Over the past few days, I have gone through Towson orientation. I’ve found out where my classes are, participated in convocation, discovered where to eat on campus, and met with my academic advisor. But the most important lesson I learned was in diversity and civility.
300 of us sat in plastic chairs, chatting to avoid betraying our nervousness. We knew the names of a few people, but we were still uncomfortable. We obsessed over our insecurities and secrets. We lacked perspective.
Perspective came to us in the form of a minimalistic powerpoint. The presentation was a silent game. A question would appear on the screen that took the form of, “Who in the room …?” If the question applied to you, you stood up. We began with, “Who in the room was born and raised in Maryland?” Next came, “Who in the room was born and raised on the East Coast?”, “Who in the room was born and raised on the West Coast?”, and “Who in the room was born and raised outside of the United States?”
I saw other students with international backgrounds like me stand, and even though we were a minority, I felt comforted. To at least one other person in the room, America also seemed a little foreign.
Next came questions of race and income level. We stood up to show our gender, sexual orientation, whether or not we had experienced violence, alcoholism, and drug abuse in our homes, whether or not we had a disability, and many other parts of our lives that have profoundly affected who we are, but that might not often be shared.
As we were led through the slides, I noticed people I knew from my graduating class back home stand up, revealing parts of their lives I didn’t know. One of the people who stood up was a person I had judged back in high school. A wave of humility washed over me, soaking me from head to foot. This was a person I had made assumptions about, when truly I knew nothing.
At the conclusion of the exercise, we were told to discuss for a minute how we felt with the person sitting next to us. I felt myself choke up. How could I explain the mixture of comfort, shame, relief, and community that I was experiencing in only 60 seconds?
That’s why I decided to blog about this topic today. I need more than 60 seconds.
I need to highlight the importance of this lesson, especially for those of us who live with disabilities such as mental illness. From the outside, no one can tell what we’ve been through. No one knows about the sleepless nights, the pills, and the heartbreak. No one, that is, unless you let them.
I would encourage you to share your experiences with others. There are others who understand what you’ve experienced, and there are even more who want to understand. You don’t have to share more than you feel comfortable with, but let me emphasize how good it feels to release your secret. Sharing with others helps them feel comfortable sharing with you. Be a listener, not a judger. When we share our secrets, they shed their status and become simply “truths.” They are stated plainly instead of whispered. The community is enriched. Everyone is welcomed to an environment where they can thrive.
Diversity consists of the qualities that separate us from some and unite us with others, and civility is accepting these qualities and using them to make positive change. This how I learned to incorporate both into my life. I hope you do, too!