URI Diversity Summit attracts students from far and wide to hear renowned speaker

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KINGSTON, RI- – March 13, 2012 – If the 500 students jammed into Edwards Hall Auditorium for a recent program on diversity had planned on low-key, lecture-type experience, speaker Maura Cullen quickly dispelled those notions.

Even with a big crowd assembled for the University of Rhode Island’s Diversity Summit, Cullen had these students moving, talking, joking, standing and sitting to get her points across about diversity, individuality, and commonality.

“The jokes she made relate to us. I don’t know what to expect for the rest of the seminar, but I’m definitely excited,” said Emely Morrobel, a student from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, who attended the daylong conference.

Although this thin blonde woman may not have been what most people were expecting, she soon gained respect from the crowd.

“I like how was she able to take different people from different backgrounds and bring them together. This is something I’d like to do when I’m older,” said a student from Central Connecticut State University.

Cullen often stopped throughout the seminar to conduct activities involving the audience, so she could get feedback about different issues. Her first activity involved asking everyone to stand up and introduce themselves to at least four other people in the room, telling the audience to act as if each person they were meeting was about to give him or her their dream job.

“I like how she started the seminar off, talking about the importance of attitude, especially her saying, ‘attitude determines altitude,’” said Melissa Impett, a senior orientation leader at the University of Rhode Island.

This started off her discussion on the importance of being an individual and having self-confidence.

“Sometimes how we get along is by going along. When making decisions in life, let them be yours. The best way to solve your problems is through your own thinking,” said Cullen.

The projection of an animal onto the large Power Point screen helped Cullen introduce her next point. Some students in the audience looked at the picture and saw a rabbit, while others saw a duck; very few saw both. This demonstration pointed out how people often view each other as one-dimensional, based on size, color, and gender.

“It’s human nature to notice differences in others first, when actually, we are more alike than we think. For example, we clump people by color, mostly just black and white, and completely ignore the fact that there are more Asians than any other people on the planet,” said Cullen.

At one point, she asked students to stand up if someone close to them had suffered from an eating disorder, and to stay standing if this person ended up dying from it.

Almost half of the large diverse group of students who had stood up for the first part of the question remained standing for the second part. As members of the audience looked around, it was apparent that different people could have the same struggles.

“It was nice to know that there were other students who had been through similar hardships. It made it easier to connect with them,” said another Central Connecticut State University student.

Cullen then shared a story about attending a Mass for her friend’s deceased relative at an all black church. Since she had grown up in a predominantly white community, this experience was anything but usual.

“When walking in a room where you’re the only person who’s a certain color, you become more conscious of yourself and how others see you,” said Cullen.

Cullen then created a variety of scenarios involving white students at a predominantly black school, highlighting how they would feel if the roles were reversed.

“Let’s say you’re the only white kid in a classroom, and the professor calls on you whenever he or she needs a white person perspective; how would that make you feel?” said Cullen.

Cullen also asked the audience to stand up at different intervals based on whether or not their financial resources ranked at “more than enough,” “enough,” or “not enough.” When she asked the audience how they felt about their situation, responses ranked from “grateful” to “unfair.”

“The stand-up sit-down activities are a good way to bring up discussion without even speaking,” said Beth Bates, a student at The University of Rhode Island.

The last point Cullen covered before the first break pertained to gender and how our society only really accepts male and female and tends to exclude those that are transgendered. Many institutions like bathrooms, resident halls, or even prisons do not make accommodations for transgendered people.

“If you think that you don’t know anyone who is transgendered, it’s probably because they haven’t told you,” said Cullen.

The Diversity Summit ended at 4:30 pm, leaving the audience to reflect on different ways to keep an open mind about differences in others. The event was sponsored by Housing and Residential Life.

Victoria Antonelli, an intern at the Communications and Marketing Department, wrote this release.

Pictured Above

HANDS TOGETHER: Students participate in a diversity activity with Maura Cullen.

WORKING TOWARD CHANGE: Students happily high-five Maura Cullen during the seminar.

URI Department of Communications & Marketing photo by Michael Salerno Photography.