One component that makes the world so beautiful is that there are many different identities that make everyone different from one another. One of my identities, something that I’ll never be able to change, is being born African-American. The first seven years of my life I grew up only being reminded that I was this way through daily interactions with only people who looked like me. When I was eight, I moved to Columbus, OH from Memphis, TN and this was one of the biggest moments in my life. These were the moments when I felt my first culture shock. These were the first times in my life where everyone around me didn’t look like me and that was not an easy adjustment. Sometimes white students would ask me “why I talked the way I did” and also made fun of me because sometimes I couldn’t pronounce the larger words. Over those years, I’ve learned a lot about myself and grew more and more comfortable with being labeled “different”. However, I began to make a lot of friends of the opposite skin color and I really treasured diversity among my peers. Throughout the rest of my life, I really embraced having the ability to have friends from all different types of backgrounds. Moving to Ohio really changed my life because I went from only knowing what I knew to knowing all that I didn’t know. I’m grateful for that experience because it has made me so accepting and understanding of those who don’t look like.
However, we can all agree that Clemson is not the most diverse institution that we know. As a matter of fact, Clemson’s ethnic diversity is below the national average. This institution has 83.3% White, 6.5% Black or African-American, 3% Hispanic or Latino, 1.9% Asian, and more. Ethnic qualities are only one of the different categories of underrepresented student populations. Along with that there are LGBTQ, out-of-state, first-generation, non-traditional students, and more. As I mentioned earlier, the one I identify with from this group is being an African-American student. I’m going to be honest, coming to Clemson I didn’t really think about being classified as an underrepresented student and I still don’t. I do embrace being African-American but it’s not the most salient to me yet at this moment as it is for others. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that because in comparison with leadership, understanding who you are is a process as well. I’m currently trying to figure that out and I learn something new each and everyday. Something I still struggle with is trying to force myself to have the same experience as other African-American students. As a student leader, it’s important to realize that not everyone’s experience is going to be the same. Everyone’s experiences shape them into who they become. Just because I haven’t had any negative experiences relating to diversity, doesn’t mean I should look at someone who has had those experiences any differently. We’re just in different stages in our life, doesn’t make any one of us any better nor worse than the other.
Long story short, as a student leader it’s essential to look past stereotypes and build intentional connections and reassure underrepresented students that they can find their place here at Clemson. It’s also important to make sure new students are here to create their own experiences and not to live it through someone else’s. Clemson Orientation Ambassadors are only a microcosm of everyone here. We have 32 student leaders who represent over 22,000 students. It may be difficult representing everyone here with that number, but it won’t be hard voicing to those students that they matter.
Reflection Question: What does an underrepresented student population mean to you and what would you do to make those students feel comfortable here at Clemson?