Officials pilot diversity trainings during freshman orientation

Media Credit: Ethan Stoler | Contributing Photo Editor

Student Association President Ashley Le and Sen. Tyrell Garner, GSEHD-G, sat on the committee that designed the diversity trainings for incoming freshmen.

The Class of 2022 will be the first to see the effects of sweeping diversity measures instituted after a racist Snapchat incident last semester.

First-year students will participate in a piloted series of diversity and inclusion trainings, including skits performed by orientation leaders and in-person group discussions, during Colonial Inauguration. Students who designed the trainings said the program will promote dialogue about inclusivity as soon as freshmen arrive on campus – a move student leaders said will take steps to prevent another racist incident from happening at GW.

“It’s important that we are addressing this conversation with incoming students since this will be the very first time they get in contact with the GW community being at CI,” Student Association President Ashley Le, who sat on the committee to design the trainings, said.

The trainings were initially proposed in February, days after members of Alpha Phi posted a Snapchat featuring one student holding a banana peel with the caption, “Izzy: ‘I’m 1/16th black,’” prompting widespread backlash and calls for administrative action.

At the time, officials vowed to implement a slew of new diversity initiatives, including hiring a new diversity and inclusion director and implementing mandatory training for faculty and resident advisers, among other high-level positions. The details of the measures were outlined in a 12-page report released in April, and mandatory diversity training for incoming freshmen was among officials’ top priorities on the report.

Incoming students will watch skits performed by CI leaders about diversity and inclusion, as well as other topics like partying and balancing a college workload. Following the skits, students will head to smaller groups led by CI leaders for an in-person discussion about what they can take away from the performances, officials said.

Once they arrive on campus, students will also participate in online diversity trainings that are still being developed, officials said.

University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said the skits were created by orientation leaders, staffers in the Office of Student Support and Family Engagement and consultants at the Posse Foundation, an organization that trains student leaders about diversity initiatives.

“With these skits, we hope to introduce students to some of the issues they may face and also to introduce them to the University resources that may be able to help in each situation,” Csellar said in an email. “Diversity and inclusion topics are highlighted in one thread of the skits, but are presented in context and are not the sole focus of the skits writ large.”

Csellar said the Posse Foundation also worked with orientation leaders – called cabinet members – to facilitate discussions about diversity and inclusion.

“This training was focused on how cabinet could have meaningful, respectful and civil discussions about the often-difficult topics presented during skits,” she said.

Csellar said that using the skits and in-person conversations during the two-day orientation, officials can help students become “mindful” about diversity and inclusion when they arrive on campus.

About 2,400 students will attend CI this summer – roughly 85 percent of the incoming class – Laurie Koehler, the vice provost for enrollment management and retention, said.

Csellar declined to say if the committee on diversity training for freshmen – which was comprised of about 20 students and staffers and started gathering in March – will continue meeting to track the success of the skits and sessions. She also declined to say how officials will evaluate the success of the diversity trainings.

Students who worked on the committee said they anticipate the sessions will help incoming students gauge how the University was affected by racist incidents last academic year.

Le, the SA president and a member of the committee, said the diversity trainings will relay to incoming students that racist incidents won’t be tolerated on campus.

“Our most important goal is to make sure that the students from every corner of campus will have this information on hand, so we are all committed in making each community, the small one, the big one, to be more accessible to every student,” Le said.

But Abiola Agoro, the outgoing president of GW’s chapter of the NAACP, said the trainings don’t go far enough to ensure incoming students understand the importance of diversity because some issues may not become obvious until after freshmen arrive on campus.

“CI’s not very effective in a lot of ways, when it comes to what your life is on campus, because realistically it gives you this idea of what campus life is, but once you’re there, it’s completely different,” she said. “There are a lot of interactions you’re not going to have until you’re actually living with somebody for a couple of months.”

Agoro said officials should instead offer a class about diversity and inclusion when freshmen start the year because students could better make connections between the trainings and their experiences at GW. She met with University President Thomas LeBlanc to inquire about a class, but officials didn’t act upon the request, Agoro said.

She cited American University’s “AU Experience” class – a course that covers topics like diversity, bias and freedom of expression – as a model for what she wants to be enacted at GW. The university implemented the class after experiencing a series of racist incidents last spring, in which bananas in the shape of nooses were found around campus bearing the letters of a historically black sorority.

Creating a class focused on diversity and inclusion was a priority on Le’s platform when she ran for SA president.

“We wanted a class like that for the diversity training, that would really have been effective throughout the entire fall – that would actually guide students,” Agoro said.

SA Sen. Tyrell Garner, GSEHD-G, who also sat on the committee, said officials should track the success of diversity trainings during freshmen’s first semester by surveying students for feedback about how the trainings have impacted their experiences at GW and whether they’ve seen racist incidents on campus.

“If freshmen don’t report back a racist incident, then the trainings are effective,” he said.

James Harnett, a rising junior who sat on the committee, said members of the group attended three meetings in the spring to outline diversity trainings for incoming students, leaving much of the organization of the programs to staffers and administrators.

The skits and subsequent discussions are “the best way to introduce that subject” to freshmen because they provide students with possible scenarios they may encounter during their time at GW.

“Those kinds of conversations are more important for people who haven’t had an opportunity to go to school with people of color and engage with them on a daily basis,” Harnett said. “That was our approach to what we wanted to have happen at CI.”

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