Last night, the Gill community came together virtually for a student-led Forum to talk about affinity spaces and how mental health can affect students' sense of identity and belonging. Hosted by Gill for Diversity, the event was a collaboration with our Affinity Groups and clubs: Black Student Union, Hispanic Heritage and Culture Club, Middle Eastern Culture Club, Gay Straight Alliance, Asian Culture Club, and Mental Health Club.
"Our Student Forums are a chance for students and faculty to engage in open conversations about identity, community building, or a specific issue in the news," said MJ Granito, president of Gill for Diversity. "This one focused on community building and unity and provided a safe place to recognize everyone's identity and to hear, see, and validate each other."
More than 30 students and faculty members joined the conversation. Ishaan Bal '22, head of the Asian Culture Club, noticed that after the first 20 minutes, students seemed comfortable and shared more. Having a place to talk about thoughts and feelings proved crucial, especially during the pandemic and all the social distancing protocols. "A lot of times this past year, people haven't been able to interact, because of the social or political climate, so it was great we were able to come together," he said. "I told my friends to join, that they didn't have to turn on their cameras. Afterwards, they said it was really cool, not what they expected. It hits home when people are emotional."
MJ credits the Gill faculty for their after-hours participation. "It speaks volumes that so many faculty members took time out of their evening to join us," she said. "Our faculty is behind us and sees us as next generation and wants us to excel."
Planning for this large-scale collaboration started in December and involved the many affinity groups on campus. "We have a lot of new affinity groups, where students who have a particular identity can meet with other students who share that identity," she said. "It's a place of affinity for those with a shared identity and a place of learning from those who do not share that identity."
Soon, it became clear that the new Mental Health Club needed to be involved. "Mental health plays a huge role in identity, so one feels they can express themselves freely and belong," said MJ. "By placing an emphasis on mental health, we discussed how to belong within your identity, and what togetherness and unity mean. These are not abstract words, but the basis for everyday experiences. How we maneuver in the world, how we respond to others and how they respond to us. Every student needs to know: You are heard, you are seen, you are validated and valued. It's one thing to say it. We need to feel it."
Last night's Student Forum provided that safe place, and scheduling it in the evening contributed to its success. "We heard a lot of things you don't hear during the school day," said Kira Donegan '22, Gill for Diversity member. "A lot of people opened themselves up."
Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Tracey Goodson Barrett commended the organizers who brought everyone together. "We continue to learn so much from the efforts of these student leaders as they advocate for and amplify the student voices in our community," she said. "They give us hope and are a reminder that each of us has the power to make a difference through important conversations, advocacy, and allyship."
Once such leader, Isha Vemuri '22, of the Middle Eastern Culture Club, looks forward to future dialogues. "This Forum went super-well," she said. "Our conversation definitely opened the door for many similar conversations to happen. I can't wait to help plan those!"