Kimberly Avalos 1

Diversity is a beacon of pride for St. John’s University that welcomes opportunities for
integration, fosters knowledge for ethnic, racial and cultural differences, and attempts to cultivate
a united community. Ideally, a student body consisting of different backgrounds and cultures
creates a façade of multiculturalism. But if one zooms in on that picture at St. John’s, is it truly a
harmonious community where students benefit from cross-cultural interactions and integration?
Or does it reveal a segmented unity where students have not yet learned to appreciate cultural
differences?
Although the university was ranked the 4th most ethnically diverse university in the nation
for the 2013-14 school year with a .74 diversity index, according to the U.S. News and World
Report, could it be that the mere presence of diversity is not enough to promote multicultural
interactions?
“I see the role of diversity playing out as something completely, I would say, fabricated
for, like, photo-ops and pictures and pamphlets here at St. John’s University,” junior Pedro
Alfonso said. “There is a wide picture of diversity but if you look at those pockets [of students],
those individual pockets, they’re not very diverse.”
The lack of interaction is a possible side effect of students finding comfort with others of
their own race or ethnicity. According to students interviewed, they tend to gravitate toward each
other if they feel familiar. Consequently, the Queens campus at St. John’s often shows
homogeneous groups of students divided according to race or ethnicity.
“We kind of naturally tend to stick to our own groups – because it is comfortable,
because it is convenient, because it is familiar,” graduate student Michal Barnea said.
Garrett Omi, an e-board member of Pi Delta Psi, an Asian American Cultural Fraternity
with four pillars of academic achievement, cultural awareness, righteousness and friendship,
concurs that the separation among social groups derives from something “deeper” than having
entered St. John’s.
“I think it comes from where you grew up; what your ideals are, your own family beliefs
and traditions and when you come to a school like St. John’s where it is this diverse, it is easy to
feel uncomfortable with people you didn’t even know in terms of heritage, age and these sorts of
aspects,” Omi said.
Mary Diaz, an adjunct lecturer in Sociology for the College of Professional Studies points
out there is openness and willingness to share experiences and participate in classroom
discussions, whether because of the nature of the course but also because at that moment, as
students, there exists a mutual objective. Therefore, the same incentive may be posed in social
settings.
“Students, when they associate with each other outside the classroom, might look also for
people who share their objective –dealing with maybe perceived discriminations or challenges
specific to where they are from originally.”
Graduate student Bill Pham, who studies Social and Cultural Analysis at St. John’s,
emphasizes that recent news events about Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, for example,

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which highlight the fundamental differences between experiences of different cultures, creates
contention between black and white students.
“The conflict among them is kind of: how do we resolve this one?”
The St. John’s University Chapter of the NAACP held a Die-In “in honor of victims such
as Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and etc.” on December 4th outside the D’Angelo
Center. Students in attendance first lay on the ground for 4.5 minutes to symbolize the 4 to 5
hours that Michael Brown’s dead body lay in the street and then were asked to share their stories,
artwork, poetry, and spoken word about the injustices they face.
Although there were a few whites and Indian-Americans “scattered around,” there were a
majority of African-Americans in attendance, according to sophomore student Lynnae Freeman
who attended the event. Overall she said she was grateful for the event because it raised
awareness for the injustices and oppression, something she says people often ignore even though
she believes everyone plays a role.
“Everyone has a role to play and a role in the system, whether you are benefitting from it
or being oppressed,” Freeman said. “There’s always some point of view that needs to be
expressed.”
She said she personally struggles with reconciling her roommates’ views about the recent
scandals of police brutality against African-Americans, who she said are quick to defend white
people, and the injustices she deals with “daily.”
“My suite mates and roommates are upset with me about things that I’ve said but they are
not as upset with the racism and actual injustices,” Freeman said. “That really hurts me because
they are missing the point. As much as there is a connection there is also a huge disconnect.”
“It’s understandable but they are blind to one side of it,” Freeman said. “The point is not
to belittle the rest of it. Where do my injustices stand on their spectrum?”
That separation of groups is also evident on a larger scale with racial- and ethnic-based
student organizations that, although contribute to the recognition and celebration of different
cultures, may also enforce segmentation. St. John’s offers a wide range of cultural -based student
organizations and greek life, along with religious organizations. Cultural organizations include
Haraya (the Pan-African student coalition), NAACP, the Latin American Student Organization,
the Philippine Americans Reaching Everyone (P.A.R.E.), Circolo Italiano, Indian Sub-Continent
Students Organization, among many others.
The Presidential Multicultural Advisory Committee held a Cultural Roundtable on
November 4th to give students in leadership positions the opportunity to voice their concerns
about cultural issues around campus. Twenty-eight student organizations were represented at the
Cultural Roundtable and they exchanged ideas about collaboration, inclusivity, awareness and
the organization of events that would invite the executive boards of all student organizations.
Their conversations revolved around two discussion questions: “How can we create a
comfortable atmosphere for employees and students to discuss race and gender issues on
campus, while preventing cultural stigmas from affecting how people look at cultural events,”

