In early January of this year, I returned to college a few days early to participate in tour guide training. During that weekend, one information session focused on the idea of inclusivity and belonging. The presentation started with a single image:
As the image came up on the screen, there was an audible reaction from the audience. When asked why we had such a strong response, it became clear that all of us knew what it was to be the child looking in; we knew what it was to be considered an “other”, one who did not belong.
For many, that experience extended beyond the schoolyard. For some, it extended even onto campus.
Transitioning from high school to college isn’t easy for anyone, but it is even harder for those who feel they do not belong. Growing up, we each have an idea of what a college student is- their background and education. When that ideal doesn’t line up with our own experiences, it can lead to an overwhelming sense of imposter syndrome. I believe this is particularly true at a small liberal arts college where, more often than not, the majority of students share similar backgrounds and identities, and those who don’t are quickly identified as “others”.
Just two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to assist with an event hosted by Trendsetters (a student organization on campus). While there, I was able to speak with first-generation college students about their experiences at Dickinson. And while there were certainly commonalities, what struck me most was how each person had a very unique story and how, although grouped together by a common difference, the title of first-gen meant something very different for everyone. While some felt hesitant to speak in class, others were enthusiastic about sharing their opinions. While some struggled with the pressure of adapting to college classes, others struggled with the pressure that came from always being academically successful.
Altogether, the discussion made me realize the detriment of grouping individuals based on a single difference. While being first-gen may have qualified as being an “other” among the larger student body, it did not capture the true diversity of those who fell under the category, thus failing to recognize the value of each individual and the unique perspectives they bring to campus.
And I believe this applies on a larger scale.
When we choose to focus on differences, we often fail to recognize similarities. When we choose to exclude people from our communities, we lose the opportunity to learn from varying perspectives- ones that are not merely an echo chamber of our own. Both as college students and as citizens of a global community, we have the ability to connect and learn from a diverse array of people from a diverse array of backgrounds. But that can only happen when we recognize the value of each individual, choosing to include all rather than label those who belong and those whom we view as “others”.