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Unity Summit attracts students from all walks of life


By Kirsten Clark

Below the prompt were students’ answers, scrawled across plastic canvas in black and blue marker.

“If we could have everybody stand up,” Cameron Vakilian, graduate assistant of the Commission on Multicultural Understanding, said to begin the event.

The roughly 300 attendees of the 2012 Unity Summit rose to their feet as Vakilian explained the exercise. In a few moments, he would begin reading the groups off the list.

“If you identify with what we read off, we’ll have you sit down,” he said.

The exercise began.

“Those who walk around campus reading their cell phones,” someone read.

Several laughed and three-fourths of the room took a seat.

“If you’re a smoker.”

“If you’re in a fraternity or sorority.”

“If you are a Christian or a Jew, please sit down.”

Finally, no one was left standing.

“We’re all part of a group that people disagree with,” Vakilian said. “Eliminating a group of people means to eliminate us all, in a sense.”

The seventh annual Unity Summit took place Monday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

Eric Love, director of the Office of Diversity Education, said the premise of the event was to provide people with a safe environment to discuss topics of diversity.

The summit was composed of different exercises, including a guided small-group discussion that highlighted the event.

“Everyone always says, ‘We want to be more involved in diversity. We want to interact with different groups, but we don’t know how,’” Love said. “So we developed this Unity Summit with small group dialogue so people would get a chance to interact with other IU students and community members who are different from themselves.”

Participants were randomly assigned to groups of six or seven people, thus introducing attendees unlikely to have previously met.

Facilitators of the small group discussion provided prompts such as, “Why is diversity important?” and “When did you first realize you were different?”

The second exercise, led by Vakilian, featured “Write Your Mind” posters that had been circulating campus, including the one asking students, “If you could eliminate one group from IU’s campus, what would it be?”

“We knew very well it would be an uncomfortable question, but we wanted students to write freely what their reaction to that question would be,” Vakilian said. “We knew we would get playful comments ... and we knew we might get some hurtful comments, too. But we wanted people to understand that these comments happen all the time.”

In the weeks prior to the summit, one of the posters had to be removed from Eigenmann Hall due to a “hurtful comment,” Vakilian said.

Though he said he didn’t know what the comment was, he said another student had crossed out the comment, and the poster was taken down. Vakilian said this occurrence was evident of how the posters created a conversation that continued into the summit.

“We were a little nervous about how questions would be received,” Vakilian said. “In the end, I think everyone did a good job about bringing the conversation to the table and addressing it in a positive and reflective way.”

Following the second exercise, a large group discussion about bullying and discrimination ensued.

The summit attracted IU students from as far as Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, as well as students from different races, sexual orientations and socioeconomic backgrounds. Students from local junior high schools and high schools, as well as University faculty and staff, also attended.

Juniors Aava Khatiwada and Anissa Pugh were strangers previous to the event but found themselves at the same table discussing issues of diversity.

“One thing I’ve learned is how similar we all are despite our differences,” Khatiwada said.

“Even though we’re talking about diversity, there are similar things we all come back to at some point,” Pugh said.

Jaclyn (left) and her fellow facilitators talk to attendees on Monday at the Unity Summit in Willkie Auditorium. Faculty, students and members of the general public attended the event held in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Day. Nicholas Demille Buy Photos
IU Grad Student Melissa Cook talks with fellow attendees at the Unity Summit on Monday. The event was held in Willkie Auditorium in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Day. Nicholas Demille Buy Photos
Sydney Rucker (left) shares her ideas as Leah Neff looks on Monday at the Unity Summit in Willkie Auditorium. Faculty, students and members of the general public attended the event held in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Day. Nicholas Demille Buy Photos

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