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Dungy delivers opening address

Liz Harter | Thursday, February 14, 2008

Saint Mary’s third-annual Diverse Student Leadership Conference began Thursday with remarks by Gwendolyn Jordan Dungy, the executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) in higher education.

“Diversity is not something that you are going to do just today, just this conference,” Dungy said. “It is something that is being planned for this institution.”

College president Carol Ann Mooney outlined the College’s plans for diversity in her strategic plan, “The Path to Leadership 2012,” which was delivered earlier this year.

“Everything [that plan said] talked about empowering these women [who attend Saint Mary’s] to lead,” Dungy said.

Part of teaching students to lead is helping them engage in their campus environment and become active in the national environment, she said. The way students are engaging in the national environment is partly why this year’s presidential primaries have become charged with such enthusiasm.

“Part of the excitement has to do with the fact that there is something different than what we have seen before in this election,” Dungy said. “McCain is the oldest person who has run for president, and it’s the first time we’ve seriously looked at a person who is a woman or who isn’t white [as candidates for the presidency].”

It also has to do with the fact that the nation is turning toward the idea of a “Newnited States of America,” she said.

“When a black male chooses [to vote for] a white female instead of a black male and when a woman chooses [to vote for] a man instead of a woman, it’s different,” she said, emphasizing how these ideas are new to the country.

Right now, Dungy said, we are in the “best worst” times. There are a lot of problems in America, but there are also a lot of resolutions to past problems, she said.

Dungy said students are the generation that she is most excited about.

“This is the greater generation. … Our hope is in you,” she said.

Students today want to heal the world, she said.

“They have done more service … than any generation in our past,” Dungy said. “[When evaluating the nation] the first thing we need to do is look at the promise of our students.”

Dungy showed pictures of golfer Tiger Woods, actress Halle Berry and Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama to the audience and said most students she has come in contact with want a post-racial future; that is something embodied by these celebrities because they claim neither to be white nor black, but self-identify as multiple races.

“They want to look at people as people and get beyond race,” Dungy said.

She also said young people are more involved in the election process because they have realized the leadership of the country is important.

Dungy also spoke about the different aspects of diversity in education and how they affect students today.

“There’s no way we can talk about diversity and multiculturalism without talking about religion,” she said.

Recently, Dungy spoke to a chaplain about the lack of religious diversity on college campuses and asked for advice on how to change it.

A chaplain replied that public school campuses can’t make it seem as though they favor one religion over another or that they believe that everyone in the United States is a Christian, Dungy said.

She added that while many believe that the Jewish faith and race is one of the most discriminated against in academia, a 2006 Washington Post survey showed that Jews were the most favorably looked upon by faculty and staff in America.

“These are the best times [for America] in a lot of ways when you think that we have moved forward a long way when it comes to anti-Semitism, but we don’t love all religions,” Dungy said.

Dungy also said that this is the “best worst” of times for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transsexual community in the United States.

“People became more accepting of it because of talk shows like ‘Ellen’ and ‘Oprah,’ and shows like ‘Will and Grace,'” she said. “The progress being made by transgender [persons] is enormous. You don’t have to say you’re male or female, you just say self-identity. A transsexual person can participate in the Olympics now if it’s two years since your surgery.”

At the same time, 64 percent of middle school students report that they have been affected by anti-gay bullying and name-calling, Dungy said.

“These students reported that they cannot learn if they don’t feel safe,” Dungy said. “They’re trying to find safe spaces for students who are questioning. This is not a safe place for them at middle schools, however it’s getting much better in high school.”

Dungy emphasized that it is everyone’s responsibility to make students who are different feel welcome.

“You can recruit as many students of color as you want but if they don’t feel a sense of belonging you had rather have closed your doors because, first of all, they aren’t going to stay,” she said. “This is what happens to international students, you want them engaged; they come here to have an American experience. If you don’t talk to them when it’s time to eat they’ll go find the people who came from the same country and eat with them.”

Everyone, not just the Office of Multicultural Affairs, needs to engage these students to give them a sense of belonging, Dungy said.

The Diverse Student Leadership Conference will continue through Friday.