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Historian encourages students to value diversity

By REBECCA O'NEIL | Friday, October 4, 2013

 

Historian Verge Gillam, familiarly known as Brother Sage, offered his life story to Saint Mary’s students Thursday in order to challenge them to extend themselves culturally and to ask questions.

“None of you will approach me, but I want to know each and every one of you individually,” Gillam said. “I come from the African-American Experience. Most Africans in this country come from a peculiar institution called slavery.”

 At the lecture, titled “The Value of Otherness,” Gillam said his mother briefly attended Wilberforce University before dropping out to for financial reasons. After three kids and a series of divorces, she returned to school. Her degree allowed her to teach in New Jersey, Spain and Germany. Once she got her graduate degree from Ball State University, she went on to teach in Korea and Turkey. 

“After everything, my mother came away from her experience speaking six different languages,” Gillam said. “When she died, she had artifacts from 37 different countries in her room.”

Gillman said he pursued an upper-level education for non-intellectual reasons.

“I was a college graduate because I wasn’t going to Vietnam,” he said. “All my friends came back [from the Vietnam War] either crazy or dead.”

 Gillam said his daughter attended the University of Cincinnati, and if his granddaughter attends a university, she will be a fourth-generation college graduate. 

“That’s not something many people can say,” Gillam said.

 After sharing his family’s story, Gillam examined the ideas of otherness and sameness. The former causes people to proceed with caution, while the latter is ‘safe,’ he said. He asked the audience to participate in an exercise about otherness. He read off a list of attributes and preferences that differentiated attendees from each other.

 “I learned that in some way, somehow, we are all different,” Roger Cox, an employee at Memorial Hospital of South Bend, said after the exercise. “I really feel like otherness is the key to world peace.”

Catherine Pittman, a professor of psychology at the College, said Saint Mary’s aims to increase its diversity.

 “It’s something we think is very important,” she said. “If you look at our community, it’s not very diverse compared to South Bend or Indiana or [North] America. We are preparing our students to be leaders and change agents in the world, and the world is a lot more diverse than Saint Mary’s.

 Gillam said people should associate otherness with individuality and exceptionality. He added that sameness can become repetitive.

“The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts,” he said. “Go out and meet someone not from Saint Mary’s. Establish a rapport with them that allows you to step beyond.

“I don’t think you can develop wisdom if you don’t do something out of the ordinary. Experience difference.”

Contact Rebecca O’Neill at roneil01@saintmarys.edu