeed in this capacity. " I still see a lot of homogeneity, but at a place of learning, we can move in a positive direction."
He also said that he understands the importance of his work. "I don't ever want anyone to judge me on my appearance or culture without knowing who I am." By working to prevent such pre-judgement, he can improve life on campus.
Outlaw made a similar observation.
"You can get a different twist too, looking at how Christ walked: Christ walked among all kinds of people who are different from himself," she said. "Christ was a minister and an ally, and how are you going to be an ally to people who are different than yourself?"
All News Stories for Tuesday, September 5, 2000