Diversity Day: Finding A Sense of Belonging

Have you ever felt like you don’t belong? Perhaps your friends, family, or culture made you feel like the odd one out? You try to fit in, to adapt, to force yourself into someone you are not. Overflown by frustration and sadness, you ask yourself: ‘Why can’t I be more like them?’ What you are experiencing is a lack of a fundamental human need. The need to belong, to have a group of people of whom you can proudly say ‘those are my people’. Not to worry, certainly everyone will experience a moment in life during which this deepest desire is unfulfilled. At Match, we often take the perspective of student volunteers who make other people belong in the Maastricht community. Yet, how do we ensure that the university students themselves can find a place to belong in the Maastricht community.

University can be an uncertain time for the young and restless. Many students may experience a lack of confidence in who they are or what they want to do. So, how do universities safeguard that all members experience a sense of belonging? At Maastricht University, this is the main task of the Diversity & Inclusivity office. The organization is in charge of the policies and actions for increasing the diversity and inclusivity of UM. Last week, the D&I office organized their yearly Diversity Day to share their progress and celebrate diversity at UM. This year’s theme was “You belong at UM!”. The office connected students with peers, introduced D&I organizations, and motivated students to become involved in the community. It was a time to share and celebrate that UM is a place where all students belong. Here’s what happened at #DiversityDayUM20 over a packed two hours on Zoom: 

What is Belonging?

On Diversity Day 2020 at 16:00, I found my digital self between a lovely turn out of unfamiliar faces, all connected in our yearning for a more diverse and inclusive world. The event began with discussing the meaning of ‘belonging’. After a short pause, the chat box started to fill up: ‘feeling secure’, ‘being yourself’, ‘to feel like you are part of the group’. Despite the vagueness of the concept ‘belonging’, everyone seemed to interpret it similarly. Being the curious person I am, I delved further into what ‘belonging’ actually means. My question was answered by one of my favorite authors, Brené Brown. Brown, a world-renowned researcher, expressed that her participants often refer to the idea of belonging as to “be part of something–to experience real connection with others–but not at the cost of their authenticity, freedom or power.” It appears that belonging embraces both ‘being part of something’ and ‘being freely ourselves’. Quite paradoxical, yet I suppose the Diversity Day Zoom chat box would have agreed with Mrs. Brown’s definition. Belonging, thus, urges the university to foster an environment where community and authentic individuality align.

"Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance."
– Brené Brown

Diversity Policies at UM

The need for creating an environment of belonging is easily illustrated through a couple of numbers: Of the Students at UM 54% are non-Dutch, 4% identify as LGB, and 10% have a disability/chronic illness that presents an obstacle. On the other hand, UM also sees a need for diversification in staff, for example 27% of professors are female compared to 60% of students. Constance Sommerey, UM’s diversity officer, explained that D&I has two main pillars to achieve a diverse and inclusive community allowing for all students to belong. First off, D&I aims to diversify the employee and student population. Secondly, D&I tries to better policies that enhance an inclusive study environment. You might have seen the gender neutral toilets or buildings fit for physically disabled students. But D&I also aims to have courses that include well-balanced class discussions highlighting a diverse perspective, empower first generation university students, and create family-friendly policies. Listening to Sommerey was extremely refreshing. While too often we see the debate on a social issue overshadowing the practical implications, D&I has achieved concrete steps to realize the diversification and inclusivity at UM. I was amazed by what they have achieved so far and excited about what is still to come. 

Discussing Diversity with Strangers

Truth be told, my favorite moment about the Diversity Day event was the speed dates. In a time during which we mainly hear our own voices echoing in our heads, it is a breath of fresh air to have a genuine conversation with strangers. During the speed dates, D&I randomly assigned us to two audience members for three rounds. While being given a couple of minutes, we introduced ourselves and discussed a statement on diversity. Even though I am usually not big on networking (shout out to all my introverts), this social gathering was genuinely exciting. From the pleasure of my own home, I was able to connect with people who shared the same interest for equality and diversity. Zoom also proved to be a perfect platform for networking. In my final round, the two members of my group exchanged contacts after realizing that they both were unknowingly working on the same diversity issue at UM. Once the speed dates were over, the chatbox notifications came in “I wished we had more time for the discussions”. Assuming from the general sentiment of the audience, I was not the only one enjoying the human connection. 

Decolonizing the University

After meeting some peers, we received a keynote on ‘Decolonizing the University’ by Prof. Dr. E. Wesseling. While I will leave the details to the experts on the topic, I understood that universities often are built on both emancipation and oppression. And while breaking down unwarranted tradition-based beliefs is great, silencing voices of others is not. So, research, curriculums, classrooms and institutions should carefully reflect on their role for including equality policies for everyone to feel emancipated.

The Soul of UM's Diversity Community

The student organizations, the heart and soul of UM’s diversity community, were the last to speak. Last but not least, that is. During the meet and greet with the student organizations, we got a first taste of what these organizations aim to do and how we can participate. In the first round I was introduced to the Feminists of Maastricht, a student organization promoting intersectional feminism, and in the second round UM pride, a supportive community for LGBT+. Other present organizations were ACMUS, MSA Nour, We Care, InnBetween, Kaleido, Peer Support, and UnliMited Network. All of these communities welcome students who feel they might not belong or who want to take action for a more inclusive university. Even though many of the student organizations might be seen as ‘the underdog’, they radiate with strength and confidence; showing that UM is a community existing of diverse and authentic individuals.

Online Belonging During the Pandemic

During the pandemic, ‘to belong’ might be weighing heavier on the shoulders of institutions like universities. How can the UM make first-year and master students like they belong online? How can UM create a strong community online? How can UM include students or staff with less digital capabilities? These are questions that the D&I office as well as each faculty need to reflect on. From my experience, the Diversity Day event was a great example of how to create an environment of belonging online. The human connection felt real. And the message on diversity came across. It made, at least, me feel like I belonged for two hours, even if it was from the comfort of my own home.

Want to join a student organization or do you have a question about the Diversity & Inclusivity office? Please find more information here.

D&I office social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter

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