Written by Jackie Yang
By standing rather than applauding or raising their hands, students gave distinct, physical indications of their identities. Freshmen could look around Skirball Auditorium and see their classmates standing with them, recognizing the sheer diversity of their class—contrary to how many perceive Stern.
Among challenges to affirmative action, the expiration of DACA, and the events in Charlottesville, universities are trying to address the subject of diversity on campus. NYU Stern’s Undergraduate College is no different, dedicating an entire day during Orientation Week to acknowledge the varied experiences and backgrounds of Stern students.
“Our conversations around equity, diversity and inclusion have been ongoing for many years,” says Dean of the Undergraduate College, Geeta Menon. “Recent innovations we’ve implemented were a result of information-gathering with our community and talking with peer institutions last year, followed by strategic discussions at the Undergraduate College administration’s annual leadership retreat in Summer 2016. From there, the Office of Student Engagement partnered with experienced facilitators to develop our first diversity and inclusion session, which launched in Fall 2016 for the class of 2020.”
One highlight of the presentation was an interactive activity called “Common Ground”, which included all 600 members of the Stern Class of 2021 and their Orientation Leaders. Students stood up for one-sentence descriptions with which they identified, ranging from “I come from a small town” and “I am the oldest child,” to “I am the first member of my family to go to college” and “I identify as a member of the LGBTQ community” and “I have a mental disability.”
“In my mind,” said Orientation Leader and senior Justin Lochan, “Common Ground was an extremely impactful and moving experience. Seeing everyone in the Stern community stand up for their identities showcased how vulnerable everyone was able to be with people they only met a couple days ago. It was only through how connected students felt with each other that they [were] able show their authentic selves. Even as a Senior in Stern I felt so connected with everyone in the room and willing to let people know that I have a mental disability.”
Creating connections was not the only goal of this activity. Though nerve-wracking for many, the activity allowed students to show solidarity through a simple action. By standing rather than applauding or raising their hands, students gave distinct, physical indications of their identities. Freshmen could look around Skirball Auditorium and see their classmates standing with them, recognizing the sheer diversity of their class—contrary to how many perceive Stern.
Freshman Raneen Khali was one of the incoming students who had her preconceived notions of Stern shattered.
“I thought there would be a lot of white supremacy, ignorance, and privilege,” she said. “There is a lot of privilege, yes, but after Diversity Day I felt like people are not as close-minded and ignorant as I thought them to be. I feel like NYU can be a safe and open space for all. I think diversity and similar topics are very sensitive that students, especially freshmen might feel shy to discuss or ask about it….Having a Diversity Day breaks this ice.”
Orientation Leader and sophomore Anyel Arslanian shared a similar opinion. “I felt that the Diversity Day was extremely beneficial and useful,” she said, “not only in getting to know my peers, but also in helping [new students] get to know each other. I know that often times there is this stigma behind what Stern students are ‘supposed’ to be like, but I really think that this presentation and debrief helped many people realize that the stereotype is so incredibly far from the truth. Every Stern student has a different background, a different opinion, and definitely a different voice than everybody else.”
After the presentations came a discussion period, where students could share their feelings and experiences in a more private setting. Cohorts split up into smaller groups, and OLs led conversations. Students exchanged stories about their upbringings and discussed what it means to be people of color, what privilege is, and how race has affected their lives.
“During the debrief, many students opened up and were able to speak freely about issues that they’ve faced or that they’ve seen others face,” said Arslanian. “I was humbled by how respectful and knowledgeable everyone was and I feel as if the presentation is what facilitated and jumpstarted this very important conversation. Just because there’s [sic] 600 other people around that doesn’t mean you don’t still have a voice. I believe that that is such an important lesson for incoming students to learn, and it really made me (and hopefully them) feel more at home in a city that may be so far from where they grew up.”
Ultimately, Stern prides itself upon practicing inclusivity, despite perceived differences. As Dean Menon said at the end of her interview, “It is all about our inclusive community—that is the key to our collective success. In fact, that is what we are trying to say with our #IAmStern campaign. ‘I Am Stern’ is an open-ended statement for a reason—it is meant to be inclusive of all of individual backgrounds, experiences, interests, goals and beliefs. Whoever you are, whatever your goals, NYU Stern embraces you, and that makes our community really strong and cohesive.”