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and “what further initiatives could we do on campus to promote a more culturally aware student
body and how do we bring better awareness to cultural resources on campus?”
Joshua Paquette represented Project A.I.M. (Asian and International Mentoring Program)
at the cultural roundtable and explained the second question involves people in leadership
positions taking the first step.
“You have to be willing to tell your friends and to tell other people, ‘Guys, let us all do
this.’ Right now what we did is that we became a group – for maybe at least an hour – we
became a group at that moment and what we are going to do is go back as individuals to these
groups and try to make them a part of the larger group.”
Natalie Munoz, the assistant director of Multicultural Affairs, works with students in
race- and ethnic-based organizations, whom she said have acquired a higher level of
multicultural development since the student organizations are intended to promote cross-cultural
dialogues.
“Research shows that the more you learn how to identify with your own culture and the
more comfortable you are with your own culture, then the more comfortable you are going to be
working with other cultures and learning about other cultures,” Munoz said.
She describes multicultural development to be a series of stages transitioning from ethnocentrism to ethno-relativism, a shift from seeing one’s culture as “central to reality” to “just one
organization of reality among many viable possibilities,” according to the Developmental Model
of Intercultural Sensitivity by Milton J. Bennett. Munoz said that immersing oneself in one’s
culture not only raises cultural awareness but entices an interest in other cultures.
She explained some of those organizations came together in a meeting last year to discuss
united efforts. They call themselves COUP – Cultural Organizations United in Planning.
“That’s basically what our efforts try to do: bring them together. So it’s interesting to see
that they are trying to take initiative to do things on their own and make names for themselves,
and push collaboration,” Munoz said.
But the group has not continued their efforts since last year.
Senior student Katherine Aquino says the clique effect among those groups may
supersede the intention for unity; the push for unity as a student community as a whole may be
undermined by the unity created within themselves.
“You have L.A.S.O events, you have Haraya events, you have black events, you have
Asian events. But I am not so sure it executes itself 100% correctly,” Aquino said. “Let’s be
honest, if you’re Asian and you go to a predominantly Spanish event, you are going to be looked
at a certain way.”
Furthermore, pride and solidarity is nurtured in race and ethnic groups that want to
preserve their culture but inadvertently discourage integration.

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“You become proud and then you segregate yourself,” Aquino said. “Once you have all
that pride, are you really going to want to learn about something else or are you going to want to
start influencing others to believe your way? I think society within itself is clique-y.”
Still, the struggles of those born or raised in this country, but who come from different
racial or ethnic families, are different from those international students who are born in a foreign
country. They may not only be unfamiliar with American culture, but also less proficient in
English.
According to Dr. Zheng Zhou, a professor in the department of psychology, who works
closely with international students, said their inability to communicate in English is often dubbed
as incompetence by the faculty members and supervisors.
“Their competence is judged and punished with the fact they can’t speak fluent American
English,” Zhou said. “I think they are on some level punished for not being familiar with this
culture. They base it on that they do not speak good English because they do not know the
culture. That is a standard for the grounds of dismissal of the students of the program.”
Barnea, who works in the psychology department with Dr. Zhou, said the dilemma
reveals itself when the institution attempts, or fails, to provide everyone with the education they
want.
“If we are putting them in a situation where they are likely to fail, then we are causing a
disservice by not providing the support to prevent them from failing,” Barnea said.
Although Zhou does not criticize English being held as a requirement she is concerned
with how culturally sensitive the faculty is to the struggles of international students who work
hard and sacrificed being with their families to pursue an education at St. John’s. She said
cultural sensitivity also means learning from them.
It opens up a larger discussion about the attitudes of interactions between Americans and
other cultures. Although English is, arguably, a positive medium through which different cultures
can communicate with each other, it risks becoming an “egocentric standard” or a privilege.
“So how insensitive is making those comments and judging [students’] performances
based on [that] they don’t understand you,” Zhou said. “The sensitivity has to be truly being in
someone else’s shoes to understand them.”
Zhou explained how culture is a “mind changing experience” if done correctly. She
recalled her trip to China ten years ago with ten students when she received a Fulbright
scholarship. Her students, who were required to go for a minimum of 4 weeks, learned the
significance of truly engaging and living within a different culture: going to a different place to
learn the language and work with people who speak that language.
The Fulbright Scholar program was proposed by Senator J. William Fulbright in 1946 as
a “much needed vehicle for promoting a ‘mutual understanding between the people of the United
States and the other people of other countries of the world.’”

