Orientation staff must improve diversity to better reflect CMU

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For an incoming first-year student at Carnegie Mellon, Orientation Week is a special time to start your college experience, make new friendships, and expand your identity. First-year students are guided through this first week of college by a cast of volunteers from the Department of Student Affairs, known as Orientation staff: Orientation Counselors (OCs); Orientation Leaders (OLs), who supervise OCs; and Head Orientation Counselors (HOCs), the student Orientation coordinators for a given first-year housing community who direct OLs and OCs.

These positions are complemented by paid RAs and, in certain communities, mentors or ambassadors unaffiliated with Orientation staff. For many first-year students, their OCs, OLs, and HOCs form their first impression of Carnegie Mellon and set a foundation for the rest of their time at our school.

Carnegie Mellon prides itself on its diversity. The university’s Diversity Resource Guide reads that Carnegie Mellon is “a community that understands diverse perspectives and backgrounds breed the intellectual vitality essential for the health and progress of the university.”

Yet, the Orientation staff does not reflect this diversity. A current OL, who asked to remain anonymous, said that “[Orientation] gives an inaccurate representation of what Carnegie Mellon is really like.”

Perhaps the most notable sign of a lack of diversity in Orientation staff is the gross overrepresentation of Greek students, which is linked to an underrepresentation of international students and minorities. As of the Spring 2015 Greek Report, 23 percent of Carnegie Mellon’s student body is involved in Greek life. 100 percent of HOC’s (8/8) and 75 percent of OL’s (18/24) are members of Greek organizations on campus.

A first-time OC, who also asked to be quoted anonymously, said that “When I decided to apply to be an OC, I was told by a lot of people that the odds of me being accepted weren’t that great because I wasn’t Greek. Therefore, when I did get accepted, I saw it as an achievement and my non-Greek status as one of my strengths. However, once training began, I quickly came to realize that me not being Greek was actually an initial setback. The Greek community at CMU is pretty tight knit and as a first-time OC who is not active in Greek life, I felt like an outsider. Everyone knew each other and it was really hard for me to talk to people I had never even seen before without any context. I especially felt like a minority, which was uncomfortable and unnerving.”

The high proportion of Orientation staff who are members of Greek organizations causes a sense of exclusivity within the staff. As ambassadors of the student body as a whole, Orientation staff should give an accurate representation of the student body and promote the inclusion of varied perspectives, backgrounds, and organizational involvement.

The aforementioned OL suggested, “being Greek doesn’t make a bad OC, but creates an unrealistic expectation that you have to be a member of the Greek community to be involved on campus,” adding, “We also need more international students and people of color.” In order to showcase the diversity of Carnegie Mellon’s campus community we need to focus more on diversity as a criteria for OC selection.

While the exact number of international students in Orientation staff is hard to determine due to the lack of public information about a student’s citizenship status, the total number of international students is estimated to be between 3 and 6 percent of the total Orientation staff, despite the student body boasting a makeup of 19.3 percent international students (from 69 unique countries).

The previously mentioned OC lamented, “There are barely any international students who are OCs, and that’s a problem because of our increasing international student population.” International students have the greatest need for a smooth acclimation to campus, since they are adjusting to an entirely new country and culture in addition to a new educational institution. The Orientation staff needs more international students as OCs to make incoming international students feel welcome and comfortable.

The Orientation staff selection process is largely student driven, with some involvement from the Division of Student Affairs. With the group interview and the individual interview, both guided by HOCs and OLs, these students have a major influence in the pick of OCs.

A 2014 Morewood E-Tower OC who requested to be anonymous cites the Orientation selection process as the key issue here, mentioning, “because of the overwhelming number of HOCs and OLs who are Greek, there were a lot of applicants who had Greek relationships with HOCs and OLs, it gives the people who know the HOCs priority and helps them be distinguished from the rest of the pool.”

Some may argue that the lack of diversity is due to the initial applicant pool rather than the selection process itself. Of course, if the general applicant pool is itself overrepresented with Greek students and underrepresented with international students, finding a diverse set of OCs and OLs becomes difficult. If this is the case, a greater effort to recruit OC applicants through different channels, such as academic advising, multicultural organizations, and RAs.

If the fault is with the selection process itself, perhaps greater faculty and staff involvement is necessary in each cycle of interviews. Additionally, diversity could be more readily used as a metric when housing communities and their HOCs choose their Orientation staffs.

In either case, a solution is both possible and necessary. Carnegie Mellon is a rich, diverse community — it is imperative that our Orientation staff reflect that.