Diversity and Democracy

Finding Value in My Voice

Like many freshmen, I spent the first few days of my college experience mostly wide-eyed, overwhelmed by the enormity of Western Washington University and the number of people I did not know. I was outgoing in high school, but my transition to college had me so dumbfounded that I would walk quietly from classroom to classroom saying nothing more than "here."

In Bellingham, I felt far from home. Born and raised in a diverse community in Seattle, I was accustomed to encountering people with different cultures, skin colors, religious and political beliefs, socioeconomic statuses, and lifestyles. Differences in languages and communication styles were an important part of this diversity, and my style of speaking is a conglomeration of my parents' Spanish, my black friends' slang, my sister's bluntness, and the English I learned in public school. When I arrived at Western, I suspected that my communication style would be different from that of other students, and that my thoughts and opinions might be unwelcome.

With this suspicion in the back of my mind, I walked into the first biweekly conversation at the Teaching–Learning Academy (TLA) to earn credit for an education course. Seeing students, professors, staff, and administrators cramped into a giant circle, drinking coffee and eating pretzels, I quickly became worried. I couldn't help but think, "What did I just walk into?" For four of the five sessions that quarter, I was a fly on the wall, observing everyone else as they engaged in shared discourse. Other participants encouraged me to speak, yet I did not feel it was my place. With so many knowledgeable elders present, I felt that I had nothing to contribute.

That quarter, the TLA focused on the interconnections between people at Western. During the fifth week, our conversation moved to the topic of diversity on campus. I sat in a small group with my education professor, two students, a staff member, and an outspoken lady whom I did not know. As I sat silently listening to this lady's thoughts, I heard her express an idea with which I did not fully agree. Moments later, I began gently voicing my opinions and answering the lady's questions. Shortly after our dialogue, I learned that this complete stranger was a staff member—and the wife of the university's president.

Yet despite the differences in our status, no one had ignored me or treated me like a naïve student. Instead, everyone in my small group had encouraged me to continue speaking. I had never felt so acknowledged and appreciated by people I barely knew. That moment was a pivotal point in my college experience. After being encouraged to contribute, I had spoken and was rewarded for it. All people, especially students, should have such an opportunity.

For the past four years, I have consistently participated in TLA dialogues. During that time, the TLA has provided me with the chance to learn from people with differing beliefs and to feel that as a student, I can be a contributing citizen alongside respected faculty, staff, and administrators. Every person enters a TLA dialogue with a unique set of experiences and perspectives, and by listening to and developing an understanding for one another, we bring our community one step closer to a truly democratic, inclusive society.

My participation in the TLA has empowered me to contribute to my campus community by taking on other leadership positions. As a resident advisor, I have fostered relationships with new and returning students, making them feel as welcomed and appreciated as I have in the TLA. I have also applied what I learned through the TLA in my work with the Ethnic Student Center, an organization supporting students of color and their allies. Keeping my first quarter experience in mind, I do my best to ensure that every student who walks into the center feels at home and cherished—a feeling I was grateful to experience myself, thanks to the Teaching–Learning Academy.

To learn more about the Teaching–Learning Academy, see Carmen Werder's article in this issue of Diversity & Democracy.

Daniel Espinoza-Gonzalez is a senior majoring in English literature at Western Washington University.

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