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Cultural communities strengthen ND family

| Thursday, April 24, 2014

Recently, a column was published in the Viewpoint section of The Observer titled “Poor structures lead to poor race relations.” This article pointed out some perceived Notre Dame institutional problems, specifically minority-oriented freshman retreats and student organizations, as a cause for poor race relations on this campus. While we agree with the author’s point that the alleviation of this issue requires action from the administration, we do not feel that these retreats and clubs are the root of the problem.

There are a number of claims that were made about these programs that we would like to address. One claim is that the retreats are firmly set apart for minority students and create a divergence between the “regular” students and “other” students. In response, we would like to point out that Campus Ministry states the following: “The Freshman and First-Year Fall Retreat is open to all first-year … students, but it is especially geared toward [Asian and Asian-American, Latino, African-American] students.” Those who have attended these retreats know that we are pleased to have students who do not necessarily identify with the designated cultural group and welcome them into our family.

This still leaves open the question as to why these retreats are necessary and why they create a smaller community within our Notre Dame community.

Each student comes in during their freshman year from a different background. This diversity of background is part of what makes Notre Dame so great. But with the advantages diversity brings also come some challenges that must be addressed. Some students come from communities that are vastly different from Notre Dame’s racial and cultural demographic. This can create a sense of “culture shock” for some students that is especially difficult considering how many other life changes they are experiencing within the first few months of college. These retreats provide a sense of comfort and community that puts these students more at ease as they make their transition.

Many people like to think that we live in a post-racial society where different racial groups are perfectly integrated. However, race and especially culture are often a large part of one’s identity; culture influences the way we are raised, the food we eat, the language we speak and the music we listen to. It is important that students who come to Notre Dame are still able to express themselves however they wish. This is not to say that students must choose between their cultural community and the greater Notre Dame community — rather, they are encouraged to participate in both. Much like dorm communities or religious communities, cultural communities are meant to enhance the Notre Dame experience as a whole.

These sub-communities also benefit the entire student body. They provide a means for students to learn and participate in cultures that are different from their own. We recognize that many students come from backgrounds where they might not have fully experienced other cultures. Clubs like Latino Student Alliance, Black Student Association, Asian American Association and others provide an opportunity for any student to learn about and participate in another heritage. All of these clubs make an effort to invite and welcome students of all backgrounds; for instance, the Asian American Association has for the past year used the motto “0-100 percent Asian.”

One criticism of the freshman retreats is that they happen too early in the year, before minority students have the opportunity to make friends on their own. One analogy we find on campus is freshman orientation itself. During this weekend, students are encouraged to bond with and participate primarily in their dorm community. However, this does not prevent students from making friends with those outside of that community as well. Attending these retreats does not inhibit one’s ability to join other communities on campus; in fact, many students come on the retreat, enjoy their time and make friends, and go on to become primarily involved with other communities that share their interests.

A proposed change to these retreats that has been considered by the administration is to push the dates for these retreats to later in the fall. We believe that this will not change the way that students make friends outside of their respective cultural communities. Instead, it will fragment these communities. Many of the students who have gone on these retreats have cited them as a large part of the reason they decided not to transfer out of the university after negative experiences with freshman orientation. These retreats, clubs and communities are critical retention tools for the university. Furthermore, regarding race relations, fragmenting these communities will eliminate opportunities to gain cultural competency. It is by experiencing and participating in these communities that we truly improve ourselves; not by having a few minority friends.

While we do agree that there are issues at the administrative level that contribute to poor race relations on campus, we do not believe that eliminating multicultural retreats and clubs is the answer. Rather, we urge the University to address the issue by showing increased support for offices like Multicultural Student Programs and Services and organizations like Diversity Council. These entities provide great programming for all students and we believe that they would benefit from greater funding and personnel. We also acknowledge the changes that are already being implemented by the university, especially in regards to inclusion during freshman orientation.

In conclusion, we would like to extend an invitation to all Notre Dame students to participate in the frequent multicultural events that occur on campus and to come to our meetings. If you are unsure of where to begin, you can reach out to any of the cultural clubs on campus; we welcome you with open arms.

Michael Dinh, 2013 Asian and Asian-American Freshman Retreat Co-leader

Celeste Villa-Rangel, 2013 Latino Freshman Retreat Co-leader

Ray’Von Jones, 2013 African-American Freshman Retreat (The Plunge) Co-leader

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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