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Minority Student Leadership: Taking the Initiative and Learning Across Differences
Nasha London-Vargas, Associate Director for Counseling and Advising in the Office of Minority Educational Affairs, Cornell University

Minority students on many campuses are limited by their own ideas of the ‘other.’ They often encounter difficulties and hold notions that are prejudicial as do students from the dominant culture. There is a need for minority students to speak to one another and to share responsibility for creating healthy and productive diverse communities on college campuses.

We need to create opportunities for minority students to involve themselves in the life of the University as they speak to each other about concerns specific to their own group and to minority groups as a whole. I believe that we can encourage healthier intergroup relations by placing minority students in situations in which they must encounter and work with one another.

By creating these situations, students become sensitive to each other’s issues and become active participants in efforts that benefit the entire institution. We can empower students to act as gatherers of information, establish face-to-face contact with different sectors of the university, and facilitate better delivery of student services.

Colleges and universities have several domains for learning which are often segregated from one another--the classroom, residence halls, community service departments, and campus life organizations. We could be more successful at integrating minority students fully into college life and fostering healthy intergroup relations if we helped students make connections across these different domains. In fact, we need to extend our diversity work to all domains of education.

At Cornell, I discovered some ways to do this by listening to our minority students. Early in 1998, some members of the minority student population at Cornell (including African American, Asian American, Native American, Latino/a, and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender students) came to me to discuss issues that divided them. The students were interested in discovering ways in which they could create dialogues with each other and share with the rest of the campus some of their concerns.

We agreed that there was a need for minority students at Cornell to be appreciated for what they bring to the learning environment for everyone. We needed to channel the specific issues and concerns of minority groups on campus. Minority students were, therefore, assigned the task of developing Cornell’s first Minority Leadership Conference and Town Hall meeting on race. Students did all the necessary research, panel construction, and preparation of relevant questions. This was the first time minority students from different backgrounds had to work on a problem of mutual benefit and concern--to bridge the gaps among them.

During the conference, students presented a variety of issues to faculty, administrators, staff, and peers. They discussed Cornell’s racial legacies and contemporary race relations on campus and they stressed the need for stronger student leadership and activism. They offered nine steps toward racial harmony and began to open up a dialogue between different interest groups on campus. These students now see themselves as more interdependent. They are members of different groups, but they are also workers, university resources, support group members, and mentors. As a follow up to the leadership conference, students organized a town hall meeting on race and invited the entire Cornell community as well as representatives from the greater Ithaca Community. Through these and other work-related or community service programs, minority students are building support networks in which student contact across and within groups is increased.

Campuses often have programs designed to foster minority leadership or community service, but we need to be more intentional about using these programs as contexts for community building and leadership development. We need to redesign other programs to attend to diversity issues--peer counselor programs, big sister and big brother programs, tutorial services, and leadership recognition programs.

As Cornell’s students prepare for new programs and activities, they now bring with them a clearer sense of their own responsibilities for creating a healthy and diverse environment on campus. By working with one another on a daily basis, these students have acquired skills and knowledge about leadership, conflict resolution, and working together across social and cultural differences.

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