Students & Faculty Share Reflections from Diversity Leadership Conference
Students & Faculty Share Reflections from Diversity Leadership Conference
Liz Torrey

Each year, St. Andrew's sends a group of students and faculty to the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC), a three-day gathering of high school students from across the country that focuses on exploring issues of diversity and equity and building cross-cultural relationships. SDLC is itself a part of the larger People of Color Conference (POCC) for educators, which focuses on issues of equity and diversity in schools. (Both conferences are hosted annually by the National Association of Independent Schools.) Below, students and faculty who attended this year's conference in Atlanta share some of their reflections on the experience.

Ryann Schutt '18

I was completely floored and amazed by the entire experience of SDLC. It made me question everything. Who am I? What is my purpose? What have I done for the past few years on campus? How have I impacted our School? Have I ever not been open to hearing someone talk?
At SDLC, for the first time, I was a minority, and I didn't feel comfortable speaking my opinion, like I've always done. I spent the first two days just listening; I didn't really feel like my voice was needed. That was a very humbling experience because I'd never really thought about my place in the classroom. When I raise my hand, or when we talk around the Harkness table, I usually don't second-guess when I say something. But I heard from the students in my group that it's harder for them to speak up in classes when they feel like they have to represent their entire culture. Many people in my group were saying, "Because you're white, you have to use your voice to represent us who are unable to express our voices in the same way you are." But I don't know how to—I don't want to speak for people, but I also don't want to be a bystander. So I guess that's something I'm still struggling with.
I feel like SDLC set me back a bit, because I was so unaware, and I just became even more confused and more presented with everything that's real for other people that isn't real for me. That's discouraging, but also real. I look at it as a chance to ask: How do I engage with my peers who haven't had that SDLC experience? It's interesting, because while we all live in this one space [at St. Andrew's], every person brings a different background from their home to our community, and so many people have had different experiences. That's the reason we did the Silent Movement last night for Chapel. [Students who attended SDLC led a Chapel service in February; the Silent Movement is a diversity exercise in which leaders read from a list of physical or social characteristics and participants stand up when they identify with a characteristic.] I wanted the white students, who make up 58% of our student body, to understand that the experience of every student on campus is not the same. I wanted people to be aware of the different identities that embody our campus.

Nam Nguyen '18

I had heard a lot of past participants say that the Student Diversity Leadership Conference was "life-changing" or "indescribable", so I initially worried it might not live up to the hype, but SDLC completely defied my expectations. The program is truly unique, and is a slap in the face to people unaware of their privilege and ignorance. The speakers and facilitators spared us of sugarcoating and immediately set the tone for a weekend of growth. For me, the most impactful part of SDLC was being able to interact with a large range of students who live drastically different lives than my own. From the girl in my affinity group whose mother is a North Korean refugee, to the gay student at my lunch table who attends an all-boys Catholic school in Texas, everyone I met—even those who had more similar upbringings to my own—taught me something about myself.
I am an international student at St. Andrew's, so an especially interesting moment for me at the conference was when I met Steven, a fellow international student in my affinity group. Steven is a Chinese senior at another boarding school in America. What particularly struck me about him was our mutual fondness for American culture, but our heavily contrasting approaches towards American politics. Steven's firm opinions on the recent presidential election, which he willingly expressed in many of our conversations, surprised me. As an international student, I try to be more reserved when American politics—and particularly issues around the election—come up in conversation, because the outcome of the election affects me much less than it does those who live in this country. Seeing Steven's investment in a topic I tend to shy away from made me rethink the experience I wish to have in America and how I wish to fit into the culture. Months after the conference, Steven and I still keep in touch; I'll occasionally check my Snapchat and find political memes from him.
Attending SDLC has definitely changed the way I see other students at St. Andrew's, particularly those who don't necessarily fit the mold of a "typical" St. Andrean. We tag students as cynical and withdrawn because they don't appreciate the same things to the same extent as the majority of the School population—but the unconventional way these students choose to interact with the School are simply reflections of different upbringings and life experiences. From the students who choose to study for the AP Psychology test on dorm rather than attending the Frosty Dance, to the person who spends their free day indoors watching anime, everybody has a story that we should try to listen to. During the Silent Movement Chapel, we asked if people felt like they had a voice at St. Andrew's. If I had not attended SDLC, I would have been shocked to see so many people stand up for "no" in answer to this question (especially considering the fact that St. Andrew's prides itself on being diverse and accepting) but I now have a better sense of the silenced voices and the hidden diversity in our community. SDLC helped me appreciate the diversity I am surrounded by on campus, and for that, I am thankful for the experience.

Annie Roach '18

In our St. Andrew's community, our days can seem repetitive, our goal for the day being to simply get through it. I catch myself speed-walking to class, counting down the minutes till bedtime, and telling myself, "I just have to make it through this week and then I'll get a rest." But in this mentality lies an underlying self-absorption. Each one of us has our own agenda for the day—each of us is just trying to make it through. We're just trying to get to Christmas break, or spring break, or long weekend, or just the plain weekend. In doing so, we habitually rush about our daily routine, scrambling through the hallways, faces around us blurred, the sound of our own footsteps pounding into our heads. During class we watch the clock. We are drained by the repetitiveness of routine. After study hall we arrive back on dorm, our backs hurting, our heads aching. We are so exhausted, we are so done, that we do not pause. We are eager to cover ourselves in blankets, wash the day off our faces, and cherish our sleeping moments. We drown out the voices outside in the hallway, longing to retreat into ourselves. We are so, so desperate to stop listening.

