Pluralism in action?

By the

January 24, 2008


“It seems silly to even use the word ‘challenges,’” Rob Hurtekant (SFS ’08) said of his experiences in a wheelchair at Georgetown.

Hurtekant, an African Studies minor, spent last semester in South Africa, where a chance encounter had a defining impact on his experience.

At a local shopping center, Hurtekant was approached by a man with a physical disability that left him unable to walk. Hurtekant instinctively thought the man was about to ask him for money, but instead he told Hurtekant about a school called Tembalethu in a nearby neighborhood for children that are physically challenged.

Hurtekant took the man’s advice and visited the school frequently, playing basketball and talking about self-esteem with the students.

The experience in South Africa had a profound effect on Hurtekant’s perspective on his disability, but back on campus, issues like broken elevators remind Hurtekant that things like getting to class on time can in fact be challenging.

“You can’t change some things,” he said. “You can’t change how old [Georgetown] is, or how it’s in a city.”

Hurtekant said that because there is a relatively small population of people in wheelchairs on campus, problems are usually solved on a case-by-case basis. Jane Holahan and other members of the Academic Resource Center have been helpful in having someone to “bounce ideas off of,” or figuring out the logistics of getting to class. “If anything, she’d probably prefer that I would visit more often,” he said.

One idea Hurtekant has discussed with Holahan during his time at Georgetown is the creation of a group for students with disabilities. Although he thinks it could be an important resource, he also wonders “if it’s effective to lump everyone together.” Hurtekant explains that “even within the group of what people call ‘disabilities’ it’s very disparate.” Each person has a diverse experience, including those people with learning or mental disabilities. Having used a wheelchair for most of his life, Hurtekant notes that his perspective would probably be different from someone who started using one recently.

When asked about Georgetown’s role in recruiting students with disabilities, Hurtekant noted a conversation he had with then-senior Jen Howitt (SFS ’05) upon arriving to campus. Howitt, a Rhodes scholar and Paralympic-gold medalist, assured Hurtekant that not only could he get by at Georgetown despite his disability, but he could exceed his greatest expectations.

“Meeting her was very important for me,” Hurtekant said.

Hurtekant said that he has only had minor problems at Georgetown because of the physical landscape and its infrastructure, and that other students “help too much, if anything,” with everyday actions such as opening doors.

One thing he does want people to think about is the language they use to describe disabilities.

“I’ll call someone out if they say I’m ‘confined’ to a wheelchair, or even ‘in’ a wheelchair…I’m not in it all the time,” he said. “Parking enforcement gave me a speeding ticket as a joke for going down the hill by New South too fast, I’m not confined to anything.”


Aastha Mehta SFS ’08
Lynn Kirshbaum & Emily Voigtlander

Aastha Mehta’s (SFS `08) first experience with Georgetown’s South Asian Society was at the event that seems to epitomize the group: Rangila.

“Some people say that [Rangila] is the superficial part, the aesthetic part,” Mehta said. “But I see it as a good thing when people become aware no matter what it is they are aware of.”

Mehta said that the number of non-South Asians in Rangila has increased dramatically in her four years here—a positive development in her eyes. But she also believes that Rangila is the exception, not the rule, in terms of South Asians’ integration into the greater Georgetown community.

“As a group we tend to stick together,” she said. “It happens with every minority group on campus. I think it’s sort of natural process, because you feel more comfortable with the people who have the same background and heritage as you.”

Mehta recalls meeting a fellow South Asian’s parents when she first arrived at Georgetown.

“It seems like such a small thing,” she said. “But I know how to talk to them, and I’d be less comfortable meeting someone else’s parents.”

But she believes that this detachment is changing, in part because of greater awareness of South Asian issues in the United States as a whole. Outsourcing, economic concerns and the changing face of India have helped Americans to better understand South Asian culture, she said. Mehta believes this change is reaching Georgetown, where more classes on South Asian history, culture, language and religion are being offered as a result of student efforts and initiatives.

Despite the changes, Mehta insists that there is more that can be done by students and the University for the SAS and other minority groups.

“I think that there needs to be more diversity in general, an increased minority population,” she said. “Even in the D.C. Area alone, the University should get more minority students to apply. They should also give more incentives and financial power to groups like SoCA and CMEA.”

But she admitted that the University can only do so much.

“It’s up to the minority groups themselves,” she said. “They should make an active effort to seek out opportunities to affect policy and enact change.”

Mehta ultimately believes that being a minority group within a larger community mirrors the individual struggle for identity that is part of the college experience.

“It’s really hard to try to stay attached to your heritage and your background,” she said. “To mix in with other groups of people and stay true to that is something I think everyone struggles with.”


