On Friday afternoon, four faculty members took their seats in the GQ Annex, awaiting the commencement of the third “Digging Deeper” meeting of the semester. Most students will, hopefully, remember filing into the black box theater during Freshman orientation to view “Digging Deeper’s” predecessor, “The Sedehi Diversity Project.” SDP was created by Desirée Sedehi (’08) with the goal of providing an outlet for students to express thoughts and concerns about issues of diversity and social justice on campus. The project allows for earnest investigation of issues of race, gender, religion and more on campus, without mediation at the hands of the administration. The “Digging Deeper” project was conceptualized as a means of continuing such crucial conversations beyond the play’s yearly performance.
“Digging Deeper” meets three times, typically during the fall semester, and strives to create an environment where issues of social justice and equity may be discussed. Unfortunately, this past week’s meeting had no students in attendance; however, the project’s faculty was full of insightful commentary about the project and the larger diversity climate on campus. Robin Riley-Casey, director of the Office of Multicultural Life, explained how vital it is to engage first year students in this dialogue: “I don’t think we will ever not attempt to engage the population. If we want to transform Muhlenberg culture to one that is complicated and engages with these social issues, we need to start early.”
The Sedehi Diversity Project aims to begin to engage the population in dialogue, but does not encourage students to allow the conversation to halt after designated conversations have ended. “Digging Deeper” then provides that intermediate space for students to come forth and address the issues on both individual and communal planes, without the added pressure the social sphere may contain. One such opportunity that “Digging Deeper” provides is their annual retreat, which engages students in dialogue not only about the issues at hand, but a “meta” level of discussing how to create a dialogue on campus. This year the retreat will take place at a retreat center, and will culminate on campus.
Catalyst training, created by the LeaderShape Institute, is a one-day leadership training program, which will be open to the campus community. It focuses on individual understanding of goals and small-group dialogue. Riley-Casey explains that this program offers “synergy with the work [Digging Deeper] is doing.” Focus on and development of group dynamics and leadership skills will allow for these conversations to last longer—impacting participants in a lasting and meaningful way. The facilitators of the retreat hope that these skills will allow students to leverage their leadership capacity to work towards collective change.
When asked about the recent poster incidents on campus, which covered the college in a cloud of tension, these faculty members explained the importance of dialogue in assuaging fears and ensuring safety for all members of the campus community.
“Awareness building matters,” stated Mark Smiley, assistant director of the Office of Multicultural Life. “But what is the meaning making that can happen around that?” In other words, how can interpersonal discussion make an impact on the greater climate of the Muhlenberg student body? The content of these discussions can only reverberate through the population if students investigate the intersection of ideas, which derive from the different experiences represented by the student body, explained Office of Community Engagement’s Eveily Freeman. The Office of Community Engagement and Office of Multicultural Life have, over the years, investigated data collections of the student body, and understand the diversity statistics on this campus.
When asked about how these numbers are reflected in the general manifestation of diversity, it was stated that the prominent stumbling block is creating a place where like-minded yet diverse people can engage face-to-face. Suggestions have been made about prompting these conversations within First Year Seminars, where populations are diverse and students are within close proximity to the “Sedehi Diversity Project” experience.
Although diversity statistics on campus have fluctuated over the years, with the Latino population growing, the Black population remaining relatively static and the Asian-American population’s inconsistency, it becomes easy for Muhlenberg to appear a consistently predominantly White campus. However, such perceptions will only be propagated if campus continues to fall short in terms of opportunities to address, not just acknowledge, such issues. Therefore, “Digging Deeper” holds a crucial place in the dynamic of the college.
Institutional changes have been suggested as well; the college is currently in search of a new Associate Provost of Diversity. These faculty members hope that with an incoming provost will come more data collection, and consequent opportunities to strategize about ways to address the results of such studies. The task of fighting the stigmas that accompany a campus with a student body that is 73.8% white is unquestionably difficult. However, such stigmas only gain more power when students do not often address the complications at hand.
The opportunity to engage in the crucial conversations “Digging Deeper” encourages provides students the opportunity to think about each individual’s responsibility to his or her peers and the greater Muhlenberg project. As Smiley so eloquently explained, this project has the potential to allow students to question the status-quo and address their crucial lived experiences. Students will be able to gain autonomy of intellect, and explore ideas outside of the “mainstream European notions of identity and belonging.” Here, students can finally investigate how to unapologetically make their college experience their own.
(Stat about ethnicity diversity: https://www.collegefactual.com/colleges/muhlenberg-college/student-life/diversity/)