But what SDLC taught me is that it's time to start listening, to freeze our selfishness for a minute and to listen. The voices outside preventing you from sleep are the voices that indicate that we are alive, that we can speak. The faces that circulate around us throughout the day are proof of our unity. The steady, even breathing of your roommate in the middle of the night is proof that someone is in the room with you, that you are not stranded. The teacher in class, talking as you unknowingly zone out, is proof of our amazing opportunity for education. Instead of ignoring these little things, notice them. Listen to the voices you normally wouldn't listen to. In our school, and on a larger scale in our world, we are all united.

At SDLC, I realized the sheer value of voice. We cannot know our own side of the story if we do not know the other side. Instead of plugging our ears every time we hear someone talking about how great Donald Trump is, we should unplug them. We should ask him what his experience is. Ask him why his experience has shaped him as such. Listen. Share our own stories. Resist the urge to sharply reject his words and block out his explanation because we are so tied to our own beliefs. Instead, we should back up. We don't know their story. We don't know how they have experienced the world. We are all molded by our upbringings; we are formed by the world around us. For all you know, that person could have seen Trump as an emblem of hope, as someone who cared about them. Personally, I saw Clinton as an emblem of hope because, to me, she embodied a strong, intelligent female, and I saw the possibility of her election as creating a new sense of voice for women in powerful roles. Others viewed her in a hopeful light as well, but probably much different than mine. Our definitions of hope and promise are all different. We should listen to as many definitions as we can. In doing so, we can learn more about our own definitions.

Gretchen Hurtt '90, Dean of Studies

I have been thinking about socio-economic status and student experience at St. Andrew's for a long time—ever since I myself was a St. Andrew's student who received generous financial aid. At POCC, it was interesting to learn of one California school's self-study around this issue. The project studied how students' feeling of belonging was related to their socio-economic status. Perhaps not surprisingly, in an elite school with under 20% financial aid, their alums felt the school did not prepare them to understand socioeconomic diversity; financial aid students were half as likely to seek help from teachers; and financial aid students felt less belonging to and ownership of their school. The school looked at things that brought out disparity and exclusion—such as travel abroad programs or daily transportation arrangements. Students were directly involved in the research, which helped raise their awareness of socioeconomic status issues, and they eventually formed an affinity group for students who felt that socioeconomic status limited their school experience.

I actually left this workshop feeling good about the ways St. Andrew's financial aid works to serve students by anticipating costs and factoring in the "full cost" of a St. Andrew's experience, and about the way we continually share the message about St. Andrew's original mission and foundational commitment to financial aid. I wonder, too, how we can help students and faculty discuss socioeconomic status more openly—for example, in moments when teams want to order jackets, or when weekend offerings involve costs for food or activities. I wonder how students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds might view this aspect of their identity as a strength, not an embarrassing fact that should be made as unrecognizable as possible. How well would our alums say that St. Andrew's prepares them to understand socioeconomic diversity? Are our attempts to make socioeconomic status invisible getting in the way of education and awareness?

Shridhar Singhania '18

My perspective on diversity in general is a little bit different. Back in India, I was the majority. My parents are financially stable, "upper caste" Hindus, which is a relative position of power in India. Whereas, when I came to St. Andrew's, I became the minority, and that was a different experience. SDLC allowed me to better gauge that, and to better understand my identity. It made me question a lot of things; there were very uncomfortable discussions. I learned the harsh realities of people that have it so much worse than I do. Some people may view my experiences like a museum, or like a zoo—where you go in and see an animal and you're maybe petting it or giving it food, but you're not really concerned with it as an equal. But my experiences are not a museum, because they're my life. At the same time, I realized that's what I was doing for others who had it worse than I did.

It made me feel guilty, a little bit, but I also realized that guilt isn't the point of it. I had this long conversation with Profe [Spanish teacher Dave Miller] in Waffle House and we were talking about guilt. At first, I was arguing that it doesn't really matter what it is that drives someone to help [someone else], and if guilt is the driving force, what's wrong with that? But then by the end of the conversation, I realized that the means matter just as much as the ends; you should be helping someone because you believe that all people are equal, and you understand different aspects of everyone's identity—not because you feel like they're some charity.

I think the one thing we as a School struggle with, when it comes to these issues of identity and race, is in fact conversation. We're really good at conversation outside of these issues, but with identity and race, people are a little bit on edge to talk about them, and that's perfectly okay. But people at St. Andrew's actually do want to have these conversations. They want to know, they want to learn, and most want to help. The key is understanding that they want these things, and to give them a chance to learn and help by also giving them the benefit of the doubt. We have to treat these conversations as opportunities to learn from one another—to learn about each other's identities as individuals. Without this, we can't make any progress.