A new school year is upon us, and that means a whole new crop of freshmen, freshwomyn, and everything in between. With that come the typical introductory conversations: what’s your name, where are you from, what dorm are you in, etc. However, until recently, we had never critically examined the potentially offensive implications of these statements.
I think back to my own ignorant freshman self two years ago, walking up to people I had never met and saying things like, “Hey, how’s it going? I’m Steven.” At the time, such statements seemed harmless—after all, I had been using some form of that phrase to introduce myself to people for my whole life. But what I (and many other freshmen, freshwomyn, and students whose identities cannot be summed up in a mere word) had forgotten to take into account was the fact that you cannot simply assume that another student speaks English. When this concern came up in last spring’s sponsor group survey, the Sponsor Group Committee vowed to be more aware of the potential for microaggressive behavior that arises as new students come to campus.
“Next year, we plan to implement some new strategies to prevent students whose first language is not English from experiencing potentially awkward situations at Pomona,” wrote Dean Ric Townes—one of the directors of the sponsor group program—in an official statement last spring. “Our sponsors will educate the new first years on the dangers of assuming their peers want to speak a certain language, and will instruct their sponsor groups to avoid verbal communication with other students until they know each student’s Preferred Language of Conversation (PLC). Sponsor groups will discuss their PLCs in Esperanto on the first day of orientation, just before going over everyone’s Preferred Gender Pronouns (PGP).”
Students felt that this policy change was a step in the right direction, but that many problems would still persist. “I’m glad to see Pomona finally make an effort to reduce language bias on campus,” said Kyle Johnson, PO ’16. “But it still fails to take into account those students who have trouble hearing, or students who have social anxiety and don’t like to be approached by people they don’t know. I think the administration still has a lot of work to do.”
During sponsor training in the weeks before orientation, the sponsors put their heads together to come up with an effective way to eliminate any potentially distressing encounters. “We thought a good activity to help us brainstorm would be to recount our own experiences as first years,” said Head Sponsor Charlie Lu, PO ’17. “It was a really difficult and emotional conversation to have, but I think it was really beneficial. People told stories ranging from meeting people who were from states formerly in the Confederacy, to meeting students whose names were similar to those of rapists from novels with no trigger warnings, to meeting students who planned to major in potentially offensive subjects.”
“I literally broke down crying when I told my story to the other sponsors,” said Marissa Smith, PO ’18. “When I was a freshwomyn, I met someone who was majoring in art. I had always dreamed of majoring in art, but my parents told me they wouldn’t pay Pomona’s $60,000 tuition unless I majored in something ‘practical’ like economics or computer science. I still get sick to my stomach every time I see an art major walking around on campus.”
In the end, the team of sponsors determined that, until they got to know their sponsees a bit better and could formulate an exhaustive list of all things that could be potentially offensive to each (which will be written in a book for each first year to carry around and share with anyone they might meet), it would be best for new students to avoid all contact with each other. “Really, almost any question can have an offensive answer,” said Anna Rodriguez, PO ’17, a Head Sponsor. “For that reason, we are encouraging first years not to talk to each other at this time.”
(My PLC is English, but yours may not be. If you’d like to read this article in Arabic, please click here.)