Making sure Queen’s is for everyone

Jian Yang, Jimmy Verrault, Michelle Bourbonniere, Justin Kerr and Daniel Ogutu-Were take full advantage of the Queen’s University International Centre’s (QUIC) comforts in the JDUC.
Jian Yang, Jimmy Verrault, Michelle Bourbonniere, Justin Kerr and Daniel Ogutu-Were take full advantage of the Queen’s University International Centre’s (QUIC) comforts in the JDUC.

Queen’s. A snooty, white, rich university—old-money private school-lite.

It’s a familiar stereotype, but is it true that only people from certain cultural and socio-economic backgrounds are welcome here?

Arun Parkash, ArtSci ’05, doesn’t think so. He said he was disoriented when he first came to Queen’s from India to begin his economics degree, but felt welcome nonetheless.

“Living in Leonard Hall in first year benefited me because I learned a lot about Canada and its people,” he said. “Had I gone to U of T, I would have been immersed in the Indian community there and never had the learning opportunity I’ve had at Queen’s.”

Parkash says promoting diversity among students is crucial for their education. “If we want to develop future leaders, we must do more to expose our students to the world.”

Daniel Ogutu-Were, Sci ’07, agreed. He said he came to Queen’s from Uganda because he wanted to study in a small Canadian city, and Kingston seemed ideal. He also said he knew that, as an African student, he would be part of a visible minority at Queen’s, but that didn’t bother him at all.

“I was brought up to accept living with different cultures and races,” he said. While he found the Queen’s community to be friendly and receptive, Ogutu-Wre said he has also had to educate people about his background and culture.

“People assume a lot about Africa from the things they see on TV,” he explained, adding that this attitude even extended into the classroom. As a student, he said, he has encountered professors who didn’t expect him to be on a par with his Canadian classmates.

“Some people know so little about what goes on outside of Canada that when you fit in okay, they’re surprised,” he said.

Master’s student Ahmed Mohamed has been fighting preconceptions in a different way. Mohamed is president of the Queen’s Muslim Students Association, and helps organize the club’s annual Islamic Awareness Week to combat what he called “a definite lack of awareness of Islam on campus.”

While Mohamed said he has not heard of any incidents in which Muslim students were targeted or harassed at Queen’s, his group still thinks it’s important to educate the University community about their religion and culture.

Mohamed said Queen’s has done a lot to accommodate Muslim students’ needs, though. He pointed out the availability of halal meals—prepared in accordance with Islamic teachings—as a selling point for Queen’s among Muslim students. They aren’t as readily available in other Canadian universities, he said, adding he would like to see the service extended to all of the University’s food outlets, to accommodate students who live off-campus as well.

Awareness is also a priority for the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre. The Centre aims to provide a family atmosphere for the estimated 100 Aboriginal students on campus. But Georgina Riel, the Centre’s director, says reaching out to those students can be difficult. Ontario university application forms, unlike those in other provinces, do not allow Aboriginal students to self-identify, so the Centre relies on advertising and referrals from within the University to reach students.

“Our Centre provides support for all Aboriginal students, regardless of their ancestry,” Riel said. She wants to make it easier to do so by informing faculty and campus organizations about the Centre’s services, as well as promoting the Queen’s Aboriginal community and resources available to Aboriginal students in publications like the Maclean’s annual university review.

Nicholas Snider, ArtSci ’92 and the manager of the Queen’s Office of Student Recruitment, wants to raise awareness in a slightly different way. He said the focus on bringing people of colour to Queen’s, although positive, doesn’t encompass the entire meaning of the concept of diversity.

“Diversity is more than non-white faces on campus. It’s about varied cultures, religions, languages, socio-economic backgrounds and sexual orientations,” he said. The number of ways in which people can be unique and different from each other makes diversity especially challenging to measure, Snider added.

“Unlike universities in the U.S., we are prohibited from inquiring about demographic information during the application process, so there is no way to quantify how diverse our campus is,” he said.

To overcome this obstacle, Snider heads a team of 13 recruiters who make 1,100 school visits in Canada and more than 30 countries around the world each year, aiming to get the widest possible cross-section of prospective students interested in Queen’s.

He often acknowledges on those visits, however, that the city of Kingston cannot compete with the diversity in urban centres such as Montreal and Toronto. He said he is also quizzed on occasion about campus attitudes towards individuals of diverse sexual orientations.

“I point out the diversity section in our recruitment brochure and ask, would we advertise our positive space program [a Canada-wide initiative to raise awarness about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered communities] and posters on gender variance if we were a socially conservative, non-progressive university?” he said.

Snider said he still believes the Queen’s community is much more conscious of diversity today than it was during his student days a decade ago.

“The discussion among the administration is no longer about the value of diversity,” he said, “but rather about how best to achieve it.”

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