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Speaking Out: Students of Color Share their Experiences at Exeter

This is the first in a series of Bulletin articles that provides space for various members of our community to engage in ongoing conversations about identity, empathy and acceptance.

 

By
Daneet Steffens '82
February 6, 2017

Christian Flores '18.

An Academy assembly on October 11 last year gave six students of color — Christian Flores ’18, Leena Hamad ’17, Livaslou Tanjong ’17, Nada Zohayr ’17, Kelvin Green ’17 and Adrian Venzon ’19 — a powerful platform from which to share their stories, not just with their fellow students but with Exeter’s faculty, administration, trustees, alumni and its wider community. But for the students and the school it wasn’t just about sharing perspectives: Behind each individual story lies a fervent hope that, by vocalizing these experiences, it will encourage others to participate and to recognize that every student at Exeter is part of the Academy’s collective narrative. The hope, too, is that this assembly, which was recorded and made available online (Exeter.gameonstream.com), will mark the beginning of something bigger.

While Exeter students are challenged academically on a daily basis, they are also learning — some for the first time — what living in a diverse community is like. Today, they are doing so in a national, even global, atmosphere in which difference is still not celebrated to its fullest extent, in which issues around diversity are too often divisive. With their act of outreach, of invitation, these students stood in front of their peers in the hope of creating a more unifying experience for everyone. From reminding us that, as Exonians, students have a strong common ground already — they are all here to learn, after all — to eloquently expressing how complicated individuals’ identities often are, they highlighted the challenges, the importance and the positive aspects of generating open conversations around race, class, culture and citizenship. At the same time, they showcased the wealth of experience, difference, intellect, generosity, honesty and curiosity that is at the core of Exeter’s community.

Not everyone lives the same life, and that means that not everyone can approach a problem the same way.”
Christian Flores '16

“The overall goal of my speech was to make people think about things,” says Christian Flores, who shared, among other experiences, his family’s economic challenges and his discomfort of ordering in a restaurant with his heavily accented parents. “I just wanted people to see a different perspective. Exeter is diverse by the numbers, but oftentimes I feel that during class or during certain events, the diversity is overlooked and there’s more of a centralized, wealthier, white perspective.”

He credits Exeter’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (OMSA) as a major support and information hub for all students — “Dean [Rosanna] Salcedo is in charge of that and she does a wonderful job of creating an atmosphere where people feel comfortable and confident” — and is heartened by the additional new posts of associate dean of OMSA and a director for equity and diversity, who will be part of Principal Lisa MacFarlane’s leadership team. “For the associate dean position, they actually had a lot of students of color be part of the hiring process. We got to interview and meet different candidates and then give our takes on their accomplishments and their overall sense of preparedness. I thought that was very progressive and that that was very thoughtful of the school to allow us to have a voice, to include us in the process.”

Flores, who recently participated in a weeklong, PEA civil rights-focused trip to Montgomery, Alabama, thinks it’s critical to maintain a focus on both class and race in discussions on campus, since, as he notes, “a poor white student still faces many struggles and to some extent is worse off since he/she is not considered.” He’d like a more diverse group of faculty at Exeter, and he also recognizes a need for the student body, as a group, to agree on specific policy changes they’d like to see.

Flores benefited from early exposure to the Harkness system via a New Jersey program that introduces low-income students to private schools, and realized then that he loved to hear different people’s perspectives. “That’s definitely what attracted me to Exeter,” he says. Now he hopes that the October assembly will continue to generate positive feedback and open-minded conversations. “Not everyone lives the same life, and that means that not everyone can approach a problem the same way. I remember hearing a comment that, ‘Well, if you come to America you should already come assuming that you have to sign up to the culture, that you need to know the language, you need to do A, B and C.’ What I would say to that person is that they need to understand that, because of different circumstances, not everyone can do A, B and C: You might not always be aware of what other people’s barriers have been that they’ve had to overcome or are working on overcoming, but if you can gain an understanding of those barriers, that will give you a better understanding of where people are coming from.”

It can be scary when people don’t agree with you, but when you’re the only one, it’s a golden opportunity ... to tell people what you’re thinking.”
Leena Hamad '17

Identities Are Complex Entities

“Identities can [be], and usually are, multifaceted,” Leena Hamad said at the assembly. “I am Muslim, Arab, African, Sudanese, American —and it works. Labels should not be boxes, or tightly bound definitions of who I can and should be. There is nothing mutually exclusive about being an American woman and a Muslim, or Arab and African. Identities are fluid — they morph to fit you, not some imagined racial, ethnic or religious monolith. To say that there is a single Muslim experience — or a single Arab experience — is misleading. There are common threads, of course, but implying singularity erases the true diversity of experience.”

