Castleton gets serious about diversity

When most people think diversity, they probably think in terms of race and ethnicity. A recent survey, however, set out to see how Castleton College deals with diversity and inclusion on many different levels.

Assistant Director of Admissions Raphael Okutoro explained at the Feb. 12 presentation of the survey’s results, “this is the first time Castleton has set out to do a campus climate assessment.”

Dean Ingrid Johnston-Robledo quoted A Pennsylvania State University professor defining campus climate as “the current attitudes, behaviors and standards of faculty, staff, administrators and students concerning the level of respect for individual needs, abilities and potential.”

The event, held in the 1787 Room, was titled “Beyond Yik Yak: Talking Diversity at Castleton.” The title refers to a series of anonymous posts on the social media app about white supremacy. This occurred in early January, sparking a lot of fear and confusion.

“I think it’s a minority of people who use it for those negative purposes,” Johnston-Robledo said. She added that she encourages advocacy and hopes students will down-vote hurtful posts instead of jumping on the bandwagon.

The inclusive excellence survey, sent to students, staff and faculty last fall, measured how participants viewed diversity at Castleton beyond race and ethnicity to include gender, sexuality, weight, and age differences among the campus community. Created by a subcommittee comprised of students, staff and faculty, the goal was to discuss what diversity looks like, or at least start a dialogue about what diversity should look like on this campus.

“I think this is the first time we’ve done that,” Johnston-Robledo said. “People have said that filling out the survey has been eye opening. I’ve had staff, faculty and students say it was a learning experience.”

A video was shown of South African comedian Trevor Noah called “That’s Racist-Tacos” to explain how small cultural differences can actually be very offensive to different groups.

For the most part, participants rated the climate at Castleton as inclusive, but some respondents reported experiences of discrimination, primarily in the form of comments or exclusion on the basis of gender, weight and age.

Johnston-Robledo pointed out the homogeneity of the sample is representative of the demographics on our campus.

Of the 458 survey participants, 87.1 percent were white, 93 percent were U.S. citizens and 86 percent were heterosexual. Because of this, the sample was neither random nor ideal.

While there is always room to improve, Johnston-Robledo sees that Castleton is already headed in a good direction.

“We put such a heavy influence on civility and respect,” Johnston-Robledo said. “We have a really strong foundation to start with.”

Communications Professor Michael Talbott speaks during diversity event in the 1787 room.
Courtney Parker/Castleton Spartan

After the results of the survey were announced, the crowded room of attendees was encouraged to get up and respond to comments on pieces of paper taped to the walls. The composition of the audience was more than half faculty and staff, but there were plenty of students present as well.  

“I think more students should get involved and be proactive in helping to promote inclusive excellence,” said Meredith Fletcher, coordinator of placement and graduation standards.

As a relative newcomer, international Student Services Coordinator Deborah Singiser said she sees that Castleton is a very inclusive place.

“I felt given the environment as a newcomer people were generally warm and welcoming. I had nothing but positive first impressions. Given from where I sit as a white American Christian, it feels very inclusive,” she said.

Of the 33 International students and 22 first-generation Americans Singiser works with on campus, she has not heard of discrimination issues.

“I can honestly tell you there has not been one international student who has come to me with a complaint,” she said.

Johnston-Robledo explained how a main part of this inclusion effort is to address the groups that have felt excluded under the radar.

“There are people who feel they haven’t been welcomed because they’re an older student or transgender,” Johnston-Robledo said. “Even if only a handful of students have felt belittled, that’s a problem.”

A benefit of doing this kind of survey and discussion is to start a dialogue about diversity needs on campus. This can aid in the attraction of more international students as well a more diverse student body in general, she said.

“Castleton is starting from a very strong foundation,” Singiser said, referring to the invisible diversity already in existence on campus through the mixture of students with various socio-economic backgrounds, interests and family structures.

Singiser knows the importance of diversity. She found her own passion for international relations and travel through a friend from Pakistan she met in college.

“When you meet someone of that country or of that religion, it’s much more meaningful,” she said. “A campus with all different backgrounds makes a rich experience for everyone: international students as well as American.”

After the presentation of results, some students seemed very impacted by the magnitude of this issue.

“Obviously Castleton has a lot of work ahead of them,” said freshman Kyle Gosley. “It’s only a small percentage affected, but it still matters. I think we are underestimating the importance.”

Junior Zachary Hampl also had his eyes opened at this event.

“There were so many fantastic different points and opinions because what this capitalized on was what we do not talk about,” Hampl said. “We just don’t always think about who is being offended by what.”

So what’s next?

The suggestions given by survey participants included faculty and staff development, more Soundings events on these topics, sensitivity training days, more funding for groups that promote diversity and more opportunities to talk about why diversity matters.   

Johnston-Robledo noted the information obtained from the survey and forum could be useful for coaches, athletes, CAs and professors who may not have attended the event.

“One thing we want to do is more analysis of the data,” she said after the event. “We want to do follow-up interviews to learn about people’s experiences and think about different places and ways to share our results.”


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