Reflections on Diversity at Westmont

by Geriece Jenkins

My thoughts were like a see-saw as I stood in front of the mirror pondering the semester ahead. I said to myself, “I should —I definitely should. But then again maybe not — I can’t do that. No, no, I definitely should.”

What was all this intense and intrapersonal debate about? What was going to shape the first semester of my sophomore year? What was going to send ripples through the Westmont community?

MY HAIR! Yah, I definitely said that — it was my hair. I just couldn’t figure out whether to come back to school with the afro I had been wearing all summer or whether to put my hair back into more mainstream braids. I know, right now you are thinking, “Is this girl serious, and how the heck does this qualify as an intelligent reflection on diversity?” But honestly, this minor decision was causing me a lot of angst on that late August afternoon.

Looking back on that moment I realize that I was not freaking out about making a disco fashion statement. I was just afraid to be more different than I already would be at Westmont. I had experienced walking into a class, into a section meeting, or into the DC and being one of few people with this lovely chocolate skin tone. This alone makes me stand out in the crowd, so adding the fro to that factor seemed like it might be too much to handle. As it turns out — and I am sure you are dying to know at this point — I did, in fact, return to Westmont with the afro my sophomore year. It was a great year, but even more than just having cool hair, I learned a lot about myself and my approach to diversity on this campus.

I believe that amazing variety exists at Westmont, but that we often fail to fully explore the possibilities and potential under the surface of how the community appears to be. One aspect of diversity that Westmont solidified for me is that every single person, whether a person of color or not, has a story to tell and a heritage to offer. So many people are afraid to let their uniqueness show, so they assimilate into the Westmont culture and community in order to fit in. The challenge for each of us is to own those characteristics, like the afro, that make us different and to walk confidently knowing that we all have something special to contribute to this place. My hope is that Westmont will be a place where you are comfortable enough to offer your story in an authentic and compelling way with the people around you. However, it is equally important that Westmont be a place where you are able to listen and learn from the stories of others. The point is that diversity at Westmont is a reality now and starts today as we build a society of unique individuals who embrace the differences between themselves.

Secondly, I love the idea that every culture of the world contains an aspect of the image of God. I believe that part of being created in God’s image is that each of our cultures reflects that image in specific ways. To limit cultural diversity within the Christian faith is to limit your understanding and perspective of God. No one culture reflects Him entirely, and we need to be willing to learn from other cultures about what they bring to the Christian faith. This means that we have to develop a willingness to experience worship through other cultural lenses. I would encourage you to grow to a place where you are able to view the world and the Christian faith from the perspective of another person. Obviously we can never completely turn off our own world view, but we make strides in that direction. My best friend is Korean-American, and I have learned so much about Jesus from this woman. It was not automatic, but as I spent time with her family, time at her church or Korean-American conferences, I began to appreciate the culture more and also to appreciate my creator more. One of the greatest gifts God has given us is different cultural backgrounds.

My final thought is a challenge to you (disclaimer: this will not be comfortable or easy for you — get used to that because that is what college is all about). I try to have one goal in my interactions with people and that is to be H.O.T. (yah, you read that right). This acronym stands for Honest, Open and Transparent. I have found that once you move with confidence in the person you are becoming and set aside pretense, others are willing to follow. In those moments of being completely open, we discover more of the rich diversity of who we are and how we think as a community because we can see the beauty each individual brings to this campus. The more I have worked to involve myself in the lives of friends who come from different contexts, the better I understand who they are. Each new relationship has led me deeper into the conclusion that people are simply people and all of us are distinctive in our own right. When we realize that, we realize you can’t place broad generalizations on individual personalities. God brought each person to this place and this time for a reason, and we have the opportunity to walk through the next four years asking questions and listening to stories to understand what that reason is.