Written by VICKI RICE, Hub Staff Writer
Monday, 21 May 2007

KEARNEY, NE – Are there opportunities at the University of Nebraska at Kearney to interact with people from different backgrounds? Do people from different cultures understand each other? Students, faculty, staff and community members discussed those issues and others related to diversity in a town hall meeting Thursday at UNK. Astrid Garcia, a junior from Grand Island said the event was interesting. “It got people thinking,” she said.

Peter Vogel, the founder of CulturePrep Inc., led the discussion. He said he has spent the last 20 years traveling the world doing peace-building initiatives.

After watching movie clips, answering multiple-choice questions and participating in discussions, those who attended came up with a wish list of what they would like to see on campus:

More interaction between American students and foreign students.
A buddy system to pair up students from different cultures.
More professors enforcing multicultural respect.
More effort for people to understand each other.
For everybody to join an organization with others who are different.
Growth in understanding different cultures.

Vogel used the phrase, “Seeing is freeing” to talk about how people can begin to make changes when they see the changes that need to be made. “One of the hardest things to do, while we can talk in a detached manner about those who have hurt us, it’s hard to talk about how we’ve hurt others,” he said.

Participants talked about what prevents better cross-cultural relationships, including such things as the fear of being misunderstood, the language barrier, fear, the way people are raised and not liking change.

Dawn Mollenkopf, assistant professor of teacher education, told of an instance in her job interview in which she was not directly asked about being Jewish, but was confronted in a roundabout way. She said issues that could be perceived as discrimination are sometimes issues of ignorance, and she sees that part of her reason for being at UNK is to educate others about cultural differences.

“Subtle pervasive ignorance is the hardest to address and eliminate,” said Kurt Siedschlaw, criminal justice and social work professor. Garcia said often people don’t think about things like race, but people from different races on campus don’t always do a lot of interacting. “Everyone tries to stay in their comfort zone.”

Although the campus has activities to highlight different cultures, she said, students from other cultures don’t always attend. She said she doesn’t look at the race of her friends, but at what they have in common. She would like to come to other events such as the one Thursday if others are offered on campus.

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The town hall meeting began with University of Mississippi Medical Center students examining their own hearts when it comes to multicultural relations.

One student talked about the difficulty of making friends with students of another race or culture. Another student spoke about feeling isolated as one of a few minorities in her class, and other students talked about stereotypes or misconceptions that build walls.

This “Safe to Relate” town hall meeting April 16 was designed to prompt discussion about multicultural relationships on campus and what can be done to improve them. Peter A. Vogel, former director of worldwide admission and financial aid for Up with People in Denver, Colo., and former director of admissions at Presentation College in Aberdeen, S.D., moderated the event. He has been doing cross-cultural training for nearly 20 years.

“I think the first step to healing is in honesty, whether it be cross-culturally, cross-ethnically or in relationships with significant others,” Vogel said. “There’s power in recognizing our own brokenness.”

Through clips from popular films, Vogel highlighted some of the issues that divide people, such as race, culture, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. He then asked the audience questions about their personal experiences and the multicultural climate on campus. Several students spoke openly on both topics, and later offered solutions, including better communication, more empathy and getting to know people before making judgments.

Meg Mills, a fourth-year graduate student, said she wished the discussion could have run longer than the two-hour time period.

“I love this cultural interaction. I would love to do this more often to make sure all the voices are heard,” she said.

LePercival Griffin, an M1 student, said he would encourage students to attend similar events in the future.

“It allowed everyone to be open and let everyone discuss how they felt without being harassed,” he said.

— Patrice Sawyer Guilfoyle (4-23-07)