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A history of diversity and cooperation yields a bright future

February 23rd, 2012

In 1935, three men represented the entire population of JCU’s first African American graduates. Seventy-seven years later, JCU has become a much more diverse university. However, students, faculty and administrators are continually expanding their efforts to improve this standard.

JCU president the Rev. Robert Niehoff, S.J. has been working to promote equality. An aspect of this commitment has been seen in the celebrations of Black History Month, which have included an African American Read Through, Cultural Awareness Series speaker Daryl David and other events to promote diversity.

With 15 percent of the current freshman class surveyed identifying themselves as non-Caucasian, 30 percent identifying their religion as something other than Roman Catholic, and 40 or so current students identifying themselves as LGBTQ, it has never been more important to acknowledge and celebrate diversity.

“We owe it to ourselves and our community to be as informed as we can, so we can relate to and find commonalities with groups that we wouldn’t expect and form new friendships,” said sophomore Christopher Wetherill, president of Allies (a society for LGBTQ students and their supporters).

Today, JCU celebrates diversity in a variety of ways, including through the requirements for its liberal arts curriculum, its 20 cultural clubs ranging from the African American Alliance to R.I.C.E (Realizing your Love for Cultures of the East), the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion, and the Diversity Steering Committee.

“From what I’ve seen, it seems like JCU is doing a good job promoting diversity,” said freshman Alexander Peterson, president of R.I.C.E.

Crystal Elkadi, head of the Middle Eastern Society, confirmed this sentiment. “Our society really enjoys what we do on campus, and most importantly we feel comfortable and confident in expressing our pride and knowledge of who we are and where we come from and enjoy sharing this with others,” she said.

There are still clear challenges, however.

“We still need to make people more aware but it is hard recruiting new JCU students as many are already involved with other things or settled in their schedules,” said Peterson.

Wetherill said, “Bridging the gap between what you personally believe and you outwardly express day-to-day is tough.”

Furthermore, he wonders whether clubs truly engage people outside of their core members with their events.

“Everyone eats and loves the free food because we’re in college and we’re poor, but do they actually take anything away or change their daily routine to actively show their support?” asked Wetherill. “Members of Allies almost always have some story of discrimination or bias whether they have been a witness to or the subject of it. The fact this behavior still occurs perpetuates the idea that as a campus we are not welcoming, though this is simply not the truth as most JCU students are liberal and embrace diversity.”

Curtis Walker, a student representative on the Diversity Steering Committee, added, “We have a genuine goal beyond mere lip service but the biggest barrier for students is looking past the preconceived notions of our campus as segregated. We all create assumptions and labels and we all need to change this.”

The Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion, which was renamed last summer, works with students during their time at JCU through speakers, programs and one-on-one guidance. Program Coordinator Salomon Rodezno said, “People come in with a range of issues who want to share their story; they just want to get their point of view across.”

The office hopes to act as a transformational force, where learning is a two way process, encouraging students to think critically about who they are as individuals and within groups.

“Our biggest challenge is getting our name out there,” said Rodezno. “We want to build healthy and meaningful relationships and let students across the campus know that we are there for them all.”

But John Carroll’s diversity strategy was not always this way.

“It is hard for me to see what it is today and make sense out of what it was for students who were here in the early 1990s and students who were here prior to 1987 because it was so different,” said former JCU Director of Multicultural Affairs Juliana Mosley Anderson.

Despite the school’s founding in 1886, Chester Gray was one of the first three African Americans graduating from JCU in the class of 1935. About that time, he said, “We broke ground out there.”

Furthermore, up until the late 1960s the University was only open to men, not becoming fully co-educational until September 1968.

Even an alumnus from the class of 2000, Noberto Colon, acknowledged, “When I got here it hit me straight away: Where are the students of color? Especially since I know that there are students of color in all the Cleveland public high schools that are capable of attending this University.”

Former JCU president, the Rev. Edward Glynn, S.J. predicts that these demographic changes will continue.

“Thirty years from now the majority of the students in the United States going to college will be what we now call the minority,” he said. “Never again can our students live in a world that’s 90 percent white.”

Looking at our diversity and attitudes from a historical perspective we can have hope, said Walker.

“We are not quite there yet, but we are headed in the right direction,” he said.