A re-examination of the debate on diversity
The word "diversity" is thrown around a lot these days. It serves as a catchphrase for all sorts of ideas and has been debated in a recent Supreme Court decision. While the discussion about preferential admission processes remains controversial, the post-acceptance experiences of students at schools like Bowdoin have not received the same attention.
"I don't think there is much dialogue at all," said Hal Douglas, a junior from St. Louis. "To be quite blunt, diversity at Bowdoin probably means (black) to most people."
Problems with defining diversity sometimes manifest themselves in students' initial adjustment to life beneath the Pines-a transition that is not always seamless. While many have no trouble settling in, the process brings a lot of new experiences for some. Junior Melissa Hudson, from Memphis, Tennessee, said that her adjustment was "very shaky at first. I had never really dealt with such levels of ignorance about issues pertaining to difference."
David Morales '97 indicated that his experience was similar in some ways. "When I arrived at Bowdoin, I was a Puerto Rican kid from Massachusetts, and it was very shocking," he said. "I had never been in that type of environment and I didn't know what to expect. What I saw was a very homogenous place in terms of race."
Morales has been the chairperson of the Alumni Multicultural Affairs Committee, a subdivision of the Alumni Council, since last August. "I didn't think the College was accepting of difference. It isn't a blame directed at the administration, but a societal thing that includes the student body. I didn't think Bowdoin was prepared to deal with people from inner cities, who spoke other languages, who needed educational assistance; all those kinds of levels."
Kevin Robinson '05 from Philadelphia said that while Bowdoin is diverse in some aspects, it lacks a potentially beneficial network of professors from various backgrounds. "We as people are more likely to recognize what we see with our eyes," he said.
Hudson concurred. "The staff and administrators have made great efforts to make this a comfortable place for students from various backgrounds," she said. "However, I think it is crucial to have a faculty and staff that represents the student body. Students of color should have people on campus that personally understand the burden race presents in society."
In addition to the need for greater racial diversity at Bowdoin, some expressed a desire to see a wider definition of diversity at the College. Douglas said that the term poses problems: "'Diversity' can't only be informed by skin color or a gender," he said. "If I had to coin a phrase, it would be 'the willingness to approach things differently.' The language is a problem; the sentiments are there, but you want to hear from people who think differently."
Morales indicated similar feelings. "The College needs to have a serious discussion about what diversity means," he said. "We have larger problems in American society with race relations, but at Bowdoin we have a tremendous opportunity to fine-tune and guide that discussion.
"There is still no direct policy at the administrative level on what diversity is or what programs need to be established for students who may not fit the mold," he continued.
Asked if there was an aspect of Bowdoin's atmosphere that could change for the better, both Hudson and Robinson offered ideas. "I would change Bowdoin's politically-correct atmosphere," Hudson said. "Let's put the issues out there and really talk about them. Let's stop pretending they don't exist and find ways in which we can come to common understandings.
"As a community, we must make ourselves vulnerable to one another so true change can occur," she added.
Robinson indicated a desire to see more students thinking outside the Bowdoin bubble. "I think I would encourage more students to take classes at different institutions in Maine," he said. "Also, I would like each class to be more involved in the [wider] community."
Douglas suggested some sort of organization to bridge social gaps at the College. "The campus is very 'cookie-cutter' and crisp sometimes," he said. "I don't see myself as one thing, rather as made up of numerous things. There should be a singular place on campus that's receptive for that."
His thoughts speak to an increasing demand for more types of diversity on campus-types that extend beyond skin color. While a growing number of student organizations are addressing diversity issues, Douglas said that those groups might not be using the best approach.
"I think that in supporting a lot of people-a good aspect of clubs-organizations may not have done a great job of ensuring that issues are open to the campus as a whole," he said. "They become very exclusive, and there needs to be some sort of balance."
Relatedly, Hudson expressed a need for a higher degree of campus unity. "Sometimes our differences are more displayed and celebrated than any of or commonalities," she said. "I think there is room for both to exist and they are not mutually exclusive. Common ground between both will aid future discourse on who Bowdoin students are."
While her initial experience may have been difficult, Hudson said that she "did find that Bowdoin was a place that truly to wanted to encourage dialogue amongst its students, so that was quite encouraging. We have come a long way and we still have a long way to go."
"I think change takes time," Robinson added. "What we see now, I hope, is phase one of a richer Bowdoin."
Morales agreed. "There are people committed to making change at Bowdoin," he said. "Time will tell."
This article is the first in a series that will examine what diversity means to Bowdoin.
Any questions may be addressed to Alison McConnell (amcconn2).