Marco Vargas SFS ’11
Lynn Kirshbaum & Emily Voigtlander

Katy Welter NHS ’08
Lynn Kirshbaum & Emily Voigtlander

When Marco Vargas (SFS `11) decided to spend four years at Georgetown, he felt little hope of entering a community that would embrace his sexual preference.

“I didn’t feel very good about it,” he said. “There were all those stereotypes—Jesuit school, preppy kids, Republican families—I thought it would be very conservative and non-accepting.”

Vargas, who has been openly gay since the end of high school, found little here to quell his apprehension. His first semester on campus saw September’s alleged hate crime and the ensuing controversy over the administration’s inaction.

“I wasn’t surprised,” he said of the alleged assault. “But it made me a little more scared. It made me start to wonder if something like that could happen to me.”

Katy Welter (NHS `08), who came out in the fall of her junior year, also felt the specter of intolerance after the September assault. But her biggest concern was with the University’s lukewarm reaction.

“I just thought that the administration would have been a little more compassionate,” she said. “When we tried to bring a t-shirt to President DeGioia on Coming Out Day and were physically restrained from entering the building, that was the first time in three and a half years that I thought, ‘Wow, I’m ashamed to go to Georgetown.’”

In spite of these instances, neither Vargas nor Welter found it difficult to find a niche at Georgetown. Both were quick to point out that no one is forced to hang out with ignorant or intolerant people, and that many students on campus are more than willing to accept different lifestyles.

Both are members of GU Pride, a group with the mission statement of “working for a more equitable society in which all LGBTQ people are fully accepted by the world around them.” Though both Vargas and Welter deem the group a necessary support system, they believe that understanding what LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning) students go through requires more than what Pride can provide. Vargas even suggested that Pride might sometimes get in the way of a more complete understanding by focusing too much on labels.

“A lot of the time we just identify as gay, lesbian, etc, and we just stick to that,” he said. “I feel like Pride might be caught up in that. For me, that doesn’t always work, because there is much more to someone than his or her sexual orientation.”

Welter, the captain of the Georgetown Women’s Rugby Team, exemplifies this assertion. She claims that although the more liberal atmosphere at other universities might make for an easier transition, coming out in a community pocked with intolerance has helped her strengthen her own identity.

“What’s important for me is that I do what makes me happy,” she said. “I want people to know that you fall in love with a person, not a specific sex. If you believe that, great. If not, you might not get to know some pretty fantastic people.”


Andrew Zheng MSB ’09
Lynn Kirshbaum & Emily Voigtlander

Going to a school with a large Asian population wasn’t a high priority for Andrew Zheng (MSB ’09). The way he saw it, in a smaller community, “There are more opportunities to be a pioneer.”

Accounting for only nine percent of the student body, Georgetown’s Asian community is relatively small compared to Harvard’s 14 percent or Stanford’s 24. According to Zheng, Co-President of the Asian American Student Association, the importance of race is magnified because of the smaller number of Asian students.

“Race can be more of a thing here in determining who hangs out with who,” he said. “It was not even an issue at all [in my high school]. It defines you more here.”

Zheng thought the comparatively small number of Asians at Georgetown was connected to the school’s academic strengths. With an emphasis on the humanities and international relations, he said Georgetown doesn’t garner as much recognition among Asians as schools with strong engineering and science programs do.

He said the community is big enough to have internal divisions, though—the broad term “Asian” can be applied to students from countries as disparate as China, Pakistan and Indonesia. In addition to the umbrella group, AASA, numerous organizations target specific ethnicities. While the groups unite for big events, Zheng said there is not much “cross-ethnicity bonding,” and that there is often tension between Asian-Americans and international Asian students.

Though he rejected the term “self-segregation,” Zheng noticed a tendency for students to gravitate towards people with a shared background. To him, groups like AASA function to promote interaction and understanding between different minority groups.

“[There is segregation] even among Asians. East Asians don’t connect that much with South Asians,” he said. “Ultimately there’s going to be friction as well as understanding. Hopefully the understanding outweighs the friction.”

Although Zheng has encountered racism in D.C.—a fellow Metro passenger once shouted pejorative terms at him—he said he has not experienced overt discrimination on campus.

What he has encountered, though, is the stereotype that all Asians are extremely studious. Zheng said this stereotype is usually thrown around in jest (when he goes to the library he often gets ribbed for “being Asian”) and he doesn’t find it offensive, but he’s quick to point out that not all Asians fit the stereotype. Moreover, he wished non-Asians would make efforts to learn about the lesser-known aspects of the culture.

“On a very surface level, [non-Asians] have some knowledge, but a lot of it is stereotypical,” he said. “Everyone knows about sushi and the Chinese New Year. It could be deeper.”


Joshua DeMinter COL ’08
Lynn Kirshbaum & Emily Voigtlander

“When I said, ‘Frankenstein can be viewed as an abolitionist text,’ at first they all looked at me like, ‘What?’ I had to walk them through it, but at the end of the day, they understood where I was coming from.”

