Diversity on Campus: Student Voices

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“You hear ‘Islam’ in the media and you see terrorists”

Every day Uzma Razak, a junior in supply chain management from Johor Bahru, Malaysia, wakes up before the sun to say her first prayer, called subuh in Malay. She then eats breakfast and heads to class. Before lunch, a second prayer: zohor.

After lunch, Razak will sit through more classes, then she’ll head home to study. The third prayer, Asr, comes midafternoon. Between the last meal of the day and putting her head to the pillow, two more prayers must be said: the Maghrib and Isha.

Generally, Razak says she doesn’t feel ashamed of praying in public. But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t received a few lingering glances here and there.

“Everyone is mostly friendly,” said Razak. “But I do accept weird looks occasionally.”

Razak said she knows some people aren’t as tolerant of the Islamic faith.

It’s “rational to be afraid” of Muslims when all people hear about is “the extreme things about ISIS,” said Razak.

This fear of the Muslim community based on one sliver of its population is one that Humza Malik (a sophomore in electrical engineering who was born and raised in England), and other officers of the Muslim Student Association ask the organization’s members to consider cautiously.

He, too, said he understands why people fear Muslims.

“The media is confusing people,” he said. “You hear ‘Islam’ in the media and you see terrorists, Al Qaeda, and it starts to dig into people’s minds. If you don’t have a Muslim friend or a mosque near you, if the only thing you hear about Muslims is on TV, and it’s Jihad, that’s going to [affect] how you see Muslims.”

Malik and other members of the Muslim Student Association use outreach methods to educate people who might have an exaggerated idea about Islam. The association sets up a table at noon every Thursday in Parks Library, where passersby can ask questions about the Quran and the religion.

“We’ve had people who are really aggressive and try to explain what Islam is to me, so they obviously don’t come to listen to me,” Malik said. “Growing up around diff erent cultures and different religions molded me to be patient and tolerant.”

– Danielle Ferguson

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“There are issues here in Iowa that need to be fixed”

Julian Neely, an ISU freshman from Johnston, Iowa, is a passionate member of the Black Student Alliance and president of the Freshman Action Team, an initiative to get freshmen involved in the black community.

“We [try] to get freshmen involved with our organizations so they can just feel more comfortable on campus, especially those trying to adapt to the Iowa State campus who don’t see a lot of people who look like them,” Neely said.

Neely’s breakthrough moment as president of the Freshman Action Team came last fall during a Black Student Alliance demonstration to show solidarity with the students facing discrimination at the University of Missouri. He spoke to a large crowd at Beardshear Hall, calling on ISU President Steven Leath and other administrators to show solidarity with underrepresented students.

With his first semester on campus behind him, Neely reflected on the atmosphere in Iowa for young, black people.

“There are issues here in Iowa that need to be fixed,” he said. He described two types of racism and discrimination that black Americans face.

“Systematic racism comes from those who are in power, such as administration or police officers,” he said. “From peers, I think it’s more just prejudice or ignorance.”

He said confronting micro-aggressions, the type of discrimination he believes students face most often on campus – such as students asking to touch a black person’s hair or saying things like, “Do you rap because you’re black?” – is a good first step. He said addressing what he calls the “unconscious bias” is the major short-term goal for the alliance.

“It’s hard to change somebody’s mindset, but you have to make them aware of what they’re saying.”

Neely said the alliance also hopes to continue to reach out to other minority student organizations and strengthen a support network for those who are marginalized.

– Christie Smith

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“ It’s like I’m an in-betweener”

Maria Alcivar was 11 years old when she left Ecuador with her mother and brother to live in New Jersey, fleeing a dangerous home life.

Alcivar was undocumented for 14 years before receiving a green card and ultimately her citizenship in July of 2015. Alcivar’s mother fearfully told her children not to share where they were from or how they arrived in the country.

“It’s this fear that you have. Like when I would be driving, even now, driving and there’s a cop car behind me, I still get nervous,” she says.

Aside from fear, Alcivar described a feeling that many undocumented students can identify with: the feeling of being left behind or forgotten, and struggling to keep up.

When Alcivar applied to Iowa State, she was still undocumented. Had it not been for someone in the admissions office helping her, she wouldn’t have been able to attend and further her education.

“It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s not a system where you can just go and apply or get in line,” Alcivar said. “There’s not such a line. If that were the case then we would all be in line.”

Alcivar’s journey in this country has been more than growing up with a single mother and worrying about her undocumented status. As a Latina immigrant woman, she has dealt with the strife that comes with living away from her home country.

“I’m like an in-betweener,” she says. “I don’t fully fit the ‘stereotypical American girl’ here, and then when I go home to Ecuador, I don’t fit the Ecuadorian girl [either].”

