By Michelle Lampariello
Various social movements, campaigns and trends on campus throughout the years have strained the College’s relationship with diversity and promotion of inclusion. From last year’s Trenton Hall controversy to this year’s rumblings about transgender bathroom rights, students have made it clear that while we have come a long way when it comes to tolerance and acceptance of all, the College still has a great deal of progress to make.
Don Trahan Jr. joined the campus community in September 2017 as the College’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion. Since the start of his tenure here, Trahan has put multiple efforts into motion to create an environment that breeds diversity and inclusivity.
Through the Office of Student Diversity, Trahan plans to launch a campus-wide diversity summit on April 9 to educate the campus community about acceptance of people and groups different from how they personally identify.
The Office of Student Diversity is also developing a social media campaign titled #IAmTCNJ, which Trahan hopes will encourage students to post content that celebrates individuality and diversity.
Trahan has also created opportunities for students to share their thoughts on inclusivity at the College in a series of forums titled “Critical Conversations.”
Trahan believes that providing students with the chance to have raw, unfiltered discussions about difficult and often emotional topics will create a more tolerant culture on campus.
“Critical Conversations has provided students with a brave space to ‘be,’ which I believe has definitely impacted their voice at TCNJ,” Trahan said. “I am confident that our campus will continue to learn how to approach difficult discourse and abandon the binary mindset of right and wrong.”
Trahan’s primary concern is ensuring that students who belong to groups that are often marginalized feel as though they are equally as empowered to succeed as any other student at the College.
Lucy Brice, president of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and a junior finance major, recognizes the challenges of leading an organization that advocates for a minority population.
“Being a historically black organization on a predominately white institution there is often a lack of knowledge amongst many within the campus community regarding the legacy, impact and relevance of our sorority and the Unified Greek Council,” Brice said.
While college campuses tend to be progressive and tolerant environments, the sheer numbers make Trahan’s inclusivity goals more challenging.
A 2015 survey of the College’s student body recorded that only 10 percent of students identify as Hispanic, and only six percent of students identify as African-American or Black, according to collegeportraits.org.
The College’s vision statement makes it clear that the school aims to “serve as a national exemplar of public higher education, and we will do this while being committed to accessibility and affordability.”
In its mission statement, the College says that it “empowers its diverse students, staff and faculty to sustain and enhance their communities both locally and globally.”
But the College’s relationship with the local community, specifically the neighboring city of Trenton, has lately been a controversial subject.
In the fall 2016 semester, the TCNJ Committee on Unity, a self-proclaimed social justice organization, cropped up on campus. By the following spring, the committee engaged in a sit-in to protest the former namesake of Trenton Hall, Paul Loser and the proposed closure of the TCNJ Clinic.
Even after Loser Hall was renamed, students organized a peaceful protest during Homecoming 2017 outside Trenton Hall. As students knelt on the ground with their fists quietly raised in the air, a message was sent to campus officials that efforts to establish a better relationship with Trenton and encourage inclusion needed to continue even after immediate problems were solved.
Several student organizations seek to minimize this marginalization and give students a chance to feel comfortable enough to express themselves in an inclusive environment. Multicultural Greek organizations like Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, as well as the Black Student Union and the College’s NAACP chapter, seek to give students who belong to minority groups a chance to celebrate their culture and advocate for social justice issues.
“We also are politically active and try to raise awareness about politics with events regarding elections, voter registration and absentee ballots,” said Vanessa Fiore, current president and founder of the College’s NAACP chapter and a senior international studies major. “I would say our overall goal on campus is to create a campus that is inclusive of different people and politically aware of what is happening in the country.”
Fiore believes that political advocacy is a key element of the organization that allows it to improve students’ college experiences. She also explained that students often misunderstand NAACP’s mission — to support all groups of people, not just African-Americans.
“We face difficulty with management because many people think that we are the same as BSU, but we are much more politically active than BSU, and not specific to one group of people,” Fiore said. “Many people think they are unwelcome in the organization, until we talk to them. It does help that we have a diverse executive board to help show people that we represent multiple groups.”
Fiore considers NAACP’s cultural appreciation events, like its upcoming Melting Pot Talent Show, to be just as important as political advocacy.
“Our campus chapter strives to make sure people know that our organization is for everyone,” Fiore said. “We try to do this with events that (raise) awareness about certain groups.”
Trahan has combined the resources of the College’s Office of Student Diversity with its Office of Institutional Diversity to conduct professional development training sessions for the campus community, as well as local residents.
Brice and the sisters of Alpha Kappa Alpha are happy to see the College’s progress in its efforts to honor the school’s relationship with Trenton and celebrate diversity on campus.
“The renaming of Loser Hall to Trenton Hall, the formation of the Advisory Commission on Social Justice, continuous critical conversations, sustained dialogues sessions and the plethora of culturally based student organizations and clubs on campus all attest to TCNJ’s efforts to promote diversity and foster inclusion for all students on campus,” Brice said.
Trahan acknowledged that the College still has room to grow in its promotion of an inclusive atmosphere, but is proud of all that students, faculty, staff and community members have done to foster a sense of pride in diversity at the College.
“My goal is to continue moving our campus forward, with diversity and inclusion being embedded across all facets of the institution,” Trahan said.