Soaring above stereotypes

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Graphic by Wade Thompson.

During his first week at Wilfrid Laurier University, Gaurav Kapoor felt the similar feelings that most first-year students would feel in a totally new and unknown environment: uneasiness, awkwardness and confusion. But, for him, there was something a bit more.

“In my first year at Laurier, when I didn’t know too much about East Meets West, I was the only Indian or brown kid on my floor. When I was playing my music or when I was listening to my music, there wasn’t that connection with somebody, it wasn’t at all that there,” the now third year business student said.

Kapoor comes from an Indian background and though he was born in Canada — and was also a brief resident in England — Kapoor still likes to retain some of his family’s heritage. The real question is: how can multiculturalism thrive at Laurier, and what avenues can students take to pursue that?

Now sitting as the co-president of East Meets West, an inclusive South Asian themed student society that is not restricted to just South Asian students at Laurier, Kapoor believes that the university has made strides to become more multicultural, partially due to the growing diversity in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

“There’s a lot of people now coming in because there a lot of people from Mississauga and Brampton. Their friends were here last year, they would say they loved it at Laurier and mention that a lot of culture would take place here,” he explained, speaking from a South Asian perspective.

Interestingly, on one of the walls in his apartment were four different flags representing each of the tenants in the unit, each of them are distinctly different. In addition to the four flags to the far left sits a Canadian flag.

Canada, for most of the second half of its existence, has been regarded as a “multicultural mosaic” as opposed to the “melting pot” style immigration that exists in our neighbours to the south. But with the GTA and other cities such as Montreal and Vancouver really being multicultural epicentres, are other mid-sized cities and even universities outside those regions adapting the environments that exist in those “multicultural” cities?

The question can even go for Laurier, sometimes informally known as a predominately “white school.” But many say it has changed, and that Laurier is becoming more diverse.
And this is a good thing.

The changing face of Laurier

“When I came [to Laurier], you hear rumblings of certain universities being more visibly representative than other universities,” explained Adam Lawrence, the manager at Laurier’s Diversity and Equity Office.

Lawrence was instrumental in bringing in the Association of Black Students (ABS) and other partnerships into the Diversity and Equity Office. The office also assists a number of students with disabilities as well as students from the LGBT community.

According to Lawrence, the flags that are now in the Dining Hall each represent a country where a Laurier student is from. When the project first started there were only 75 flags. Now there is approximately 115.

“Since I’ve been here the clubs have grown exponentially, it’s been great. There’s been great leadership among student clubs, and even with ABS, it has grown,” continued Lawrence. “They have so many great events.”

Keneesh McKenzie, a recent communication studies graduate from Laurier and last year’s president of ABS, echoed Lawrence’s sentiments.

“Now I will definitely say it is more visibly diverse. I remember coming on campus and feeling like I wanted a sense of ‘home’ and ‘family’ away from home,” McKenzie explained. “And I did thorough research to find the ABS, and when I found my ‘family’ here it was definitely a good feeling.”

Kapoor, Lawrence and McKenzie all agreed that on campus services such as Campus Clubs, which is under the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union (WLUSU), have been great in assisting newcomers and people who want to set up a club. A lot of clubs, in terms of multiculturalism, have been created that cater to a specific cultural group.

Currently, there are groups such as the Korean Student Association, Greek Students’ Association, WLU Muslim Student Association and Aboriginal Students’ Association, just to name a few.

“We mostly try and connect Chinese people with other Chinese people so they don’t feel like alone when they’re here,” said Mengwei Zhang, the assistant to the president at the Laurier Mandarin Student Association (LMSA). “Sometimes we do study sessions for business courses or the more popular courses, and some people have trouble here because their English is not that good.”

Although he has only been in Canada since the age of 10, Zhang said that he and some of the other members in the group, who tend to be international students, feel comfortable in a country such as Canada. And almost everyone, even at Laurier, is accepting to their needs.

Moving forward

While Laurier is becoming increasingly multicultural, in part due to the fact that more regions in Ontario especially the GTA are becoming more diverse, Lawrence added that some work still needs to be done.

“There is this representation on campus, but what we always talk about, is that are we creating programs throughout the entire campus that are attracting groups from all different types of cultures, or do we have pockets of our population hanging out together?” he said.

Labelling it as “interculturalism,” Lawrence wants the Laurier community to become less about “pockets” or groups working individually, and more about partnerships between different organizations that create a larger dialogue on campus.

“We have our safe spot, we have our community, but is the community reaching out?” asked Lawrence. “How are we getting groups working together?”

Lawrence added that the Diversity and Equity Office, in the last couple years, has created a student diversity committee that has representatives from many different cultural and religious groups. The committee is relatively small at the moment, but he hopes to increase its size substantially.

“This year we’re going to redevelop it to involve every cultural and religious group on campus, we’ll have one or two meetings a term, where people can come together, get to know each other, get to meet each other, explain the event they’re doing and we’re hoping we can get some partnerships for an event,” he added.

In the past there have been concerns about groups clashing over a particular event, and while Lawrence wants to see different groups to come together, he doesn’t want to see them clash.

Events such as Israeli Apartheid Week has been contentious for awhile, with some groups not wanting the event to happen at all because of fears of hate speech and offensive messages. But creating a dialogue that works best for both groups — if they were going to the clash — is a goal for the Diversity and Equity Office.

This would include educating people on certain topics as well as monitoring particular events on campus. According to Lawrence, using the resources on campus, such as professors, can “help strike that balance”.

