Increasing diversity prompts effort to make all campus residents feel at home
Wednesday, December 16, 2015
graphic illustration depicting post-it notes
As part of a new campaign to increase inclusiveness in residence halls, University of Iowa resident assistants hosted a variety of events in their buildings during the fall semester and posted sticky notes on doors inviting residents to respond to questions about diversity. The campaign will continue during the spring semester. Illustration courtesy of Student Life Marketing + Design and Sarah Lenger.  

Concerns about race relations on college campuses made national news this past fall. At the University of Iowa, where the first-year class is the most diverse in school history, there is an effort afoot to ensure that the residence halls provide a welcoming and inclusive environment for all 6,000 residents.

In August 2015, staff in University Housing & Dining rolled out an awareness-building campaign called Open Mind + Heart and asked 160 resident assistants (known as RAs) to participate.

“As our community grows more diverse, we’ve seen more acts of insensitivity on campus,” says Kate Fitzgerald, director of residence education in University Housing & Dining. “The residence halls should feel like home for everyone, a place where all residents can feel comfortable being themselves, and this campaign is one step in making that a reality.”

How families can participate

With more and more first-year students arriving on campus having never shared a room, living with a roommate is like a rite of passage. But it’s also an opportunity to learn about diversity, says Kate Fitzgerald, director of residence education.

“Diversity is more than race or religion—it’s also dealing with a roommate who, for example, likes to stay up late when you don’t, or who plays a certain type of music that you don’t like,” she says. “We have a process for dealing with roommate conflicts, but parents can help students realize that everyone is different, and that there’s value in diversity. Encourage your student to get to know people for who they are, not how they appear.”

During the fall semester, RAs hosted a variety of events in their buildings and posted sticky notes on doors inviting residents to respond to questions such as “How can you disagree with someone’s thinking in a respectful manner?” and “When is it a positive thing to have a group of people think differently from one another?”

Harrison Freund, a sophomore electrical and computer engineering major from West Des Moines, Iowa, is an RA in Rienow Hall. When tasked with getting his 41 male engineering students to open up about diversity, one approach came to mind: “Their stomachs.”

So, one Thursday evening in October, Freund flagged down residents as they returned to the floor and pulled them into the lounge. Using the sticky notes as a guide, he spent a few minutes with each one, encouraging them to share examples while also offering some of his own.

The takeaway for the residents was something to think about—and a slice of pizza. Freund called it “Open Mind, Open Belly,” and he felt it made a difference.

“It at least got them thinking, and since there was usually only one student in the lounge at any given time, it was very personal,” he says.

While many conversations centered on race, Freund says others addressed a topic close to home: the climate for women in a male-dominated field like engineering.

“Some guys don’t understand why being a woman in engineering can be difficult, for example, so we would talk about that,” he says. “The fall portion of the campaign, or Open Mind, was about getting residents to think about these types of issues. The spring semester, or the Open Heart portion, will focus on getting them to feel those issues. I am excited to see what happens.”