Diversity Panel Discussion Focuses on Prep Student Experience, By Claire Romero, Director of Multicultural Life
During second lunch on a Friday in April, seven students representing some of the cultural, ethnic, and learning diversity at Prep participated in a panel discussion in front of the Faculty & Administration Multicultural Committee. The discussion covered three areas: the experience students anticipated before coming to Prep, their actual experience at Prep, and what Prep could do to make their transition to and experience at Prep smoother and easier.
Transitions are hard. The teenage years amplify the transition from childhood to adulthood. During these years, our students face several important developmental imperatives, including the establishment of identity, the need for affiliation (or learning to love self and others), and mastery of skills.
All of the challenges we identify with being a teenager are amplified for many of our culturally diverse and learning differenced students who come to Prep from a variety of schools. Remember, even change for the good can be stressful. First, consider what it is like to move to Prep from a private elementary school in Santa Fe. Even though many of your classmates will move with you and the Prep curriculum may feel like a continuation of sixth grade, you may still experience the shock of transition. Now, instead, imagine what it feels like to start Prep without that familiarity or with a learning difference that has impeded your success in previous educational settings. To compound the shock, the majority of faculty do not share your share your ethnic orientation or skin color. Some of our panelists addressed this transition:
“Mentally prepare yourself. You have to be a real strong kid to go from Pojoaque to Prep.”
Before coming to Prep most of the students on the panel anticipated challenging academics and several believed all the students at Prep would be “white and wealthy.” Most feared they wouldn’t fit in or be accepted by their peers. One student thought she “would be a bad student and wouldn’t have support because she had never been very successful in her previous school.” They also worried they would lose their connections at home and not feel comfortable with their family and friends.
Some common trends emerged. Most students came to Prep to pursue a rigorous education in a safe environment, and for the most part, they have not been disappointed. The faculty has been supportive and interested in each student. Many have made friends. The real issues emerged around the students’ sense of identity, sense of belonging, and feelings of academic competence.
“It was shocking. It was like going to college. It was huge! It helped to have my advisor.”
“I feel like I can’t relate some of my experiences at home to my friends at Prep. Weekends are so different; every Sunday night I prepare myself to be at Prep.”
“I have to switch personalities between home and Prep.”
“My friends (at the Pueblo) have sort of rejected me. It’s hard for me to go to the community center or participate in summer programs. Even my accent has changed.”
Some students missed the sense of community in their previous schools, but appreciate the academics at Prep.
”At my old school you could talk to anybody, anytime. At Prep, the groups of friends are not as easy to penetrate.”
One of our foreign exchange students joined the panel and related her experience at Prep. She found it difficult to make friends and wished Prep students had been given more background information about the relationship between the United States and her country. She wasn’t sure how to befriend Prep students. Furthermore, she came to Prep for a cultural experience, but she felt that not making friends impeded the full experience. She found comfort through teary Skype conversations with other foreign exchange students and with her friends back home.
One strong theme that emerged among all the students is the high level of care they felt from teachers. Most of the panelists had never experienced such care and concern in a school setting. A second theme was the sense of ongoing isolation many of our students from diverse backgrounds feel when they come to Prep. The students spoke of their experience at Prep with remarkable honesty.
Most independent schools share our struggle to evolve into high-functioning inclusive learning communities. Prep, like many schools, has made progress, but we still need to gain greater clarity about our diversity goals, what we need to achieve and how best to achieve these goals. “Excellence in education and diversity go hand in hand.” (Brosnan, Association of Independent Schools of New England)
Diversity work in schools has many facets, including curriculum development, hiring practices, teacher evaluation, community conversations, support systems, and educational programs for all members of the community. The evolution of a school toward becoming an inclusive community requires much from all its constituents. We need to expand our self-awareness and social conscience regarding unintended exclusion and racism, including the willingness to explore the privilege we inherit by virtue of our position in the dominant culture of a prep school. It is courageous and essential work, and Prep is positioned to continue on this path.