Alumni Column: Reaching Across Differences

As an Alumni Council member, I have talked with students and administrators about the events which took place in September and at the end of the fall semester.  While I am saddened to hear that there are students who don’t feel welcome or comfortable at Colgate, I am proud of the students who made the difficult decision to take a stand and try to make Colgate a more welcoming institution to learn and live.  

When I arrived on campus in 1980, my roommate was an African American student from the Bronx by way of Jamaica, while I grew up in an almost all-white, suburban town.  We had very different backgrounds and interests, but the luck of the draw threw us together. For a while, we searched for things to talk about, reasons to spend time together and ways to make our ten months in a very small space work. It wasn’t always easy, and we had moments that were difficult but, for me, it was life changing. Eventually, my roommate convinced me to listen to rap music (remember, this was 1980 and rap music hadn’t made it to the suburbs or Hamilton, N.Y. yet), and I encouraged him to listen to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. We listened to Dylan’s “Hurricane” over and over and talked about Rubin Carter’s plight (he was still in jail at the time).

No, we didn’t become life-long friends, but we stayed in touch through our Colgate careers and saw each other several times in our first decade as alums. We haven’t talked in over 20 years but I think of him often. Today, I work with minority teens as president of a non-profit educational organization, and one of the 9th graders I’m now working with is from my former roommate’s neighborhood. I have found that my freshmen year experience is so critical in the work I do now with teenagers.

Today, Colgate has a much larger percentage of minority students, international students and many others who aren’t from the traditional backgrounds Colgate has previously brought to campus. While I’m sure there are wonderful examples of the positive effects the increasing diversity has had on the Colgate community, there are clearly problems on campus and many students are unhappy, lonely, disappointed or all of the above. 

I don’t think there’s an easy fix but I know this: Colgate’s student body is primarily made up of smart, friendly people. If every one of you made the effort to reach out to someone different this week, things would be a little better next week. Take an international student to lunch, or ask a student with a different background to be a partner on a class project.  

Along with most highly ranked institutions of higher learning, Colgate has dramatically changed the demographics of its student body since I was a student. I think this is great news. But it’s only the beginning. Colgate students need to take the next step and find ways to connect with members of the community from all backgrounds.  Yes, it will be hard and possibly uncomfortable at times, but that’s what life is about. I promise it will make your Colgate experience richer and your life more fulfilling.