“The whole idea of identity not being monolithic,” explains Hamad, who grew up attending a Muslim school that helped shape and affirm her Muslim identity, “comes from my own experience of not really fitting any categories. Even in my Muslim school — where there weren’t many other Sudanese students — I was too Arab to be African and too African to be Arab, which is a really strange way to feel. You kind of have to pave your own way."

Arriving at Exeter, Hamad was surprised by others’ misconceptions of Islam, but she used this as a positive opportunity to take initiative: “My approach in terms of educating others is to understand that the other person might not know a lot about that particular topic and not belittle them for that — there are plenty of reasons why people won’t know a lot about Islam. I think it’s important, if somebody says something ignorant, that you call them out, but you also outline the reasons why what they said was wrong. It’s better to educate in a more supportive way.”

Her own frustrations tend to lie in the fact that so many of her fellow students view Muslims or Arabs as all the same: “When you over-politicize things like race and religion, you take away from the humanity of those issues. Looking at Muslims, for instance, as one entity rather than as a group of people, a group made up of individuals, you lose sight of the fact that those individuals are each diverse in their own ways. You lose sight of the human element.”

Fellow students told Hamad they found her speech inspiring, and she hopes that the momentum generated by the assembly will lead to open discussions of individual Exeter experiences around race, culture and class becoming integrated into daily and academic life. “I think we need more conversations about this. We need to make it more of a regular thing because we tend to only have these conversations after something happens, after there’s a controversy in the world or after a big political event. We should make it a more regular thing where we invite people to talk about their experiences at Exeter.”

Like the other speakers, Hamad is strikingly astute and generous when it comes to her consideration of others. Ultimately, she says, no one should feel isolated or alone, particularly during discussions of race and class, whether they are taking place around the Harkness table or in a dorm common room. Try to see it, she says, as an empowering chance to share and communicate. “For a long time I was the only Sudanese person at Exeter, and I’ll still be the only African in my math class or the only Muslim in the room when we’re having a conversation like that, but I think it’s really important for other students at Exeter to know that when you are faced with that challenge of being the only one in the room, when something like that comes up, just see it as an opportunity. It can be scary when people don’t agree with you, but when you’re the only one, it’s a golden opportunity for you to tell people what you’re thinking.”

That’s when ideas start forming, that’s when the actual, the true connections happen, when we’re not expecting it. ”
Nada Zohayr '17

Opening the Conversation

Nada Zohayr, who spoke of the often self-imposed pressures of being the offspring of immigrant parents — “I don’t have a safety net; I am my family’s safety net” — feels that her fellow students are Exeter’s biggest support system. “I often find that whenever I have an issue, I turn toward my dorm mates or my friends or my classmates before anyone else, and there are so many different clubs and affinity groups on campus as well. What’s really amazing, and what I think we sometimes forget about each other, is that everyone is doing so much work outside of the classroom. Forget about homework, forget about studying, we’re all doing so much work for each other whether it’s with affinity groups or for social justice causes.

"But ... it’s not just during those formal meetings, it’s also in the dining halls and in the dormitories, when we’re sitting in circles at dinner, at lunch, at breakfast, and we’re really talking to each other. That’s when ideas start forming, that’s when the actual, the true connections happen, when we’re not expecting it. The best conversations I’ve ever had at Exeter have been in my dorm, with my dorm mates, at odd hours. One time it was 2 a.m. and I was writing a paper. I went to the bathroom and was washing my face and a dorm mate stopped by and we talked about a recent sexual assault case at another school, and we had a half-hour-long discussion about that. It’s times like that that really make you start to think as a person.”

“One of the biggest issues on campus,” she continues, “is that often we try to make the Harkness table into our battleground, the place where we are supposed to ‘really’ speak, yet there are unspoken barriers at the Harkness table that infringe upon discussion. Oftentimes like in English class or history class when we’re talking about issues relating to race — or gender and sexuality or women’s rights or labor issues — if the teacher doesn’t feel comfortable discussing it, then we don’t feel comfortable discussing it, either. We, as students, we’re young and we’re doing the best we can, but often we don’t know what to say or what is the right thing to say, and sometimes the teachers don’t know what to say, either — or at least they don’t know how to address our questions. We could be having braver conversations in the classroom, like an intense history class when we talk about slavery or civil rights, or in English class when we’re reading about a woman’s side of the story. We need to open up these conversations even more, and not be afraid.”

I really wanted to make sure I could bridge that gap in the hope that we can find some commonality in what we were sharing.”
Kelvin Green '17

Finding Common Purpose

Kelvin Green, whose speech had a palpably inclusive stance, also received welcome feedback, including from faculty who appreciated his approach. “I really wanted this to be an opportunity that would connect us all,” he says. “We’re all here for education and learning and that’s the most important thing; this discussion is another part of that. We already have a common purpose, and learning each others’ experiences is just another part of our education here. I felt that by reaching out, that would allow some of our white counterparts ... to realize that they also play a role in this narrative as well. That’s really important because a lot of times we talk about our experiences as students of color, and other students of color, they understand, they agree, but there’s this whole half of the community that you may have left out. So I really wanted to make sure I could bridge that gap in the hope that we can find some commonality in what we were sharing.”