In his four years at Georgetown, Joshua DeMinter (COL ‘08) has devoted much of his time in class and out to the exploration of the black experience. The former executive producer of the Black Theater Ensemble and the current director of In the Blood—about the struggles of a poor, single black mother—DeMinter has used the stage to explore his black culture, but said his classes do not always provide him with an opportunity to mine through books or history for insight into his identity.

“On this campus, we are not at a place where those stories [of the black experience] are integrated into the broader American narrative,” he said. “I don’t understand how you can take an American History class and spend one week on slavery. The black experience is the American experience.”

DeMinter saw this disconnect between classes and culture as a personal challenge. It has become a question, he said, of his ability to understand the black experience and at the same time incorporate what he is told he needs to learn.

Dr. Angelyn Mitchell, director of the African American studies department, has helped him wrestle with this challenge.

“The way she conducts her class and herself is one in which she maintains her culture and integrates it seamlessly into the curriculum,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to attain—the ability to incorporate things that are from my culture, like songs or people, that I didn’t think fit into the academic landscape but really do.”

DeMinter said he believes that the black experience deserves a place in every student’s curriculum.

“Everyone at Georgetown should be required to take at least one ‘people of color’ class—just one,” he said. “Being forced to look at a book or history from a minority perspective is really valuable.”

DeMinter is concerned about the size of Georgetown’s black community. About seven percent of the student body is black, and although DeMinter says he does not believe in quotas, he believes that the number could be higher, as black people make up 13 percent of the national population.

“Still,” he admitted. “There are a lot of ways to measure diversity. Georgetown is diverse on a global scale, but I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Do we look at home or abroad for diversity?”

DeMinter’s role as an explorer of the black experience is one that he had to grow accustomed to.

“The first year here was my hardest,” he recalled. “Georgetown’s minority community was a lot smaller than I expected. For the first time, I felt I was always making the ‘black kid comment.’ I didn’t want to go to the CMEA because I didn’t want to be treated like a minority student.”

But DeMinter has come into his own in the past four years.

“I was joking with a friend the other day after somebody had used the term ‘reverse racism’ in one of her classes in a discussion about affirmative action,” he said. “‘If you want to get into the semantics of it,’ I said, ‘that’s what we’re doing. We’re reversing racism, getting rid of it.’ When I was a freshman I never would have talked about that. It’s a sign of my growth that I could joke around with it.”


Alejandro Delgado SFS ’08
Lynn Kirshbaum & Emily Voigtlander

Alejandro Delgado (SFS ’08) wants to make it clear that he is not the typical Latino. In fact, according to Delgado, there is no such thing as a “typical” Latino.

“I don’t want to pigeonhole the ‘Latino’ perspective or mindset,” he said.

Delgado is a second-generation college student of Mexican and Ecuadorian descent. Coming from this background, and from a predominantly white area of Texas, it was initially difficult for him to find his place amongst Georgetown Latinos. At times he felt that other Latinos who were first-generation college students or from lower-income families were suspicious of him.

Delgado believes that many Latino students are “shell-shocked” when they arrive at Georgetown, and have problems integrating due to their own insecurities about the University’s image projection. He feels that Georgetown projects the wrong image, specifically that of the upper-class, white “Joe Hoya,” and it plans events and activities that cater to that image. It was this image that kept him from joining some of the “premier” student groups on campus, such as the Corp, which he said can be very intimidating to a minority student.

“There’s that unseen barrier that’s inherent at Georgetown,” he said. “Unfortunately it’s [due to] deeper issues that simple policies cannot affect in the short-run. It will take more systemic changes [to produce] a gradual change in Georgetown’s image.”

Some of these changes include a more diverse faculty and more dialogue between students. He also believes that the University needs to do a better job of supporting groups like the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access (CMEA), and that these groups need to have more of a presence on campus.

When asked about his perception of diversity at Georgetown, Delgado pointed out that there is a lot of geographic diversity, but suggested that more could be done in terms of ethnic, racial and socioeconomic diversity.

“When I’m the only minority in my classes, there’s a problem there,” he said. “I’m not looking for 50 percent minorities, but more institutional support for the minorities there are.”

He noted that Georgetown is only six percent Latino, compared to 15 percent nationally, leaving plenty of room for increased diversity in the student body. He also feels that Georgetown runs the risk of “squeezing out the middle class.” While the University does a good job supporting what low-income students it has through scholarships, he said it does not realize how difficult it is for middle class students to attend the University. Delgado’s greatest concern is that Latinos at Georgetown are not able to maximize their college experience because of insecurities about image.

“I’m so appreciative of this opportunity because it’s forced me to grow in ways that I wouldn’t have in Texas,” he said. “Ultimately, I want other Latinos to be able to graduate and say it was the best experience they ever had.”

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