Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
Apr. 17, 1998

Diversity roundtable

A welcoming campus requires personal responsibility

Roundtable participants

  • Houston Dougharty, associate dean, Dean of Students Office

  • Gladys Nortey, graduate student, journalism and mass communication

  • Lynn Paxson, assistant professor, architecture

  • Yasanthi Perera, senior, biology

  • Ricardo Salvador, associate professor, department of agronomy

  • John Stein, training specialist, Human Resource Services

  • Sidi Tandia, program coordinator, International Students and Scholars

    Inside recently invited a group of faculty, staff and students to a roundtable discussion of diversity issues at Iowa State.

    In this story (the third of three), we share some of their comments about mentoring students and ways faculty and staff can make the campus more welcoming and friendly.

    Dougharty: I advise a graduate student organization that decided it wanted an informal mentor program. I asked ... if they had any specifications. Did they want a man or a woman? Were there any other things they wanted? They said they wanted somebody "cool." Nobody said, "I want a Caucasian female under the age of ...." They just said, "I want somebody cool." And what I perceived that meant was, "Somebody I can connect with."

    Stein: Background is not a prerequisite for a positive mentoring experience. In mentoring, what it takes is two people who are committed to the growth and development of each other. And who are willing to challenge and support each other through any issues that arise.

    Tandia: For many international students, the concept of mentoring may seem to be very strange. They don't understand it very well. A lot of the times, it is simply the student not being able to sit down with the faculty member to say, "Augh! These problems. Can you help me?" I've seen students, who -- they came, they loved computer science. One faux pas made them change to MIS. And it may be just due to the fact the person spoke with an accent the adviser couldn't understand and there wasn't sufficient time to sit down and communicate.

    Perera: Most international students, including myself, come from a culture where we put our teachers and instructors on a pedestal. You don't sit in their presence unless you've been asked to. You address them by "sir" or "madam" or whatever, things like that. So I think the faculty adviser has a crucial role in making the student feel comfortable, at least in the beginning, to set up some dialogue.

    Stein: I think faculty and staff have to make a committed effort to develop a comfort level with people who think and act and look and feel differently than they do. And one of the primary ways you do that is creating specific opportunities and activities for ongoing dialogue with those folks who are different from you.

    Dougharty: I think all of us, faculty or staff, need to be conducting an active appraisal of our language, our offices, the books we have on our shelves, the buttons we have on our bulletin boards, and ask, "What sort of signals am I sending to people? Am I using inclusive language? Am I using heterosexist language? Am I using racist language?" One of the things we can do is be more conscious of signals we send that we may not even be aware we're sending. Students pick up on those things. Students pick up on: Am I welcome here? Am I affirmed here? Am I recognized here? Am I valued here? And I think many of us sort of are on auto-pilot and don't realize we're sending those messages, positive or negative.

    Tandia: As an international student and ethnic minority student, I felt always uncomfortable, going back to see a professor, an adviser. I felt uncomfortable. If they are rushing to get to the conclusion, rushing to get me out, a little bit nervous, I can tell. I just say to myself, "It's better for me to leave and look for advice elsewhere." And I think that's a very uncomfortable feeling for a student in a mentor-mentee situation.

    Stein: One of the greatest signals we can send comes down to our behavior. Do you extend yourself to others in a friendly way? It's that behavior that it boils down to, ultimately.

    Paxson: [I have been told] "You spend too much time talking to students. You will not get tenure because, we just check that off. You have to close your door more." I'm not saying that's likely to change my behavior; it probably won't. [But if] they say, "We notice you have a line of people outside your door; therefore that's not a good thing," then that's a problem.

    Nortey: There are so many times, when I think about my undergraduate education here, when I could not go to a faculty member. You look at the top of the syllabus and this is the office hours -- maybe two times the whole week. There's something wrong there. I think, "You can take 15 minutes if I have a concern. You should listen to me for 15 minutes." There are faculty members you can't do that with.

    Paxson: You can't legislate that. You can't say to faculty members, "You will do this many office hours." It won't get you what you want. You have to change the reward system at some level because some people are never going to respond to the fact that you just should do it.

    Tandia: Faculty are experts in their own disciplines, in their own area, but some of the experts in creating a welcoming, hospitable environment may be in student affairs. I would like to see a marriage between them so that they learn from each other's skills. Right now, the distinction is very clear. You are a faculty member, you are in student affairs, and there is not much interaction.

    Nortey: Do faculty members really think that there's even a problem? They may just think, "Oh, well, everything is just great, I'm working, students are really happy with me, and whatever." Do they really think there's an issue here? If they don't think there's an issue, that's what needs to be addressed.

    Salvador: A major cause for a lot of what we're talking about here is the self-perception that there isn't a problem with regards to diversity issues, that the institution is exclusively a center for teaching and learning technical subject matter, and that's the basis on which we value our relationships and the exchanges we have with one another. "The only extent to which I need to deal with you is the extent to which you understood my equation or not" and we go on from there.

    That isn't necessarily coming from unfeeling folks. You have to understand the demand on people's time, and also, as you've said, the reward system.

    If we're serious about what we're talking about here, namely a change of priorities, it means that there will be time made and research devoted to creating a better aura for the dissemination and discussion of diversity issues. And that's just a very romantic thing to say. Maybe something else more romantic to say: I think a lot of this can be solved at the personal level, either of faculty or staff, those of us that are here and together make up the entire environment that students face when they get here. Is the university trying to do something about this? In my opinion, to the extent that administration can apply a heavy hand toward getting faculty to wake up, they have been doing some very proactive things.

    Perera: Something I hear a lot, unfortunately, is that, "You speak good English." Some people also say that other international students don't have such good English skills and we don't have time to listen. But people are missing out on a lot by not talking to these people, not hearing their perspectives. I would just encourage them to take some time to just listen to different individuals.

    Salvador: I've seen ... many people who were dismissed, summarily, after about five minutes of interaction, because they happen to have an accent. The physical signs of that are from then on, they're patronized in conversation. Let me pick on Sidi for a minute. Sidi speaks with a very pronounced accent, which is a mixture of lots of different languages, and if you were to dismiss somebody like Sidi and not interact with him and engage him, think of everything Sidi has seen, has experienced, can tell you about, that you never would know unless you entered into that particular interaction.

    This same thing would apply with a scientist who's a soybean expert from China or the artist from Ghana.There are things about this world I'm not going to know if I look at it essentially through the funnel of my immediate environment. There are things I never would have thought about that will enrich me and the society I live in.

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