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Without inclusion, Duke's diversity is pointless

Take a look at any Duke admissions pamphlet, or Duke’s website. Any prospective student has probably read class demographic numbers like 25 percent Asian, Asian American, Pacific Islander; 13 percent Black/African American; 14 percent Hispanic/Latino. 

They see photos of smiling groups of students of different races and ethnicities walking across the quad, eating in West Union, cheering at a basketball game. Indeed, one of the aspects about Duke that attracted me was that when I visited campus, I was actually seeing the diversity of the student body that the admissions office advertises. I was excited to find and become best friends with people of all races and backgrounds, similar to my friend group in high school. 

But while one might say that Duke is diverse—although most statistics comfortably leave out that each class is still at least 47 percent white—in navigating social circles on campus, I’ve found very few social spaces that showcase the balanced diversity Duke prides itself on. Especially during my first year, I felt torn between seeking community in “black Duke” or staying in the close friendships I had developed from my pre-orientation program, who, for the most part, were all white students. It seemed like, especially as a black student at Duke, I couldn’t have both. It was either find an all-black friend group who understood what it’s like to be a minority student at a historically white and elite institution, or be the—for lack of a better word—token in my white friend group. 

As someone who vehemently defends and values the importance of diversity and inclusion, I sometimes felt like a hypocrite when I realized that the majority of my close friends all belonged to one race. Diversity is having a variety of races, religions, political beliefs, sexual orientations, socioeconomic backgrounds, etc. present on campus. Admitting a diverse student body is important, but it’s only half the battle at best. Inclusion “promotes and sustains a sense of belonging... the inherent worth of all people are recognized.” Inclusion implies valued interactions between diverse groups of people. Duke should care more about fostering diverse social spaces on campus.

Close groups of diverse individuals breeds understanding, but having people different than you that you only see from time to time in class or across campus only leads to the same ignorance and stereotypes. If we just see people different than us but never interact—except maybe in randomly-assigned groups in the classroom—no stereotypes are being broken down, and few generalized beliefs about groups different than us are being challenged. 

This past summer, I was a staffer for a pre-orientation program and had an extremely diverse group of incoming first-years in my crew. One signature part of being in a crew is sharing your life story, including your hopes, fears, deepest thoughts, best and worst moments, with the other first-years and staffers. No matter how homogenous the place they come from, these first-years are quickly to the dynamic myriad of life experiences that make their classmates much more than the two-dimensional stereotypes that may be attached to their identities. I hope that wherever my crewlings go in their journey through Duke, they remember these life stories.

Here are some ways I think we could accomplish more inclusion:

Actively promoting the value of house-linking programs. Last year, a pilot program allowed first-years who lived in Brown, Giles and Blackwell to continue living with that same group in a designated section on West Campus for the 2018-2019 year. This year, this program is open to all first-year dorms. While Brown dorm is not only where I made many of my closest friends because of proximity and the amount of time people spent in the common room together, it has also become one of my most diverse groups of friends that all hang out together—racially and economically. Forming friendships like this does require intentionality and open-mindedness from each individual at the start, but the friend groups that come out of freshmen dorms are the closest thing Duke has to their stated goal of strong and diverse friendships in real campus life.

Encouraging group work and active learning in classrooms, and especially large introductory courses or courses typically taken by first-years. Not only have group learning techniques been shown to shrink the achievement gap for educationally or economically disadvantaged students in the classroom, but these groups in first-year classes could help foster more friendships between people of diverse backgrounds. 

Implementing an anti-hate speech policy shows that minority students and their comfort and safety on campus is a priority. Doling out no consequences to, or even making investigations into, anyone who scribbles a racial slur over the logo of one of the few minority-dominated spaces on campus, defaces a mural, and asks multilingual students to refrain from speaking their first language shows that the diversity of identities on Duke’s campus is valued for the impression it leaves on others outside of Duke, but that little care is given to ensure the respect and humanity of these individuals within the Duke community.

One argument for a way in which Duke administration is attempting to foster more strong relationships between people from different backgrounds is with the policy that all members of the class of 2022 would be assigned random roommates. The reasoning behind this decision was that students would benefit from having a chance to “explore [their] roommate’s history, culture and interests.” While I am all for exposing students to people who differ in background and interest, in a living situation, I am curious as to whether this approach really benefits minority or socio-economically disadvantaged students. These students don’t need someone to teach them about white privilege or economic privilege; they know firsthand. The “learning” here is mostly being done by the student who already has privilege, and while this is valuable learning, it could make an uncomfortable or challenging living space for the other student while the learning process is taking place.

As a university, we can do better at making inclusive spaces without placing the burden on those who are already under-privileged in society. Does Duke really care about students from different backgrounds forming strong bonds and learning from each other outside of the classroom, or are we satisfied with shiny photos and statistics on the Admissions website that reel students in, only to—for the most part—remain around the people who look most like them for the next four years?

Victoria Priester is a Trinity sophomore and an Editorial Page managing editor. 

Victoria Priester | on the run from mediocrity

Victoria Priester is a Trinity first-year. Her column, "on the run from mediocrity," runs on alternate Fridays.


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