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Addressing Diversity From The Start

Published: October 1, 2015

Diversity 101. It may not be a course, yet, but it is part of the learning process for incoming students matriculating through CSULB’s Student Orientation, Advising and Registration (SOAR) program.

“I was trying to figure out what was the best way to get a cross-cultural dialogue going, not just in orientation, but in general,” said Ken Kelly, who was the director of SOAR and Parent and Family Programs for the last 14 years before recently being named Interim Executive Director of Housing and Auxiliary Services. “It’s more than multiculturalism in my view; it’s cross-cultural issues that come up. We didn’t tackle it because we didn’t have a good way of doing it without making it non-threatening.”

That barrier was overcome thanks, in great part, to Jesse Ramirez and Juan Gonzalez, who came up with a novel idea. Ramirez was the associate director for SOAR, who now serves as the interim director, and Gonzalez was a graduate assistant working in the program.

“We had to come up with the best method to do it so Jesse and Juan put their heads together and talked about what they could do on diversity and the program they came up with matched perfectly with the opening session of SOAR,” said Kelly. “Coming from a student perspective, I knew it was going to be a heck of a lot more powerful than anything I could come up with it. When I saw the program, I thought it was awesome.”

For Gonzalez, who was with SOAR for four years and now serves as an assistant residential college coordinator in Housing and Residential Life, much of his presentation was based on his own personal experiences.

“I think it’s a mixture of personal experience and my experiences from working at SOAR,” said Gonzalez, a graduate student in CSULB’s Student Development in Higher Education program. “I began working there a long time ago and I wasn’t the person who I am now and I think a lot of the experiences I got through SOAR gave me the confidence to develop things like this program.”

With a clear need to address the topic of diversity, SOAR seemed the perfect opportunity to put it before incoming students. Ramirez and Gonzalez developed a 15-minute program, with one of the big challenges being trying to figure out what topics were the priority and how to discuss them with 17- and 18-year-old freshmen.

“The topic (of diversity) was handled, I believe, in a good way because we provided information, but we also had some comedic aspects to it,” said Gonzalez. “We involved SOAR advisors so it made it more real to the students. I thought it was important for incoming students to know that here at CSULB we care about these topics and set that foundation the very first hour of orientation, and that they know that’s the type of atmosphere we want to have here at the university.”

“I think this was the perfect program to get the information out in a non-threatening way so the new students could learn a lot more about our diverse community before they come in,” said Kelly. “It was almost like an academic convocation for the freshmen. It gave them a good look of what the campus looks like and some of the issues that come up.”

For Gonzalez, the focus was more than an ethnic or racial theme. One of the main components of the diversity program touched on multiple identities—disabilities, social income and geographical, where people come from, etc. It was about how other things intersect with ethnicity and to let students know that their identity is about more than just their skin color.

“The powerful piece is when we bring our panel down of other SOAR advisors of various diversities and talk about how assumptions are made just by looking at someone and how they have the same hopes and dreams as everyone else,” said Kelly. “I think Juan did a great job of going around the room and saying everybody has multiple identities and even though they may look similar to someone else they can still be very different people.

“If students have that discussion and begin meeting more people who may be different then they can become friends and be more sensitive, more understanding and more engaging,” he added. “They’ll be part of a community. We want students to feel like they are part of a community; that they are participating and they’re engaging with other people in a non-judgmental way.”

Gonzalez definitely feels things on campus are getting better when it comes to addressing diversity, noting it starts at the top.

“I think the atmosphere shows that things are going in the right direction,” he said. “I think with our new president (Jane Close Conoley) and new VP of student affairs (Carmen Taylor) there’s definitely a platform for these things to be discussed. I saw that at SOAR, I see it in housing and I see it across campus in a lot of different aspects of things the university is doing.

“I don’t expect students to walk away from our program and say, ‘I’m never going to be racist or say anything that’s wrong,’ but I want them to know that this university cares about those things and there may have been certain things that took place in high school that aren’t going to fly here,” he added. “That was my biggest mission, to let the incoming students know we care about diversity at the university and there are opportunities for them to grow.”