Last year, I opened an email inviting Youngstown State University students to participate in a Diversity Talent Showcase, hosted by the Office of Student Diversity Programs. At the time, I had been doing some photography. I thought, Why not share it?
The event ended up being phenomenal. I met new students, saw amazing acts and left, happy that I had decided to participate. Yet, I couldn’t help but notice that I was one of the few white people that had attended. That got me thinking: What does diversity mean at YSU?
Depending on your experiences on campus, you can come to think about it a hundred different ways.
For the Office of Student Diversity Programs, it’s about fostering enclaves of diversity, as well as making sure all students can make a difference. The department is first and foremost a place of inclusion — that is, making sure our differences are included, and that we all have a seat at the table. Mr. William Blake, its director, told me that the department works with developing programs. For example, the office helped found YSUnity and has helped plan events for both Hispanic Heritage Month and Women’s History Month. Yet, as I had observed at that Diversity Talent Showcase, the office attracts mostly black students to its core events. Mr. Blake says that this may be because black students feel more comfortable in his office, because he himself is a person of color.
This points to the importance of diverse leadership on campus, not only in YSU’s administration and faculty, but also Student Government Association’s.
For SGA, diversity and inclusion are values to constantly be improved upon, both on campus and in the body itself. Gabriella Gessler talked to me about the various tactics the current body is implementing, starting with the creation of the Inclusion and Awareness Ad Hoc Committee to continue working on issues of diversity. Very real actions have been, or will be taken, such as working with the administration to implement single-user bathrooms to be inclusive of transgender penguins.
SGA has been self-conscious of its own lack of diversity in regard to some demographics for the past couple of years. For example, last year the body created a nonvoting seat for an international student. This year, an international student ran for a voting seat and won — yet, it’s hard to say if the two actions are correlated. Primarily, the current administration’s focus is on networking with and encouraging underrepresented students to run.
The year’s SGA candidates all promise to work on diversity as well, with each campaign differing in its approach. For example, one major difference between campaigns is that Atway/Barkett believe in considering affirmative action when appointing empty voting seats, whereas Vegoda/Edwards believe in appointment by merit alone.
Atway/Barkett told me that if they were to be elected, they would likewise prioritize appointing minority students to nonvoting seats. Jaylin Archie, vice president of the Black Student Union, currently holds a nonvoting seat in SGA. He expressed dissatisfaction with such a tactic: “Just appointing seats to minority students that are nonvoting — that have no real voice, no real power with a vote — that’s only making an image, it’s not spreading diversity, it’s not spreading inclusion.”
Of course, SGA can’t force anyone to run for office. The logic behind appointing minority students to the four available nonvoting seats is that these minority students would become informed, and perhaps later want to run for a voting seat. Yet, this tactic may lead into murky waters, as those same minority students may paradoxically end up feeling disenfranchised.
Mr. Blake also pointed to another concern: in the case of black representation, black students generally have lower GPAs than white students at YSU. This becomes an issue when deciding to run for election, as you must have over a 2.5 GPA to vie for a voting seat and a 2.75 GPA to vie for an executive position. Again, this is complex. Students should focus on their studies first and foremost; however with this policy in place, less black students may ultimately be eligible to run for the body.
Relatedly, while serving in SGA myself last year, I had observed that a disproportionate number of SGA reps are a part of the Honors College — i.e. are high-achieving academically.
“A lot of students [in SGA] come from the same surrounding areas, like Boardman, Canfield, Poland, and there aren’t black people in those schools,” Archie said. “So you come to this school, you’re in the Honors College, you’re in SGA and there’s only white people, that’s what you’re comfortable with. I don’t feel as though [SGA is] trying to keep black students or minority students away, but they don’t know how to connect, because they’ve been disconnected [from minority students] for their entire life.”
Majority white schools, like Poland’s, also typically have better educational systems than do majority black schools, like Youngstown’s. The GPA topic opens up a larger discussion of privilege, race and opportunity.
Because of this disconnection, Archie believes that racism, privilege and diversity should be addressed during Freshman Orientation. He added that the Black Student Union is working to get different diversity classes built into the curriculum of the First Year Experience program.
Despite these issues, SGA and YSU as a whole are aware of the importance and complexity of this topic. I feel proud to see our university make strides towards inclusion via representation and celebration of our rich diversity. And I hope next year’s SGA administration continues this trend.