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She said that that reciprocal exchange is not what actually happens when American s
travel to different places and it risks posing a barrier for cross-cultural dialogues. Instead,
incoming foreigners are often assimilating to American culture but it is not the same as the
behavior of Americans traveling abroad.
“We talk about going to other countries like the Vietnam program, but what do the people
do there? You speak English, you talk about you r own stuff and you think that’s cross-cultural?
You know the culture? Not at all,” Zhou said. “You go to another country? Speak their language.
Speak to other people and see if you can understand their language. Americans go there to still
do their own thing – their language, their values, their ways of doing things, assessment,
everything, and expect other countries to look up to them. It is not how the cross-cultural
understanding can be, the mutual exchange. It is still an American standard and it is egocentric.”
Fred Cocozelli, a professor in the Government and Politics department believes that oral
and written communication is “at the heart of academic exercise.” But despite the requirement to
communicate effectively, English as a privilege may hold other consequences.
“It’s not necessarily a good privilege; it does often suggest to native English-speaking
students that they can get away with not learning certain languages,” Cocozelli said. “In that case
it could be a problem – that expectation that the rest of the world will be able to understand you
is good but it is not always going to hold true.”
The varying effects of the presence of diversity raises the question of whether or not St.
John’s can foster an overarching, binding, initiative to promote integration, or is it an individual
decision to connect with other cultures?
Barnea describes her cohort as being very diverse, which results in each student
benefitting from the different perspectives each has to offer. However, she said that was an
independent dialogue that [the students] created, not “promoted or supported” by St. John’s.
“What I was talking about wasn’t a systematic thing that happens because St. John’s put
it there,” Barnea said. “It is more what students created in the classroom because they are there
together, so it is a dialogue that we created independently.”
Instead of presenting differences in sometimes superficial ways through heritage
celebrations and events, it has become important to become culturally aware in more in-depth
way that nurtures an interest for multiculturalism. Barnea and Cocozelli agreed that it should be
weaved in the curriculum at St. Johns in a way that everyone is exposed to it.
“The biggest thing that promotes crossing community lines at the university level are
classes. You have to take classes, especially these core courses,” Cocozelli said. “It is related in
some ways to the function of university life in a liberal democracy, in that you are supposed to
educate in these liberal arts and sciences in an effort to create leaders without regard to their
background.”
Cocozelli said that his exposure to students’ multicultural interactions is limited to
classroom discussions but that students tend to be very comfortable with the kind of diversity
exhibited in the classroom.

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Brendan Latimer, a graduate, said the effort has to come from the students but it is not a
result or a reason for the university not to play a part. He said the stress for a more diversified
on-campus presence needs to be placed on residence halls and living arrangements. Although he
admits that may be forcing integration, he said tackling segmentation at the root, on an intimate
level, will provoke a quicker change than enforcing it top-down.
“You have to set up the game before you can play it,” Latimer said. “I feel like
affirmative action infuses campuses with a forced sense of diversification. That’s like a macro
view of what I am trying to say. What I am saying is that there should be a more imposed
diversification on a micro level.”
He said the divide between commuters and residential students is bigger than that
between segmentation.
“Without those two being together, you have less of an opportunity to mix with different
people with different perspectives,” Latimer said.
He adds that it is a stress that needs to be implemented as St. John’s moves away from its
commuter past into the residential present.
On a smaller scale, St. John’s students are juggling mainstream issues of multicultural
America. How can students benefit from the presence of a diverse student body, which embodies
both differentiation and inclusiveness, to then progress toward participating in cross-cultural
interactions?
Alfonso said the missing link for integration is the individual.
“I think the missing link comes from within,” Alfonso said. “It comes from the you. You
have to be willing to go and learn and want to hear these stories and hear about these experiences
and hear where people from you. If you don’t, I don’t think the collective is going to do it
either.”
Aquino concurred.
“If you are not willing to learn about somebody else’s culture then you won’t,” Aquino
said. “If you are not willing to break the barriers to get to know other people then you won’t.”