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The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

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The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Residence Halls to offer diversity education

By Clayton Norlen

Beginning this fall, the U’s Residence Hall Association is hoping to introduce diversity education to students living in student housing.

Administrators at the Residence Halls began incorporating social justice education into the leadership training program for residential advisers in the fall of 2007. They hope new training will help advisers better address situations involving diversity, such as racial or cultural differences, that might be at the root of contention among house mates, but some staff members said they feel that a more systemic approach to education isn’t possible yet.

The time to talk about diversity in the Residence Halls is at the beginning of the academic year when students are looking for friends and still adjusting to a new environment away from home, said Eduardo Reyes, a freshman in political science who lives in Gateway Heights.

“I don’t think we really talk about diversity much as a floor,” Reyes said. “My roommate practices a different religion than me, and we talk about that in our room, but not on the floor.”

Beginning in the fall, this year Housing and Residential Education is planning to introduce diversity dialogues throughout the halls during the first six weeks of a semester,so conversations about diversity between residents can begin, said Barbara Remsburg, associate director of Housing and Residential and Education. The dialogues currently run monthly and have included topics such as sexual orientation, religion and disability. These topics are introduced to participants through film or personal narrative followed by a moderated discussion on the subject that encourages participants to personalize the content.

“The mission of the halls is to create a socially and physically safe environment for students where their experiences can be validated by one another,” Remsburg said. “The goal behind the training and diversity dialogues is to help students better understand their own identities and experiences and how they relate to others,” she added.

“I try to explain to leaders that their role is to promote and maintain a diverse community on campus,” Remsburg said. “Diversity is integral to housing and building a community of peers, and it starts with people understanding each other, because like Debra Daniels (director of the Women’s Resource Center) has said, ‘It’s hard to hate someone whose story you know.'”

Yet, Kate Mecham, a junior in political science and residential adviser for Sage Point 811, said increased focus on social justice to promote diversity has left other issues, such as mental health, religion and eating disorders, on the back burner and left advisers at a disadvantage as they try to meet residents’ needs.

“The issues I’ve dealt with this year have had more to do with mental health or abuse, not necessarily social justice,” Mecham said. “I know that other RAs have had to deal with issues where race or sexual orientation were at the center, and the training has helped them there, but other issues need to be addressed beyond those.”

For her training, Mecham participated in dialogues and seminars and said that even though professionals moderated the discussions, the discourse wasn’t always safe or inclusive. Mecham questioned the ability of student advisers to safely moderate discussions on race, sexual orientation or religion when they are still learning about the subject themselves. She said more assessment seems necessary before this type of education can be introduced on a large scale.

“It is hard to be ready for every situation residents may have.” Mecham said. “There are about 2,000 residents in the halls, and they all have a personal background we might not be capable of addressing.”

“The diversity dialogues are a forum that helps staff and residents understand what it means to have racial, sexual and gender categories in society and the impact stereotyping has,” said Wazir Jefferson, coordinator for diversity education in HRE. The dialogues are a place for students to learn “what does it mean to be ‘whatever,'” Jefferson said.

During the forums, participants are prompted to speak only for themselves using “I” statements, listen to one another, be honest and be respectful of each other, Jefferson said. The purpose of the forum is to introduce participants to the subtle nuances of cultures to overcome blanket stereotypes people often apply to others, Jefferson added, stressing that these dialogues aren’t a liberal indoctrination like some people mistake them to be.

“It’s not about being politically correct,” Jefferson said. “It’s about being respectful and accurate because it’s the right thing to do.”

There are four peer facilitators active in the diversity dialogues who, Jefferson said, would be qualified to moderate discussions with residents in the halls because they work as part-time staff in the office of diversity education for HRE.

Other campus groups such as the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs, the Women’s Resource Center and the Counseling Center have attended some of HRE’s monthly meetings to teach residential advisers about social justice. They have addressed issues such as whiteness, privilege and the responsibility of being a student leader on campus.

The training for residential advisers has tried to reverse the “colorblind” technique that high schools and junior highs use to encourage students to ignore the race, economic status or ethnicity in an attempt to be more equal, Remsburg said. This technique needed to be blown out of the water because it is erasing parts of someone’s identity and is limiting their expression when others mask it, she said.

Carson Zajdel, a junior in choral music and education and resident of Sage Point 813, had not heard of any diversity-related disputes on his floor and thought that some residential advisers would be capable of moderating a discussion on diversity.

“They already do a good job of promoting seminars on diversity,” Zajdel said. “But I haven’t participated in those for lack of time, and I’m really not that interested in them.”

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