Traditions such as Cornhuskin’, the Big Sis/Lil’ Sis program, Ring Dinner, Fire and Water and Stunt are a big part of Meredith College’s campus culture. While traditions successfully promote the idea of unity and sisterhood, in practice they lack inclusivity. Meredith is a predominantly white institution (PWI), but has an emerging Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) population on campus. This diversity is not reflected in who is seen participating in traditions on campus. The BIPOC students on campus don’t appear to be as active, or are not seen front and center. So why are students of color not seen more in Meredith traditions?
The lack of diversity stems from the exclusion and cultural appropriation minority students experience when trying to be active members of their respective classes. Not participating in traditions starts freshman year, when everyone is new and the thought of participating in traditions is exciting. Other students are not willing to mingle with students dissimilar to them who are looking to be involved, and as a result, BIPOC students gravitate toward one another. Denise Bahena-Bustos, Class of 2023 President, says that she has spoken with “a lot of people this summer and the latter [part] of the second semester, and people didn’t feel very welcomed in the community that we have been a part of recently. Sadly, a few of my class members have decided to transfer out.” Minorities being ignored is not something that is unique to Meredith, but is especially daunting when you attend a college that emphasizes supporting other women and the idea of a sisterhood. There comes a point when it is just easier to do things separate from traditions, reducing the risk of being overlooked. Sometimes exclusion might not be intentional, but not experiencing diversity in one’s own personal life has an effect on one’s worldly perception. Nevertheless, disregarding minority issues on campus normalizes ignoring students altogether. Dismissing concerns and complaints is a consistent trend of Meredith’s culture and the unintended consequence is that students are unable to foster deeper understandings of the world they are preparing to enter.
As the school year ends and BIPOC students separate themselves from activities on campus, on-campus election season arrives. By the time elections happen, those students who aren’t participating in traditions are even less likely to vote. Bahena-Bustos’ call to action for the student body is that “a lot of people complain about who is in leadership. People don’t want these same people anymore. But someone needs to run.” Students should be motivated to not only vote in the elections, but to run themselves. Disinterest in the election process leads to unfilled positions after the election is over and a lack of diversity. If positions are left unfilled, they are made known to the class and students who are interested submit an application. Ultimately, they are interviewed and selected by the class’s executive board. Often, the interview questions go beyond anything that is required during the actual election. The interviewing process is more intense, as stated by the Class of 2022’s President Kiley Van Ryn: “The election process does not consider the true qualifications and credentials of the candidates that are running. In this case, there is great potential for unqualified and unfit candidates to be elected into these leadership positions.” A restructuring of how leadership is elected is what the student body needs. If we continue the way we have always done, we can expect the same results that students are experiencing right now. Van Ryn is working closely with the Office of Student Leadership and Service (SLS) in an effort to make that happen.
When students are elected to represent their class for a tradition, every part of the tradition must be reviewed. Songs, costumes, merchandise and anything that includes the college’s name must be approved by the Marketing Department or another respective board. It is up to the chair of the tradition to submit the content to be reviewed, and they are told that each submission must uphold “the Meredith College image.” This is an unspoken social contract of what Meredith thinks is proper for students to wear, say or do. Restrictions on what will be approved, the need to stick with a theme and the necessity of compromising with your fellow co-chair make it difficult to have a diverse music range. This leads to mostly presenting generic pop music that aligns with the idea of a “strong woman.” Artists like Lizzo, Halsey, Megan Thee Stallion, Todrick Hall and Bad Bunny send unconventional messages of empowerment that wouldn’t fit into Meredith’s current mold and have met resistance in the approval process in the past. As a previous Cornhuskin’ Co-Chair, I can attest to the difficulty of finding a common ground when there is a difference of opinion.
Some of the things that do get approved would suggest more diversity, but they actually do more harm than good. The intention of appreciating another’s cultural identity is often not executed correctly and ends up in material being used inappropriately. For instance, the Class of 2021’s “There’s No Telling How Far We’ll Go” freshman Cornhuskin’ theme could have been an amazing display of Polynesian culture. Unfortunately this was not the case, as they improperly used grass skirts as a part of the costumes. Instead, it would have been more appropriate to use a tapa cloth, which is more authentic to the culture. To avoid appropriation, class chairs should be required to do research and discuss what is appropriate with students who identify within the culture. True appreciation of another culture unifies, because common ground can be found when understanding differences.
As a student body, we need to be encouraging students to not only participate in traditions but also support students with different perspectives. Students who are marginalized or ostracized within leadership positions or by student leaders should have access to resources on campus to counteract misdeeds. Leaders on campus should be encouraged to appreciate and respect the different views on campus. Those like Van Ryn and Bahena-Bustos, who hope to lead by example, are the role models we need to see more of on campus. Our student body is filled with different colors, ethnicities, sexualities, cultures and voices. Diversity is not a one size fits all mold and should allow each student to be represented as an individual; that is what Strong looks like.
By Jeanine Carryl, Contributing Writer