“It’s at no point where you’re going to make everyone happy. If something doesn’t work you can’t just give up on it,” he added, noting that most universities struggle with these type of situations.

Breaking down stereotypes

However, Kapoor noted that stereotypes and assumptions — usually ones done in a negative light — still exist from time to time. Typically, he said, these stereotypes are not common and only come from the few people who remain ignorant.

He added that most of the time these racial slurs don’t occur specifically at Laurier.

“There was nothing of huge abuse I would say, everything has gotten better since like when my parents were kids when they used get rocks thrown at them right when they were walking back from school. There’s just nothing like that, especially at Laurier,” Kapoor asserted. “I never really run into that type of situation.”

But Kapoor said there are always those few instances where something does happen. In one case, he said that during an outing to an establishment on a weekend, sometimes people throw terms around that were offensive.

“You can’t stop that, there are ways you can increase awareness but you always have those one or two outlaws that fly under the radar,” he said, adding that sometimes this happens when East Meets West practice their dance routines in the Concourse late at night.

“Those are the times when we will hear it, like ‘stop playing your ‘brown’ music’ or something like that,” he added. East Meets West, however, has won two out of the three provincial competitions that they have attended and Kapoor hopes that the group gets more recognition for its accomplishments in the future.

While stereotypes still may have some sort of existence moving forward, education is absolutely vital in ensuring that people understand what these stereotypes and assumptions are and how they can be avoided.

“Our approach has been very proactive in creating an inclusive environment and education is one of those tools to do that,” said Humera Javed, the diversity coordinator at the Diversity and Equity Office. “Proactively creating a space where people can talk about these issues and engage in these issues.”

Javed encourages students, faculty and staff to challenge their assumptions and to be educated on these different principles.

Anna Done Choudhury, the international student advisor at Laurier International, expanded on this point. “It’s a challenge on both ends. It’s a challenge for international students because they are going outside their comfort zone. They are already in a new environment,” she said.

“I think it’s important to encourage people to challenge what they think they know,” Choudhury added.

Choudhury, who only works with international students and international visitors at Laurier, said that students from local regions should not view the international students as one homogenous group. Instead, they should be looking at the individual stories of each international student.

According to the registrar’s report for 2011-12, there were approximately 420 undergraduate international students enrolled at Laurier for the Fall 2011 semester.

Zhang from LMSA doesn’t see these stereotypes as necessarily an issue, just as long as people are mature enough to understand them.

“I don’t think that’s going away anytime soon, but it’s nothing serious. Because me and my friends, I have a lot of non-Asian friends and we joke around a lot with different cultures. No one is ever that serious,” he added.

Diversity in the workplace

In 2011, DiverseCity, a project spearheaded by Maytree and the Greater Toronto Civic Action Alliance that advocates for more visible minorities in leadership roles in organizations and business in the GTA, did research on this particular topic. What they found was that, compared to the 49.5 per cent figure for visible minorities in the GTA, only 14.5 per cent of leaders in the GTA were visible minorities.

This overall 14.5 per cent includes many different organizations from the education, not-for-profit and corporate sectors. The corporate rating appeared to be the least diverse at 4.2 per cent for leadership roles.

While this research primarily deals with the GTA, many students that are currently at Laurier are from the GTA, and may chose to seek careers in that region.

When asked if there are barriers for people who are visible minorities, Sandra Lopes, the manager of policy and research at Maytree, responded by saying: “Our research absolutely says they do, unfortunately.”

“When [immigrants] arrive and when they are starting their careers here in Canada, even if they had very long and successful careers somewhere else,” continued Lopes. “It can be difficult for them to see kind of where the opportunities are to get in some of these closed networks, so I think that’s part of the issue.”

She hopes that one day the corporate boards and other leadership roles at these organizations in the GTW represent the actual “face” of the GTA.

“What the research did find is that diverse groups really lead to innovation, more productivity, and a host of organizational benefits,” she continued. “But I think there’s a growing number organization that are seeing this and beginning to really take it on.”

Dana Gillet, the employment equity and AODA officer at the Diversity and Equity office, mentioned that struggle is still seen with the staff and faculty at Laurier. “So from a staff side and faculty side we’ve seen an increase in the number of Aboriginal people and an increase in the people with disabilities, it hasn’t come to much change in terms of visible minorities,” she said.

In the 2010 report compiled by Gillet, only 8.2 percent of Laurier’s workforce identified as being a member of a visual minority.

She added that while struggles in the workplace do occur in some parts of Canada, people have to be careful with where you look. According to Gillet, a region such as the GTA is starkly different in terms of representation than in Calgary.

Being ‘Canadian’

While Laurier offers all these opportunities for people of different backgrounds, there is sometimes still a sense of being “Canadian”, but as McKenzie pointed out, it doesn’t have to be a specific trait.

“I think the multiculturalism factor of Canada is still thriving,” she said, noting that one of her classes discussed this idea of being “Canadian”.

“We actually could not come up with an answer. I think that just in end is that a Canadian identity is what you make it because it’s so mixed up with so many different things. It isn’t set.”

Lawrence, through his work at the Diversity and Equity office, hopes that students come out of their shell regardless of what racial background their from and to begin to enjoy different aspects of different cultures.

“We have such a rich culture, but are we taking advantage of that?” he questioned.

In a region such as Waterloo, there is more diversity to be shared and explored, said Lawrence. And as this particular characteristic continues to grow in the wider community as well as at Laurier, it’s now time for students to not only embrace their own culture, but also the cultures of other students.

“Are people just safe within their own cultural identities? Or are people trying to learn about each other?” Lawrence concluded.

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