Northeastern University leaders discussed some contemporary challenges and solutions to increasing campus diversity in a cross-cultural roundtable on Tuesday afternoon at the Cabral Center.
The hourlong event, sponsored by the John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute, was part of “50 Years Forward: The Journey Continues,” Northeastern’s yearlong commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.
It began with an introduction by AAI Director Richard D. O’Bryant, who highlighted the roundtable’s theme: “In a dramatically changing demographic environment, it remains surprisingly challenging to inspire diverse and multicultural dialogues, activities, and initiatives,” he said. “Exposing students to different cultures and ethnicities is a continuous endeavor and ideal that most university officials hold in high regard.”
So, too, do students. “There is a lot to be gained from being surrounded by people who have different opinions from you,” said Selmon Rafey, the Student Government Association’s assistant vice president. “If you aren’t interacting with people who have disagreements with you, you’re detracting from your college experience.”
Rafey, SSH’18, learned this lesson in a graduate-level course on the Arab Spring, the students of which included Egyptians and Americans, staunch Republicans and Democrats. As he put it, “A lot of Northeastern’s classes foster growth and development by exposing students to different opinions and thoughts.”
Later on, the discussion turned toward racial and ethnic identity. Cassie Harris, the former president of the Northeastern Black Student Association, noted that she occasionally felt compelled to speak on behalf of all African-American women.
“Sometimes you feel responsible for such a wide narrative,” said Harris, AMD’15. “I’m not going to hold my tongue if there’s something I feel strongly about, but sometimes there’s an added pressure or expectation.”
Susan Ambrose, senior vice provost for undergraduate education and experiential learning, agreed with Harris. “We all have multiple identities, yet people look at us and see Asian man [or African-American woman],” she said by way of example. “As a historian, I can say that we have come a long way, but nowhere near far enough. How do we move beyond the superficial features so people do not listen to us based solely on our race and gender?”
Richard Harris, the College of Engineering’s assistant dean for academic scholarship, mentoring, and outreach, offered a solution, challenging students to make their voices heard. “Your job is to agitate, agitate, agitate,” he said, paraphrasing African-American social reformer and orator Frederick Douglass. “This institution wants you to flex your wings.”
In closing, O’Bryant asked each panelist to describe diversity using a single world. “Opportunity,” one said. “Necessity,” said another.