Like Flores, Green commends the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and the work that it does. “That office is really focused on our commonalities — you can see that their goal is to connect this multicultural society. They’re trying to connect the students of color and they’re also trying to create a base of learning for white students of the different people at Exeter who come from different backgrounds of different color. That’s one of their main goals: to create that sense of cohesiveness between the groups on campus.”

Faculty of color, he says, also actively provide a vital support system. “Our faculty of color reach out to us: Students of colors’ experience on a predominantly white campus is different than that of a white student and they recognize that. So do white faculty, for that matter: They recognize that they need to reach out and listen so that the students of color don’t feel alone. That’s been a really good structure to have. The faculty of color — black, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander — many of them are new to the campus, but they find a way to integrate themselves with their own identity and then they also create that bond with those students.”

Among Green’s main concerns is faculty of color retention: “Sometimes we would see a faculty [member] of color come for a year or two and then they would leave. And students, we didn’t know all the intricacies or the issues, we just saw that suddenly, ‘Oh no, he’s no longer here,’ or ‘She’s no longer here, what’s up?’” But, he says, he’s seen many progressive changes in his four years at Exeter, including around that issue. “Miss MacFarlane has made some awesome strides in improving that effort. They are planning on hiring a director of diversity, equity and inclusion to work on policy and administration of faculty, to make our curriculum more inclusive, create programs for faculty diversity training and look at what we can enhance to keep faculty of color here, to make sure they want to stay here.”

Witnessing this shift in administration support, Green says, makes him feel acknowledged and heard: “As a lower, I participated in the Council for Equity and Social Justice planning, so I was in the room with Principal [Tom] Hassan and the new deans, speaking directly to the people who could make things happen, who could bring our concerns to the Trustees. That really made me feel like my voice was heard, and I think that’s what makes Exeter special: If you want to be heard, there are avenues for you to be heard.

"I feel like there has been noticeable progress in my four years here. Is it progress to the point where we say we’ve done enough? No, but it’s progress, and I think it’s important to recognize that. I’ve learned so much at Exeter about social justice and allyship, that having a diverse pool of people supporting your cause, that is what creates change. It’s heartwarming to know that the little pushes that were made by our community throughout my four years are resulting in steps that are leading us forward.”

... racism is everywhere, and it doesn’t stand up when you look someone in the face and actually have a human interaction ... ”
Livaslou Tanjong ’17

Raising Awareness

“There were many individuals and groups working to make others aware of issues around race and class on campus,” says Livaslou Tanjong, who began organizing the assembly last spring, and whose speech shone with both poetry and clarity. (“Race is the awkward topic that no one wants to broach. But being black at Exeter, and seeing the physical diversity of our campus means I aim to be vocal.”) “I realized if we didn’t make room for this discussion on our schedule,” she says, “not everybody would see it. The assembly was an invitation, but it was also a gift to a lot of affinity groups on campus who had been trying to bring attention to these issues. Now people are more aware and asking questions; I do believe it has set new things in motion, and one of the benefits of this assembly is that people begin to see you as a person that they can talk to — they are more comfortable reaching out to me and speaking to me about these issues.”

Ideally, Tanjong would like to see more consistency of race discussions across campus and consensus among the faculty in terms of incorporating discussions around race and class into the classroom, as well as incorporating more diverse voices and opinions into the curriculum: “It’s one thing for me as a student to gather other students and say we’re going to talk about race. But even if we make them aware of the issues, where does it go from there if the curriculum that the students are exposed to isn’t backing up what we’re saying? If, after I’ve talked, there’s nothing else there that reinforces what I’ve said, then they can listen, but they’re not necessarily going to learn.

It’s not enough to just discuss race in the context of day-to-day student social life or in dorm culture. At the end of the day, racism is everywhere and it doesn’t stand up when you look someone in the face and actually have a human interaction, but it also doesn’t stand up when you look at history. When you become educated and aware of what’s going on, you’re faced with facts, you begin to understand and that alters your mind, alters the way you look at people. That changes things. I think if you’re talking about diversity, you should talk about diversity on your campus, and you should talk about diversity in your country. Because that’s where it affects you the most.”

Editor’s Note: In future issues, you’ll hear from more students and also faculty members on their experiences, perspectives and ideas about how to create and contribute to an inclusive community here and elsewhere. 

This article first appeared in the winter 2017 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.