NDSU Critical Conversations… ROAD TRIP!!!

Veronica Riepe, NASPA IV-W Knowledge Community Coordinator

April 27, 2017

I had the great privilege of traveling with a colleague and 10 students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to Fargo, ND to attend the Critical Conversations Diversity conference. By serving on the IV-West Advisory Board, I was familiar with the conference and was excited to attend, but the opportunity to take so many students from our campus was what I was really looking forward to experiencing. The journey was improved because the students did not know each other. Everyone knew two or three people, but they formed new relationships with peers from their own campus. Nick Ames, Assistant Director, Student Involvement said, “What stood out to me was having conversations and getting to know our students. Creating and building relationships means the world to me.”

The North Dakota State University (NDSU) conference committee and Student Affairs staff, especially Vice President of Student Affairs Tim Alvarez, could not have been more welcoming to us. They even arranged a campus tour since we arrived early. I was surprised when our Union Board President said, “I’ve never been in another student union. This is really cool.” Others asked our tour guide so many questions, she had to really think. I was grateful they were taking advantage of the opportunity especially since none of them had even been to the state of North Dakota.

A poverty simulation was the pre-conference event. It had been years since I had participated in one and I learned a lot. Honestly, there were times I just wanted to say stop, I need time to think and find a solution or come up with a plan. I felt like I could not make the decisions I wanted to make due to restrictions like lack of money or rules. Imagine what it feels like to face those challenges every minute of every day. I think one of our graduate assistants, Yves Bemba, studying higher education administration, summed it up best when he said, “Poverty is a condition that is present within some of the students we serve, it is important that we truly understand its impact. People know what poverty is, but I wonder how many understand it and that it is a cycle. Going through the 2-hour simulation made me realize that “working hard” may not be the solution to get them out of poverty. “Going to college” is a privilege, but for some students, poverty can easily take that privilege away from them.” We could have easily continued processing the simulation for hours to come.

Michael Strand, Associate Professor and Department Head of Visual Arts at NDSU opened and closed the conference talking about “Unifying Voices” and shared how he does that through pottery. I have talked more about his two presentations than anyone else’s and cannot wait until we can bring him to Nebraska to help us unify our voices. Michael Yellow Bird, Professor of Sociology and Director of Indigenous Tribal Studies at NDSU discussed the Dakota Access Pipeline and the history of native lands. “Turning Our Stories into Action for Justice” was facilitated by Macalester College’s Aida Martinez-Freeman. She led the participants through an afternoon workshop focused on their experiences, who has influenced them, and where they are going in the future. The powerful, energetic, Inky Johnson wrapped up the evening. We had the pleasure of hearing Inky in the company of 400 NDSU student athletes and their coaches. It was impressive to hear his story of a football injury in college that not only ended his football career, but also led to the loss of the use of his right arm. His conviction, motivation, and desire to make a difference was at times a lot to absorb. Although his lecture was wonderful, the quality and number of questions after were a testament to the engaged students in the audience. After 45 minutes, they had to stop the Q and A. I tell students all the time, DO NOT leave when the lecture is done, stay for the Q and A, it is the best part. Inky proved that point over and over again.

The last highlight from the conference was the incredible performances by the Native American Drum Group, Aztec Dancers, the Hip Hop Team and the traditional Mexican dance group Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue. The members of the various groups consisted of NDSU students, community members and high schoolers. I was truly mesmerized by their native dress, the history of the dances, and the passion that each individual brought to their performance. We were all given a little insight into why dance is so important and meaningful to their culture and I was grateful to have learned about their stories.

I asked our students what they got out of the conference and undergraduate Erin Husmann shared the following thoughts. “During the Critical Conversations conference, I was able to reflect on what individuals can do in terms of creating change. This conference brought me back to myself in not a selfish way, but in a selfless way. Thanks to this conference, my understanding on how it starts with a single person was once again ignited. Having conversations and creating change with those directly surrounding you has immense potential to start a ripple effect, especially regarding difficult topics and diversity.”

I am hopeful that the ripple effect of the Critical Conversations conference has started with those that attended the conference and has made its way back to the various campuses of those individuals and will continue to impact the NASPA IV-West region in the months to come.

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