Last year's student protests mean changes to this year's orientation

Microaggressions have big implications on college campuses

Following a wave of student protests last year regarding racial and cultural tensions on campus, colleges are bringing these issues to light during orientation, Stephanie Saul reports for the New York Times

The University of Missouri faced a decline in enrollment this fall in the wake of racially charged incidents that took place on campus last year.

"That closes your doors," says Archie Ervin, vice president for institute diversity at the Georgia Institute of Technology and president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE). "If you have sustained enrollment drops and disproportionately full-paying students such as out-of-state, the state legislature can't make up the gap."

This year, colleges are trying to start off on the right foot by incorporating lessons on racial sensitivity into orientation. At Clark University, chief diversity officer Sheree Marlowe led a presentation on microaggressions to newly-arrived first-year students. Marlowe taught the students about the ways in which these subtle comments or actions can inadvertently harm marginalized groups of people. 

What's a microaggression? Why does it matter? Find out in this student protest dictionary

Examples provided to Clark students include:

  • Asking someone, "What are you? You are so interesting looking";
  • Assuming a nonwhite faculty member is a service worker; or
  • Attempting to compliment someone by saying, "You are a credit to your race."

"It helped me understand what I've been going through all of my life, basically," says Noelia Martinez, a student born in Puerto Rico to Dominican parents. She says people make comments to her such as "You're a really good student for a Hispanic."

But Martinez says the session helped her realize that she's also guilty of microaggressions, such as using the phrase "you guys" instead of a gender-neutral alternative.  

Officials at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) created a diversity presentation as part of a pilot program for freshmen this year. The program comes after a series of racist incidents that took place on campus last year.

The UW system last month also said it would request $6 million from the State Legislature to improve the "university experience" for students. Funding would go in part toward a system-wide cultural training program for faculty, staff, and students.

While there has been pushback against efforts to increase cultural sensitivity on campus, the trend doesn't seem to be slowing down any time soon. Nearly 75 chief diversity officers have been hired by colleges and universities in the past 18 months, according to NADOHE (Saul, New York Times, 9/6). 

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