Diversity requisite ups event attendance, bores some

Robert Samuels

Sitting over a Scrabble game at Norris University Center, Medill freshmen Stephanie Lecci and Dan Kafoglis were discussing the meaning of the fall production of the play “Fires in the Mirror.”

“If I didn’t have to fulfill a diversity requirement, I don’t think I would have gone,” Kafoglis said. “The chairs in Shanley Pavilion are too hard. I can hardly remember what it was about.”

Kafoglis and Lecci attended the play, put on by the African-American Theater Ensemble and Jewish Theater Ensemble, to fulfill a requirement for Northwestern’s freshman-orientation program, “Essential NU.” The program, which mandates that every freshman attend one program concentrating on multiculturalism, has drawn both appeal and criticism from administrators and this year’s freshman class.

Jen Meyers, the student transitions coordinator who planned Essential NU activities, recently extended the attendance deadline to the end of February. More than 125 freshmen — about 6 percent of the freshman class — have not yet gone to a cultural event, she said.

“There is a relatively small number of students who still need to complete the requirement,” Meyers said. “So we are giving them a few additional days to attend what have been designated as ‘make-up’ programs.”

Many of the events fulfilling the requirement are lectures sponsored by the student services offices in the Multicultural Center, the Fiedler Hillel Center and the African American Student Affairs.

Meyers introduced the idea of compulsory attendance at one cultural event for freshmen last May, saying that a wave of bigoted incidents in NU residence halls showed that administrators needed to handle issues on the subject in a different way. In previous years freshmen had to only attend a presentation about diversity during New Student Week.

The system has been effective so far, Meyers said, despite the need to extend the deadline.

“I am thrilled with the campuswide collaboration to help expose the new students to a vast array of diversity programming taking place at NU,” Meyers said. “With this format the new students can identify a topic they are interested in learning about.”

The diversity requirement had a significant impact on cultural programming through Fall and Winter quarters, boosting attendance by about 50 percent, according to James Britt, assistant director of African American Student Affairs.

“We’ve had the same amount of programming, but much more people attend,” Britt said. “From a diversity standpoint, more people of other races are coming to the events.”

Attendance at such events does not guarantee student interest in the topics, Britt said. Students attending often vary between those with genuine interest in a topic, Britt said, and those who are just going to fulfill their mandatory requirement.

Some freshmen have even discovered ways to “cheat” the system, Shaun Ossei-Owusu said.

“The system is bogus,” said Ossei-Owusu, a Communication freshman. “People go in, show their WildCARD, swipe it and leave. I think it would be more effective to have students take a mandatory class outside their culture.”

But apathetic attitudes toward diversity do not hinder the importance of the requirement, Lecci said over her Scrabble board.

“It’s kind of sad that people have to be forced to attend these events,” Lecci said. “But the idealistic part of me thinks people go and come out with knowledge about something new.”