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Disagreement, Difference, Diversity

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SPEAK UP! | THE "I" IN MINORITY | THE LOTUS FLOWER | TO BOLDLY GO WHERE YOU HAVE NOT GONE BEFORE

SPEAK UP!

Mianmian Fei, '19, College of Arts and Science

Mianmian FeiI learned a lot during my first month at Vanderbilt: Pancake Pantry is the best place to get breakfast, oceanography class is about currents and sediments and not fish, and grins is pronounced “greens.” Most of all, though, I learned I should keep my mouth shut.

Before coming to the States, English was a language I had only seen in textbooks, rarely used in everyday life. Once at Vanderbilt, I didn’t know how to reply when someone said, “What’s up?” in the elevator or how to join in conversations with the girls on my floor because I knew little of the slang they used. (What does “meme” mean anyway?) I stuttered when I answered questions in classes, ashamed of my Chinese accent. Gradually, I learned to be quiet in classes, to stay in my room alone while others hung out, and to keep my head down and avoid any eye contact in the elevator. I was even afraid of being asked about my name, because the exotic pronunciation exposed my identity as a Chinese, as someone different from the American mainstream.

Luckily, the Vanderbilt Multicultural Leadership Council provided me an opportunity to speak up without fear. With nine other international peers, I shared my struggles as an international student in a campus-wide event. I talked about feeling disheartened when few people could pronounce my name, feeling marginalized while everyone in my classes chatted about a TV series I’d never heard of, and trying so hard to step out of my comfort zone, but finding it difficult. Speaking in front of so many people in English made me extremely nervous, but I wanted to share my story, to come out of the shadows and join in the Vanderbilt community, and to start having such conversions on a daily basis. When we finished, the audience applauded and hugged us, some saying our experiences made them aware of the challenges and incorrect assumptions minorities face on campus. Others came and shared that they had experienced similar struggles, but no longer felt so alone.

Taking the opportunity to speak out, when normally I would have kept quiet, I realized my voice is as important as others’, even though my accent is different. I’ve started to socialize with people from various backgrounds, to be open to things I’ve never heard of before, and to learn about variations among different cultures. I went to Interfaith Spring Break and gained new insights into different religions; I went camping for the first time with my fellow Commodore Orchestra members and spent a whole night learning to play Mafia; I celebrated my Chinese culture by participating in the Asian New Year Festival and also learned about Hindi and Latin American cultures at Diwali and Cafe con Leche.

Although I sometimes still stutter, I know there is always someone who is willing to listen. Indeed, Vanderbilt provides a space where every idea is valued and every opinion is treasured, regardless of your background. Meeting new people and gradually building my own community at Vanderbilt, I came to realize that rather than a hindrance, my accent is a valuable reminder of my unique background – my Chinese heritage – and the struggles I have overcome as an international student. In the coming years at Vanderbilt I will continue to celebrate both the accent and the stories that make me the Kelly Perryperson I am.

THE "I" IN MINORITY

Bridgette Brown, '18, Peabody College

As I walk into my fourth class of the day, I take a look around the room and notice that I am the Black woman in the room. I take my seat, and I note that this class marks the fourth one to lack students that resembled me.

For the past two years at Vanderbilt, I have heard the terms diversity and inclusion. Before attending Vanderbilt, I had high hopes for this diversity and inclusion. I was well aware that Vandy was a predominantly White institution, but I was hopeful that I, a Black woman, would have some representation on campus. On Move-In Day, I walked up and down the hall of my first year residence in hopes of seeing the diversity that Vanderbilt had to offer. I quickly noticed what seemed like a racial divide on my hall. As I ventured past the last hall bathroom, it became apparent that this was the minority side of the floor. All of the rooms including mine housed Black, Hispanic, and Asian students. The random assignment in housing no longer seemed so random.

These incidents are telling of my experiences at Vanderbilt. One where there is a lack of minority students, and the other where minority populations on campus are represented, but the white student body is not. In my two years, I have yet to find how to combine these experiences. Is it possible to be in a room with representation of all students on campus?

The jury is still out, but I have hope for the future. Where will our mission of diversity and inclusion take us? Actions speak louder than words and we must each be the change we want to see in our own community. I implore incoming members of our community to open your minds and exit your comfort zones. Educate yourselves on inclusivity by not only attending discussions but by interacting and immersing yourselves in diverse spaces with genuine intentions. Those efforts are a just a small step in the direction of bridging the gap and creating a better Vanderbilt.

Holi
Students celebrating the annual spring Holi festival

THE LOTUS FLOWER

Kelly Perry, '18, College of Arts and Science, Student VUceptor

“Small. Unworthy. Insignificant.”

Kelly PerryWords I used to describe myself on the 8th of October during my first year at Vanderbilt. I was happy to be here…yet something was missing.

I am half-Thai, half-American and had spent my entire life in Chiang Mai, Thailand before moving to the U.S. to attend Vanderbilt. On campus, I came to see myself as a gutter – a space in-between; I didn’t completely identify as an international student, yet I didn’t feel fully American either. I desperately attempted to compartmentalize myself, and make myself fit into one identity or the other, because that was how I thought I’d feel I belonged. When I realized I didn’t fit the mold for any population on campus, I receded into my own shadow. I became quiet. The lotus flower within me shriveled.

My two pillars – my mother and father – listened to me as I talked about my shriveled spirit. They gave me a simple cure: water the lotus flower inside – provide yourself with the space and worth you deserve.

I gave myself one watering, one act of liberation: I told a story, my story.

Nothing significant, just an anecdote I told a hallmate about Loy Kratong, my favorite Thai festival that involves releasing lanterns, yet it made all the difference.

I began to see pride in my position as a gutter – using my in-between status as a lens to observe and enact change.

I recognized the power of storytelling and wanted to create spaces for others to feel liberated. As a Student VUceptor, I was able to do exactly that within my Visions group. Serving as the International Student Relations Chair on the Multicultural Leadership Council also allowed me to establish Lanterns, the first-ever international student cohort, with an aim to bridge the gap between international and domestic students through storytelling. 

Stories are the fabric that weaves individuals together. They are the most sincere expression of empathy, if one person simply is willing to share their story and another is willing to listen. 

I am forever thankful for Vanderbilt’s receptiveness. Thankful for individuals who are willing to listen to a little human like myself. And thankful for the space to allow my lotus flower to bloom. This is only the beginning.


TO BOLDLY GO WHERE YOU HAVE NOT GONE BEFORE

Nadiah Nordin, '16, School of Engineering

Nadiah NordinThe first eighteen years of my life were spent in Malaysia, the land I was born in. Even then, I had always dreamed of going abroad for studies or on vacation. My parents, two high school teachers with four children to feed, could never have afforded it, although we have a house to call home in a suburban neighborhood of Kuantan.

When I was offered a scholarship to Vanderbilt, I was initially doubtful to accept it, as it meant leaving my family, my friends, and my homeland to live halfway around the world for most of the next four years. Nevertheless, I packed my bags and traveled aboard a plane for the very first time from Kuala Lumpur to Nashville. It was a decision I never regretted.

Studying in the United States has opened me to experiences I would never have gotten anywhere else—from meeting my VUceptors and engaging with professors as well as fellow students to falling off a bike on a rainy day and losing both of my front teeth. I have learned that there is more to life than living in a single place all of your life, and that people are meant to explore the world around them.

And so, my fellow Vanderbilt students, go out there and explore the world around you. Whether you study abroad in a faraway land or engage in a research project or even make a new friend, there is always something to look at if you open your eyes.