By Sasha Nyary
When Azulina Green ’17 learned about Mount Holyoke College’s new peer education program around the sensitive topic of diversity, she was excited to apply to become a facilitator because she’d volunteered in a similar program when she was in high school.
“As a peer, it allows you to open up and be a little more vulnerable in these conversations,” said Green, who is an international relations and Middle Eastern studies double major. “You’re not worried about an authority judging you or grading you in some way. Instead, because it’s peer-to-peer education, we can all equate ourselves together.”
For Collins Hilton ’17, who came to Mount Holyoke as a transgender man, the new program was a perfect opportunity to engage in discussions about identity.
“Everyone is the expert of their own identity,” said Hilton, who is studying Africana studies, education, and theatre arts in a self-created major called theatre for social transformation. “I can speak about my experience but I can’t speak for other trans people. I can’t speak to what it’s like to be a person of color. So how do I learn from other people around me? That’s the benefit of communal learning like this.”
Green and Hilton are two of the 15 student facilitators of the new MoZone Peer Education Program at Mount Holyoke.
Launched in spring 2016, MoZone is a structured program that offers a safe space and practical tools for students, faculty, and staff, to discuss issues of diversity and inclusion. Each of the two sessions, one on race and ethnicity and one on gender and sexuality, is typically presented to 12–15 participants in a two-hour session. Sessions are led by two or three trained student facilitators.
“The idea of starting these conversations is so you can go out and have them with people around you,” Hilton said, noting that when MoZone participants explore their various identities it enables them to see the world with greater clarity and sensitivity.
“You can’t have a conversation about one identity without bringing up other identities,” Hilton said. “I can never look at something just from my trans-ness, because my whiteness affects that, my social status affects that, my education affects that.”
MoZone’s unique origins
What distinguishes MoZone from peer-to-peer diversity programs at other institutions is its grounding in and partnership between the academic affairs and student life offices, said Marcella Runell Hall, vice president for student life and dean of students.
“All the different components of MoZone may happen in various ways at different colleges,” she said. “But the way we’re doing it is new because of our context, history, and demographics. We’re doing peer-to-peer education with a focus on diversity that is grounded in theory and vetted by students. That’s a critical distinction that makes the program very unusual, if not unique.”
The collaboration between academic affairs and student life began when two students, Courtney Brunson ’16 and Carly Bidner ’16, used Lynk funding to attend a leadership conference in South Africa. Hall, who is a trained social justice educator and has created numerous diversity education curriculums, had already been talking to students about peer education. Working with Hall as their advisor, Brunson and Bidner created a framework, a curriculum, and an assessment tool for MoZone as part of their senior theses. Today, Latrina Denson, the assistant dean of students, oversees MoZone, including training, in conjunction with the student facilitators.
That MoZone’s originated from a student project is a testament to the College’s commitment to an environment of inclusion, Hall said.
“Our diversity is clearly one of our greatest resources,” she said, noting that 27 percent of domestic students at Mount Holyoke are people of color—and that nearly that same percentage are non-US citizens. “But diversity alone doesn’t create inclusivity or belonging. You also need dialogue, space, and time to talk about what those differences might mean, and how we want to be as a group.”
Mount Holyoke is fortunate to have such a diverse student body, Hall said, including in gender, language, national origin, political affiliation, religion, and sexual orientation.
“There is so much intersectionality in who our students are, and so much to learn from and with one another,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important to set up programs like MoZone, so that you know what to do when those differences bump up against each other.”
MoZone as safe space
The name MoZone is a combination of “Mount Holyoke” and “safe zone,” a term used historically to describe safe spaces for members of the LGBT community on college campuses. Safe space is key to the program, said Green, who noted that additional sessions on the topics of nationality, religion, undocumented students, and first-generation students are in the works.
“The goal is to pull out these different identities,” she said. “Not to separate people, but to make us all more aware of one another and the different backgrounds we’re coming from. Safe space doesn’t necessarily mean easy space. It means no harm will come to you based on the learning and exploring you’re doing in that space. You get a chance to be vulnerable and know whatever you share in that space will be held in confidence and won’t be held against you.”
Having a framework for definitions and a basic curriculum are other crucial parts of these trainings, said a third facilitator, Kimberly Neil ’17.
“A lot of people don’t know how to ask a certain question,” said Neil, who is majoring in dance ethnography. “If there’s something they don’t understand, they just won’t bring it up, because they don’t want to be embarrassed or offend anyone. The structure opens up the room and creates space for people to have these types of dialogues.”
The MoZone facilitators provide sessions at the request of students, student groups, and offices and departments on campus. This fall, community advisors, senior community advisors, members of Senate, and students in PaGE, the Professional and Graduate Education Program, have been trained. The team in medical and nursing services has also participated in MoZone sessions.
MoZone is all about opening community-wide discussions, Hall said, noting that faculty and staff are welcome to request training.
“This is about creating safe spaces, and brave spaces, so we can realize our potential for true belonging and community,” she said. “We want to encourage baseline conversations, to ground the experience of students, and to better support faculty and staff in having these conversations.”
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