Salisbury State University is a medium sized school located on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Some consider it “the south,” others still consider it the north. Whatever you call it, SSU is made up of about 7,000 students, about 1500 of which live and learn together in the residence halls. Our department prides itself in promoting, supporting and putting on educational and social programs for our residents, which everyone knows is part of what is important for the retention of the freshmen student and the successful stay of upperclassmen. Residence life systems across the board know and understand that diversity is an important part of the life of students on their campuses, whether you are the size of Salisbury State or bigger. Residence life officials also understand that diversity is a broad definition that includes (but is not limited to) religion, race, culture, political ideology, sexual orientation, age, gender, geographic location and much more.
What can become frustrating at times is the fact that not everybody defines diversity the same way. Why can’t she see diversity as more than black, white and tan? Why can’t he include sexual orientation as a culture in itself? It is easy and understandable to become frustrated—I know this, because I was there and in some ways, I still am. Growing up in New York City, most people are surrounded by a wide range of cultures, races and religions—all of those things that make diversity great and exciting. Others, however, don’t grow up around that and therefore, they cannot and often do not come in with the same appreciation or understanding as those of us who grew up in big cities or attended diverse high schools. And they can’t be expected to.
In a day and age when hate runs the lives of much of our world, it is easy to have a deep dislike for those who don’t think the way we do. I have learned and am learning that this is counterproductive to moving forward. Differing views are part of diversity and an idea counter to yours is OK. When you are faced with an idea that seems to be against yours or you (a letter to the editor against your cultural/religious/ethnic club/organization, for example), many get (and understandably so) angry. This anger becomes a ball of fire inside of us and, in many ways, fuels our own hate in reaction to the individual(s) who attacked (or seemingly so) our way of life. It becomes easy to say “those damn . . .” and place those individuals very far down the “A” list. We close ourselves to these people and fail to realize that in some ways, we are doing what they are: attacking/insulting what we don’t know, understand and more often than not, fear.
My time at Salisbury State University has taught me that education is a process and an important one as a professional and/or student. As I overcome the frustration with the fact that people don’t think like me, don’t define diversity like I do, I am becoming more accepting and (if not respectful) of ideas. I am not perfect—no one is—and that is ok. I don’t have to agree with what you say, but you certainly have a right to say it, but don’t be surprised if you get a reaction. America is great in that freedom of speech is a virtue. Unfortunately, it is more often than not abused by ignorance, misinterpretation and fear.
The world would be a beautiful place if we could live and let live. That’s not the way it is, however, but we don’t have to deal with it. Whether you are a professional or a student, you have a voice and that voice is an important one. Those of us in Residence Life (on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and elsewhere) have an ability to touch and educate people in a certain way that others cannot. We’re RA’s, AHD’s, RD’s, and AD’s for a reason. We come to the table with different ideas and different experiences that will help in enhancing the experience of the student from New York who has never been in a small town or the gay student who is coming out of the closet or the ethnic student who can’t find another face that looks like hers. Residence Life systems and on a larger scale, Student Affairs systems, are great for what they can and do in the best interest of their student.
The next time you or a friend or resident is hurt by a letter written to the editor or something else that makes your blood boil, don’t just get angry. Your feelings are valid, no matter what they are. But don’t let ignorance or lack of understanding kill a spirit that is important—a spirit of variety, of differences and of things that, at the end of the day, in the dark, make no more difference or separate us anymore than a salad fork and a dinner fork. You have the ability to teach and learn and by doing so, you are using one of the important things in your college career—your mind. Change takes place over time, so don’t be discouraged or angry if after your program on gay issues, everyone isn’t skipping back to their rooms hand in hand. But don’t give up. Follow up—with more programs, more discussions and your co-workers. Get support—from your AD/RD/AHD and fellow RA’s, from administrators and faculty. Believe what you are doing is right and for a reason. Understand and learn to accept that everyone wasn’t brought up the same way and education, like change, takes place over time. And then sit down and write back to that letter to the editor. Plan the program and sit down and talk to your friends, staff or residents. In the end, though we will understand that the views of others may be unlike our own, we cannot allow for those views to stifle the voice or ruin the comfort level of ourselves or those we care for.
If you remember nothing else, remember this: in the pursuit to get those who have hurt us with bigoted, racist or discriminatory views to see things in a different light, we are not working to change their minds; we are working to open them. The rest is up to them.
Submitted by Betty Voltaire, Resident Director, Salisbury State University