First year Pitt students embraced diversity with high fives at Building a Pitt Community event

By Alexa Bakalarski / Senior Staff Writer

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Overlooking a crowd made up of Pitt’s most diverse student body yet, Jamie Washington told first-year students to partner up with a stranger Saturday morning — they were going to need a high five buddy.

Washington, the founder of engagement specialist group the Washington Consulting Group, returned to Orientation Week for the second year in a row to lead Pitt’s Class of 2020 in the “Building a Pitt Community” event in the Petersen Event Center. He asked students to high five one another in support several times throughout the morning.

The mandatory event for first-year students, held for the second year in a row, was meant to spark a conversation about diversity and inclusion. The exercises, which varied from conversation with neighbors to empathizing with one another about past experiences, tapped into students’ experiences and self identities.

“Just because we have diversity doesn’t mean we’re engaged in it,” Washington said. “We want you to get comfortable with your identity and explore it while you’re here.”

Following last year’s humanities theme, Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher has confirmed this academic year will be the Year of Diversity.

Linda Williams-Moore, the associate dean and director of student life, emphasized a commitment to making acceptance a priority.

“When you discriminate against one of us, you discriminate against all of us,” Williams-Moore said. “Our hope is that you will join us in celebrating and respecting all those around you.”

In this year’s undergraduate class, 67 percent of students identify as white, 17 percent as Asian, eight percent as African-American or black and three percent as Hispanic or Latino. More than half of the class of 2020 identified as male and 45 percent as female. First-years at Pitt represent 27 different countries and 45 states and territories.

In the 2015 fall term, 74 percent of Pitt students identified as white, five percent as black or African-American, nine percent as Asian and three percent as Hispanic or Latino, according to the Office of Institutional Research’s 2016 FactBook. Overall, Pitt undergraduates were 51 percent female and 49 percent male in the fall of 2015.  When the class of 2019 entered as first-years last year, it contained students from 17 countries and 44 states.

In addition to dubbing this year the Year of Diversity and Inclusion, Gallagher created a new position in his staff last year, appointing Pam Connelly the first-ever Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion.

On Friday, Connelly told students to “embrace” their comfort zones this year, while challenging them to move outside of it.

“As you look forward to what’s next, look forward to being uncomfortable,” Connelly said. “Outside of your comfort zone is an opportunity for learning, for growth and for understanding that you simply cannot gain by remaining comfortable and unchallenged.”

After having students partner up and talk to one another about where they came from and when they felt part of a community, four students took a microphone and told the auditorium how diverse their hometowns were or weren’t.

For about the last 30 minutes of the event, Washington displayed statements on a screen that students could identify with and asked them to stand up in silence if a phrase represented them. Whether the students stood or remained sitting, nearly all of them looked around at their fellow students to see how many others had gotten to their feet.

After each statement, Washington paused while students stood and then said, “Notice.” Students sat back down only after hearing a “thank you”  from Washington.

The statements covered race, political alignment, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and other parts of intersectionality.

While only a handful of students or none at all stood up for some of the statements, others got an immediate reaction. When the screen flashed the words, “I know someone who has attempted or completed suicide,” nearly every student stood.

Washington told students not to stand if they were uncomfortable with letting others in on private information, saying “I don’t have to share anything that I don’t want to share with these people,” along with the students.

Although Washington asked students to stay silent until the end, some of the students who stood up for certain statements “I identify as a recovering addict,” “I identify as a survivor of sexual assault and/or incest” were met with applause.

Ashley Cipcic, a first-year biology major, said she struggled to stay quiet at times.

“I felt proud for them and I wanted to clap for them,” Cipcic said. “And I feel glad that during those sections some people clapped. I hope they keep [this event] up. I feel like it’s going to make people more open-minded and to be like, ‘Yeah, this is actually OK.’”

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