Today Alcivar is a graduate student in human development and family studies, working toward a master’s degree. She’s an outspoken member of Latinos Unidos for Change (LUCHA) and has been asked to serve on one of the six committees for the university’s strategic planning process. Her area of focus: to discuss what it means to have a safe and inclusive environment.

“Th e difficult conversations are a good start, being open to uncomfortable dialogue between people,” Alcivar said. “But at some point we need to push for policies that will enable change for marginalized people, not only at Iowa State but in the United States in general.”

– Rakiah Bonjour

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“At the end of the day, I know who I am”

The first time Alex Peters was told he was pretty was when he was wearing a dress – a significant moment for a slightly chubby child whose mother nicknamed him “Muffin Top.”

Peters grew up in Truro, Iowa, a town of about 400, in a home he describes as abusive.

“Growing up, we pretty much didn’t talk at all,” Peters said. “I tried to really avoid [my stepfather] because I knew what direction I was going in … so I just tried to steer clear of him.”

While Peters – who today identifies as a gay man – was exploring what it meant to be gay, a staff member in his high school said during class that gay people would burn in hell.

For Peters to survive, he was always careful not to rock the boat so as not to dislodge the hard pit of his true self that was just under the surface. He was not flagrantly different, but he also was not conforming enough to be accepted by his family and community.

A break came every two weeks when Peters went to stay with his father.

A picture of a young Peters in a lace dress, mismatched plastic dangling earrings, and a sun hat prove an early testament to the way he was allowed to express himself at his father’s home.

When he lived with his mother, though, he lived in fear.

“You know deep down your family isn’t OK with it, so you have to push it down and hide it out of fear of being rejected,” Peters said of his true identity. “I knew of some people who got kicked out of their house for being gay, and I didn’t want that to happen to me, especially when I knew I couldn’t support myself.”

Peters wanted to change schools and live with his father, but the courts denied his father’s four-year custody battle. However, when his biological mother found out Peters was gay, she told him she was “done” with him, and he went to live with his father and stepmother Rochelle Peters, to whom he refers as his “real mother.”

In his new surroundings, Peters began to make the transformation to outwardly become the person he had always been inside. His new high school was supportive, with a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender alliance club and a student body and staff that were inclusive. And after moving in with his father he was also able to express himself at home. The teen who had always hidden himself picked out his own clothes for the first time.

“He was able to be his true self,” Will Peters, Alex’s father, said.

When Alex came to Iowa State, he transformed again. He joined the LGBTA Alliance, where he met people with similar backgrounds. As a sophomore in apparel merchandise and design, he recently began to cross dress and perform in drag shows.

“We want him to be him,” Rochelle Peters said of Alex’s performances.

“At the end of the day, I know who I am,” Alex said. “I just try to be that supportive parent for people since I didn’t have that.”

– Makayla Tendall

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“They don’t get us; we don’t get them”

International students in the new International First Year Experience class were asked to write four things that defined them.

The students slowly walked up to the chalkboards where they could write and share their descriptions. Some thought about their answers before haltingly scratching them on the chalkboard.

Two Asian students stood at the board next to each other, looking nervous until the instructor, Tze Lam, a junior in nutritional science from Singapore, came over to give them a nudge in rapid Mandarin.

Domestic students may have written a hobby, a goal, or a word that describes a relationship with friends or family. All but one of the seven international students in the small 8 a.m. class wrote something about their home country, which may not have defined them until they moved to a different continent. Other students wrote a word that described their major or a food they missed from their home country.

Jing-Ru Tan, a junior economics student from Malaysia, described his first few weeks in Iowa.

“I’ll die if no one talks to me,” he wrote on the board.

The International First Year Experience course was first implemented this fall. With a total of 4,041 international students from more than 100 countries enrolled at Iowa State last semester, the course is meant to serve as a safety net and way to connect international students to campus resources, to a mentor, and to each other.

“My advice to the incoming international students is to have an open mind, go out, explore, and meet new people,” Lam said. “I always say, ‘Do what the room does.’”

International students go through a variety of adjustments when they first arrive. After the honeymoon phase, when the novelty and excitement of moving to a new country wears off, small annoyances begin to grate on students’ nerves, whether it’s missing family or traditional foods, a roommate, or being hundreds or thousands of miles away from home.

For Tan, who is outgoing and thrives on interaction, that nagging annoyance was the lack of interaction with others. Though he transferred to Iowa State from a college in his home country with his girlfriend, Sylvia Wong, a sophomore in biology, something was still missing in his adjustment to life in Iowa. At the bus stop or around campus, the “Iowa nice” complex became apparent in the way a domestic student or Ames resident would smile in greeting or ask a few questions, but the conversation would stop there.

“They don’t get us; we don’t get them,” Wong said of domestic students. “It’s definitely lonely. We know the pain. We know how hard it is to come thousands of miles away from home. The locals don’t know.”

– Makayla Tendall

 

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