On Wednesday, Institute Diversity held its 10th Annual Diversity Symposium at Georgia Tech. Members of the Tech community gathered in the Global Learning Center for keynote presentations and discussion panels on the topics of diversity and inclusivity. The event concluded with an awards ceremony celebrating community members who have demonstrated a commitment to inclusive excellence.
In his opening remarks, President G.P. “Bud” Peterson shared an update on the Institute’s “A Path Forward — Together” initiative. The initiative consists of three interrelated clusters: academics, student and community life and health and well-being.
Throughout the session, a particular emphasis was placed on the issue of mental health and how it affects the Tech community. Many conversations were framed around the death of student Scout Schultz on campus nearly one year ago.
President Peterson spoke about the steps being taken to improve student access to mental health resources. One such step is the establishment of the Mental Health Intake Center, which is expected to open at Tech on January 19. The center will be located in the heart of campus in the Flag building. Its goal is to alleviate the wait times students face when seeking mental health services.
Archie Ervin, vice president of Institute Diversity, also spoke about the progress the Institute has made in promoting a safer and more inclusive community. He acknowledged that there are many areas of community and campus culture where improvements are still necessary.
Ervin highlighted the significance of the student discussion panel, “Student Perspectives on an Inclusive Campus Community.” The panel was moderated by Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Colin Potts.
“There isn’t one person on campus who has all the answers, or who even knows all the questions. So hearing the diverse voices of today’s session will allow us to talk about the important issues and challenges,” Ervin said.
The panel consisted of six undergraduate and graduate students from various backgrounds and academic disciplines. They discussed the importance of meaningful representation on campus.
“As someone who is black, and Muslim, and a woman, and a first-generation American, I have different experiences with all of those,” said panelist Sinet Adous, second-year INTA. “Because of those different experiences, I should have different outlets to feel like I’m safe. When I go to the Muslim Students Association, that’s where I feel safe as a Muslim. That’s not necessarily categorizing myself, but for issues that I face as ‘x, y and z,’ I should have a certain place to go.”
Several panel members also pointed out that the resources available on campus sometimes fall short of student needs.
Collin Spencer, third-year BIOL, recalled the day Schultz was shot. Earlier in the day, Spencer had been called a homophobic slur while walking with his boyfriend on campus. After learning about the death of Schultz, he described feeling like he had nowhere to turn.
“At the time, the LGBT Center was a literal closet in the Student Center,” said Spencer. “So what do you do? You internalize it. It’s directly connected to mental health problems and mental illness. You do what you’ve always done because there’s nothing else there for you.”
He continued: “The problem is when we don’t admit we have a mental health problem. I think that is something that is rampant here at Georgia Tech. For some reason we’re fine with publicly releasing documents about egregious ethics violations, however we are unwilling to admit that we have a mental health problem. And while this may be addressed through practicalities such as action teams, or the Path Forward, without that official statement indicating we have an issue, how do you even begin to gather resources to fully address it? Not as a couple of teams of people, but as an institute as a whole.”
Potts asked the panel about how the absence of inclusivity interacts with issues of mental health. This prompted a discussion about how terminology affects how these problems are approached.
“Inclusivity is not the right word when it comes to finding and sharing practical policies,” said Spencer. “I think the term that we’re going to use now and what I much prefer is ‘vulnerable populations,’ especially when it comes to mental health,” Spencer said.
“It allows us to focus on those populations. If you just apply general policies to an entire group of students, you’re missing out on a huge percentage of minorities that face issues that the majority population does not have.”
Other panelists spoke about how effective policies must specifically target individual identities.
“There is this idea that a minority group needs to be homogenous,” said Aroua Gharbi, CSE graduate student. “In my opinion, you need to look at these subgroups [of a minority group] to figure out where they are having issues and why.”
In addition to the morning panel discussions, journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault gave a keynote address. In it, she described her experiences as the first black woman to attend the University of Georgia. She also addressed how the terminology of these social issues has evolved over time.
“I’m hoping that ‘diversity and inclusion’ includes lessons of freedom, justice and equality,” she said, recalling the language of the civil rights movement. “There was a time — particularly in the South — when we didn’t have freedom, we didn’t have justice, and we didn’t have equality… We still have some of those same problems, so ‘diversity and inclusion’ must include the terms ‘freedom, justice and equality.’”
The symposium highlighted the ways in which leaders at many levels strive to create an inclusive Tech community. It also brought attention to areas that need improvement to better serve community needs in the future. For more information about Institute Diversity, visit diversity.gatech.edu.