Villanova class explores slowly emerging diversity

Terry Nance , Villanova's multicultural affairs vice president, addresses the multicultural leadership and dialogue class. "Students may learn something from us, but mostly they learn from each other," she said.
Terry Nance , Villanova's multicultural affairs vice president, addresses the multicultural leadership and dialogue class. "Students may learn something from us, but mostly they learn from each other," she said. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 22, 2012

In this class, it's hard to see how Villanova University got the dubious nickname "Vanillanova," connoting its predominantly white, homogenous student body.

Classmates include a man of split Mexican/Puerto Rican heritage, a white lesbian, a second-generation Guyanese man, a woman with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair, and students from families of modest and affluent means.

On a recent evening they talked about their differences and their likenesses; how they've been discriminated against and how they've been part of a group that discriminated against others; when they've spoken up against oppression and when they fell regrettably silent.

The conversation was honest, civil, and thought-provoking. A lesbian student said her roommate texted everyone she knew after seeing her kissing a woman, then gathered friends and attempted "an intervention" to discourage the relationship.

A white student asked a black classmate why it's OK for blacks to use the N word and not whites.

Katherine Portelli, 19, is a sophomore from a traditional Italian family. Her brother, she told classmates, "really believes that women are inferior to men, and he tells people that." She has never challenged him, "and I honestly don't know if I'll ever get the courage to say anything."

But the multicultural leadership and dialogue class, professors hope, will help students find that courage and wisdom. The three-hour, Wednesday night class is taught by three communication professors, including Villanova's assistant vice president for multicultural affairs and a philosophy professor - all diversity specialists.

For the last few years, the sessions - based on a University of Michigan program called "intergroup dialogue" - was an extracurricular activity. This semester, it's a three-credit course incorporating theory, book work, and tests on subjects such as apartheid, affirmative action, race relations, and identity, with a separate one-credit dialogue session.

The goal is not to indoctrinate the 19 students in the class, but to create a setting where they can explore the issues, the professors said.

"Students may learn something from us, but mostly they learn from each other," said Terry Nance, multicultural affairs vice president.

Villanova president Peter M. Donohue sent a team to Michigan to learn about that school's program and infuse it into Villanova's curriculum.

"It's seeking to talk about the issues from a very personal experience," he said, "rather than just studying somebody else's issues."

He's not sold on requiring the course, but rather including it among electives to fulfill a College of Arts and Sciences diversity requirement.

Villanova, founded in 1842 by Augustinians to educate the children of Irish immigrants, has improved diversity slightly in recent years. But 76 percent of students are white. Four percent are black, 7 percent Latino, 6 percent Asian, and 3 percent international. An additional 4 percent identify as ethnicity unknown or two or more races.

It's not much different from some other area private colleges, such as St. Joseph's University, also Catholic. There, 73 percent of students are white.

Villanova lists increased diversity as a goal in its master plan. To get there, the school says, it brings talented minority high school students to campus for science and engineering programs, partners with minority-centered organizations such as the National Hispanic Institute, targets recruiting in areas with minority students, and has increased financial aid.

Villanova has had few outward problems among its different groups, educators said, but that can make bias harder to conquer.

"If people were calling each other names, then you go in and say OK, let's begin to deal with this," said Nance, an African American. "But when you have really nice people dealing with things that they're not even aware of, then that becomes more complicated."

Maurice Hall, communications department chair and co-teacher, said the class offers what many others don't.

"This is the course where you learn to have those difficult conversations and not be afraid of them," said Hall, who is Jamaican.

That's why David Ofosu-Appiah, 21, a senior finance major from Williamstown, enrolled. As a black male, he said, he may be viewed in a certain way by a job interviewer.

"I have to get my head around where he might be coming from," said Ofosu-Appiah, whose parents are from Guyana. "Those conversations don't really take place in the business school explicitly. A lot of it is quantitative, cut and dry."

During one exercise, students recounted their own bouts with discrimination.

Senior Lindsay Michael, 21, of Mount Vernon, N.Y., said she was at the home of her Puerto Rican boyfriend when his parents were yelling "get that monkey" while watching a black boxer. Michael, who is black, didn't confront them.

In high school, Gia Nelkin, 18, a freshman from Plattsburgh, N.Y., revealed how a boy threw her books on the floor and called her a "dirty spic." Her friends laughed.

"I didn't even know what a spic was back then," Nelkin said. Students rolled their eyes at the reaction from Nelkin's friends.

"Yeah, good friends," said Nelkin, whose mother is from Uruguay.

One student's mother, upon arriving at Villanova, noted mostly white students and said: "Isn't that kind of good, so you can find a husband?"

Senior Julia Arduini, the gay student, told classmates she stood up to her roommate. She came out publicly when she helped make a video on campus for the national "it gets better" campaign in the wake of gay suicides. About 300 people gathered on campus in support.

Arduini said she enrolled in the class in part because of the diversity in the room.

"That's fairly hard to come by at Villanova," said Arduini, 21, of Fairfield, Conn. "There's a very stereotypical Villanova type: white, upper middle class, dressing well, fairly conservative, and for the most part Christian. Anything deviating from that is absolutely seen as the other."

Through the course, Kelly Costlow, 22, a senior from Johnstown, came to recognize that she is a part of that privileged group. She rooms with Arduini's girlfriend and recalled how students ridiculed the girl for coming out.

"If I were the person I am today, I would have stepped in and done more to help her sooner," Costlow said.

But she learned from watching her roommate's struggle and has grown, she said. That evening, Costlow and friends were planning to accompany the woman to a gay bar for her birthday.

"If this class continues or if we continue to discuss these topics outside of class," Costlow said, "there could be change."

Briana Taylor, 19, from Barnegat, N.J., was encouraged to take the class after she erupted verbally during a freshman diversity exercise in which "plants" in the audience say outrageous things to test the new students. One plant asserted that it was "free speech" if someone wanted to call her a "crip." Taylor uses a wheelchair due to her cerebral palsy.

She loves the class.

"It helps, too, that the class is filled with people like me," she said, "people that all have mouths, because I have a pretty big one."

It was Taylor who asked Michael, the student who faced prejudice from the parents of a former boyfriend, about the N word.

"First of all, it's not OK for me to use it," Michael said. But being black, "you kind of get this authority to decide when you want to use the word, because it's sort of yours in this very weird way."

Nance praised students for taking on the issue.

"One of the things we appreciate here is the openness of this dialogue," Nance said. "It's really been a very rich exchange, and only the beginning, folks."


Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693, ssnyder@phillynews.com, or @ssnyderinq on twitter.

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