On September 24, 52 students from six different colleges, including Saint Lawrence University, Hamilton College, Skidmore University, Union College, Hobart and William Smith College and Colgate University attended the first conference of the New York Six Liberal Arts Consortium. The NY6, funded by the Mellon Foundation, was formed one year ago. The consortium invited students, staff and faculty together to speak about issues of diversity including advocacy, agency, empowerment and collaboration.
At ten o’clock in the morning, students were instructed by guest speaker Michael Benitez to walk around the patio of Alana Cultural Center with their eyes looking down at the pavement. Thirty seconds later, the students were encouraged by Benitez to intermingle silently while maintaining eye contact and engaging in handshaking. He then asked them to greet each other as if they were old friends, meeting for the first time in 20 years. The group of 52 students immediately became loud and energetic, hugging strangers as if they were best friends. This icebreaker was Benitez’s first attempt to break the boundaries surrounding the issue of diversity.
“It’s about breaking down physical boundaries, making people feel comfortable and creating a space to encourage communication,” Benitez said. “Diversity cannot take place solo. It cannot work one way. Diversity is a transformation.”
Many students experienced that transformation throughout the daylong conference. Students attended three break-out sessions in which they could speak freely and work on collaboration efforts among the six schools. Session topics included student advisory and retention, empowerment and classroom experiences. However, the discussion didn’t end on that Friday afternoon.
Special Assistant to the Presidents for the NY6 Amy Cronin, hopes that this conference will have a positive impact at each of the six schools.
“It is a diversity initiative for the next three years and hopefully it will turn into a self-sustaining effort,” Cronin said. “Students at the Conference will be able to create a list serve among the six schools so they can continue the conversation after today and maintain the network that they create today.”
Another goal of the NY6 was to encourage students to collaborate, not only with each other, but also with alumni in order to cut programming costs and increase awareness. Assistant Dean of Multicultural Affairs at Colgate Thomas Cruz-Soto commented on the importance of reaching out to the greater community for support.
“We gotta pop those bubbles and collaborate more,” Cruz-Soto said. Students nodded in agreement and voiced similar issues of isolation within their own campus communities. Instead of over-programming, students will be encouraged to organize buses and shuttles to attend events that are already happening at other nearby universities.
“If students from other colleges come to events, then it will encourage Colgate students to attend those events,” Cruz-Soto said.
Dean of Students for Diversity at Hamilton College Allen Harrison also praised the collaborative efforts of the NY6.
“At each of our campuses, there are so few, so when we all come together, it’s great to see how the students interact and click,” Harrison said.
Students reconvened later in the afternoon for hors d’oeuvres at Donovan’s Pub, and the discussion about diversity continued. Students spoke candidly about their concerns with the administrations at their respective schools. Students from Hamilton College discussed the hardships that they went through to create a cultural center on their campus.
“I gave my life for four years to get this building,” Hamilton College senior Michael Bethoney said.
“People look at us and say, ‘Whoa, that’s too much.’ They look at us like radicals. But if you are in a community, it should be a community effort,” Hamilton College junior Denise Ghartey said.
Both were hoping to continue their correspondence with those who attended the NY6 for advice and support.
Other students praised the success of the NY6 Consortium.
“One word – fabulous. It was life changing,” St. Lawrence University junior and Black Student Union President Natasha Bennett said.
“It’s never too late. It was great to get this collective wisdom and I’m excited for future collaboration,” Bennett said.
While the conference this past Friday focused on the students’ opinions and voices, future NY6 conferences will target those of staff and faculty. After these smaller conferences have taken place, a larger NY6 summit will be planned to encapsulate diversity issues discussed by all participants in the NY6 program. When asked about the future of the NY6, Dean Cruz-Soto responded enthusiastically.
“The best part was seeing students hugging, exchanging phone numbers and emails, which is good for retention,” Cruz-Soto said. “It
develops a collaborative collegiate community.”