North­eastern Uni­ver­sity leaders dis­cussed some con­tem­po­rary chal­lenges and solu­tions to increasing campus diver­sity in a cross-​​cultural round­table on Tuesday after­noon at the Cabral Center.

The hour­long event, spon­sored by the John D. O’Bryant African-​​American Insti­tute, was part of “50 Years For­ward: The Journey Con­tinues,” Northeastern’s year­long com­mem­o­ra­tion of the 50th anniver­sary of the Civil Rights Act.

It began with an intro­duc­tion by AAI Director Richard D. O’Bryant, who high­lighted the roundtable’s theme: “In a dra­mat­i­cally changing demo­graphic envi­ron­ment, it remains sur­pris­ingly chal­lenging to inspire diverse and mul­ti­cul­tural dia­logues, activ­i­ties, and ini­tia­tives,” he said. “Exposing stu­dents to dif­ferent cul­tures and eth­nic­i­ties is a con­tin­uous endeavor and ideal that most uni­ver­sity offi­cials hold in high regard.”

So, too, do stu­dents. “There is a lot to be gained from being sur­rounded by people who have dif­ferent opin­ions from you,” said Selmon Rafey, the Stu­dent Gov­ern­ment Association’s assis­tant vice pres­i­dent. “If you aren’t inter­acting with people who have dis­agree­ments with you, you’re detracting from your col­lege experience.”

Rafey, SSH’18, learned this lesson in a graduate-​​level course on the Arab Spring, the stu­dents of which included Egyp­tians and Amer­i­cans, staunch Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats. As he put it, “A lot of Northeastern’s classes foster growth and devel­op­ment by exposing stu­dents to dif­ferent opin­ions and thoughts.”

Later on, the dis­cus­sion turned toward racial and ethnic iden­tity. Cassie Harris, the former pres­i­dent of the North­eastern Black Stu­dent Asso­ci­a­tion, noted that she occa­sion­ally felt com­pelled to speak on behalf of all African-​​American women.

Some­times you feel respon­sible for such a wide nar­ra­tive,” said Harris, AMD’15. “I’m not going to hold my tongue if there’s some­thing I feel strongly about, but some­times there’s an added pres­sure or expectation.”

Susan Ambrose, senior vice provost for under­grad­uate edu­ca­tion and expe­ri­en­tial learning, agreed with Harris. “We all have mul­tiple iden­ti­ties, yet people look at us and see Asian man [or African-​​American woman],” she said by way of example. “As a his­to­rian, I can say that we have come a long way, but nowhere near far enough. How do we move beyond the super­fi­cial fea­tures so people do not listen to us based solely on our race and gender?”

Richard Harris, the Col­lege of Engineering’s assis­tant dean for aca­d­emic schol­ar­ship, men­toring, and out­reach, offered a solu­tion, chal­lenging stu­dents to make their voices heard. “Your job is to agi­tate, agi­tate, agi­tate,” he said, para­phrasing African-​​American social reformer and orator Fred­erick Dou­glass. “This insti­tu­tion wants you to flex your wings.”

In closing, O’Bryant asked each pan­elist to describe diver­sity using a single world. “Oppor­tu­nity,” one said. “Neces­sity,” said another.