Appreciating diversity

Over the last few months, we as a community have been challenged to confront our diversity. As an institution of higher learning in the 21st century, the importance of diversity is a constant refrain that begins with our admissions materials and continues long after graduation. We are taught to value diversity in the classroom, on the sports field and at the lunch table. For many students, the Williams community is comprised of the most heterogeneous assortment of individuals they’ve ever encountered. The College does much to compel the student body to engage with diversity, from the curriculum’s Exploring Diversity Initiative to Claiming Williams Day. But as events such as the hate crime of November 2011 remind us, there is much work to be done in our community as we seek to embrace our differences and find our commonalities.

Throughout our time at the College, we are actively reminded of the range of ethnicities, racial identities, religious affiliations, gender expressions and identities, sexual orientations, nationalities and ideologies of our community. We are inculcated to acknowledge the kind of diversity you can tangibly identify, the diversity that is proclaimed through campus organizations and the College’s non-discrimination policy. I am grateful to be part of a community that celebrates our visible diversity, even as the events of this year have reminded us all that we are not yet living in a community that protects that diversity. As we have grappled with this fact in recent months, I have become more cognizant and equally grateful of our growing consciousness of diversity of experience and of thought. I believe that to strengthen our community, we must actively engage with this diversity.

James A. Garfield, a Williams graduate and U.S. president, once said, “The ideal college is Mark Hopkins [president of Williams] on one end of a log and a student on the other.” It has been well over 100 years since Hopkins served as president of the College, and in this century, a laptop is more likely to separate professor from student than a log. While Williams is no longer the college of Garfield’s days, I would like to propose a variation on Garfield’s formula for this more contemporary age.

Where James Garfield imagined Mark Hopkins passing down knowledge to a student, I envision members of our community collaboratively engaged in thoughtful dialogue, sharing experiences and ideas in an effort to appreciate diversity and find commonality. A modern update of Garfield’s formula for the ideal college requires each of us to commit to our community and to value the individuals who compose it. We can learn so much from each other, for while we have all arrived at a common destination, we have each brought our unique life experience to the Purple Valley. So perhaps the ideal college is one that pushes us to connect with each other. The transfer of knowledge is not limited to the classroom, and we can learn much about the world from simply having conversations with our peers.

In 2012, we are afforded an infinite number of opportunities to encounter fellow Ephs through chance meetings at snack bar, controversial classroom debates and a whole host of other scenarios. Our community is carefully composed of over 2000 students who each bring something different to the table, and in our tiny Purple Valley, it often seems as if you know every single one of them. Throughout our daily lives at the College, we are guaranteed to have an individual at the end of that metaphorical log who represents a diversity of thought and of experience different from our own.

This is often an invisible diversity. Unless we stop to engage with the members of our community, we may never fully appreciate our true differences. And in our rush to finish that paper or hurry to that practice, we run the equally dangerous risk of assuming that we have nothing in common with someone who looks or speaks differently from us. There is more to all of us than meets the eye. As we move forward, we must do more to engage with the diversity that surrounds us. It is no longer enough to be aware of our differences. We must actively work to build a community founded on our different thoughts and experiences. And most importantly, we must seek out our unexpected commonalities as the cornerstones of that foundation.

Life at Williams is always busy, and we all strive to juggle competing commitments to athletics, academics, extracurricular activities, employment and more. The concept of diversity is often an alienating and an isolating idea. The recognition of different experiences and ways of thinking often leads to debate and disagreement. In many ways, it is easier to acknowledge diversity without truly connecting with the unique members of our community. As we work to build our Williams community, we must actively challenge ourselves to take the time to step outside of our usual boundaries and to engage with each other.


Kate Flanagan ’14 is from New Bern, N.C. She lives in Brooks. 

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