In addition to their toothbrushes and sleeping bags, they brought open hearts and minds to the Grotonwood Camp & Conference Center in Massachusetts on Saturday, February 7. Twenty-five Saint Anselm students and the Multicultural Center staff, embarked upon a journey together that was transformative and empowering.
The Finding Ourselves in Unity to our Campus Community (Unity to our Community) Retreat was a student-driven, retention initiative that was created to promote community building and support for multicultural students. It was born out of conversations several students had about the many struggles multicultural students on campus face.
Multicultural students can feel isolated due to the lack of diversity on campus in the student body and among the faculty and staff. They endure stereotyping and discriminatory comments on Yik Yak and other social media sites. They do not see themselves represented in the curriculum and experience unwelcoming behavior by faculty in the classroom. They deal with people who believe racism no longer exists. And they are frustrated and disappointed by an administration who seems to be apathetic when it comes to diversity issues.
After a series of discussions about the aforementioned issues and more, these students wanted to make sure other multicultural students knew they were not alone in facing them, even if it is how many of them may feel. As a result, six student leaders came together to discuss planning an event that would connect the multicultural student body in their common struggles at Saint Anselm, and bring them and their allies together as one community in unity. They planned the agenda, assigned roles and marketed the retreat. Word-of-mouth served as a powerful recruitment tool. The students who attended represented a diverse group of races, ethnicities, political beliefs, socioeconomic statuses, and sexual orientations amongst other identities. Although multicultural students were targeted for the initiative, anyone with an interest in creating positive experiences for them were welcome to attend.
Unity to our Community was designed to be engaging. A video, interactive exercises, and small and large group discussions were used to facilitate dialogue and interactions among participants. Retreat leaders emphasized the importance of making people feel comfortable, therefore several activities were planned in the beginning to help promote a safe environment and help participants get to know each other better. Participants were encouraged to step outside of their comfort zones and make an effort to meet new people.
Ash Beckham’s TED Talk, “We’re all hiding something. Let’s find the courage to open up” served as a catalyst to for a discussion about “personal closets” which are hardships people have endured in their lives. Other activities assessed comfort level with social issues and experiences at Saint Anselm. Dialogues ranged from the experiences of athletes vs. non-athletes to the issue of respect on campus.
The retreat closed by having participants write a letter to themselves that addressed the lessons they learned and the changes they wanted to make after attending Unity to our Community. They were also asked to offer a brief reflection and say something positive about one of the participants.
Finding Ourselves in Unity to our Campus Community served as a forum where students could share their own stories and experiences, showcase their leadership skills and participate in community building exercises. New relationships were formed. Old ones were strengthened. Important issues were discussed. And people enjoyed getting off campus and having fun. Overall Unity to our Community was a powerful tool to help multicultural students and their allies feel validated, supported and unified.