Since the start of last summer, Student Coordinator of Multicultural Projects Nylea Bivins ’12, a Eurasian and East European studies major from Maryland, has been developing a series of events to welcome students back to college this week. The 10-day program, Beyond the Bowdoin Hello: Ask, Listen, Engage, is designed to bring students, staff, faculty and community members together to think about and discuss issues of identity, difference and bias.
Assistant Director of Communications for News Content Rebecca Goldfine spoke with Bivins the day before the series launched with a screening of a film about race, gender and politics in American sports. Bivins spoke about how she helped create Beyond the Bowdoin Hello and what she hoped would come of it, both for the community and for herself.
Bowdoin Daily Sun: First off, why is it called Beyond the Bowdoin Hello?
Nylea Bivins: We’ve all noticed that it’s easy to get comfortable in your own social groups here and to remain and stay in your own little bubbles inside the bubble, and we wanted to push students to do more than just say hello to one another. As every first-year hears at President Mills’ welcoming speech, he talks about the Bowdoin hello, so we all know what it is. We figured it was something Bowdoin students could relate to. But we also wanted to push the community to do more than just that—to actually talk and engage with everyone in the community and to really make use of the diversity that’s here. Because we all know that Bowdoin offers a great education within the classroom, but education is so much more than that, and you can learn so much from the people around you.
BDS: What role have you played in creating the event?
NB: The idea for the event came out of a meeting with President Mills and student leaders [last spring], and we were generating ideas as to how we wanted to engage the community and to talk about identity and difference and privilege and inequality and bias. One student suggested having a day dedicated to talking about all the different topics and issues. … The entire group jumped on that and got really excited, and from there we were trying to figure out how to make it happen … Later I followed up with President Mills and asked him what was going on and he offered me the chance to work on the project over the summer, and I was more than happy to do it.
BDS: Was that a paid job?
NB: It was, which was very lucky because I hadn’t set anything up for the summer yet.
BDS: How much time have you spent so far to make this event happen?
NB: I don’t know if I can say in hours or weeks. … It was a full-time position during the summer, and it was also one thing I spent a lot of time doing during the school year as well. So, many months.
BDS: How did you come up with the different events and speakers?
NB: Over the summer, I did a lot of research and looked at what other schools had done in the past and were currently doing. I looked at NESCAC-area schools but also at schools across the nation to see what sort of programs they had done. Some schools have days that they’ve committed to talking about diversity and identity and bias and privilege; some schools have weeks; some schools have months; some schools don’t have much at all. Seeing what our peer institutions were doing helped me get a feel. I did a lot of research, contacted different administrators, contacted students, and got their opinions on what was successful, what wasn’t successful. I got a whole range of ideas.
From there, I met with students who were also here over the summer to get their opinions on what they thought would be most appropriate and what would draw a lot of students to any event we put on. … It was clear that everyone’s comfort level was different and students really needed multiple vectors to engage in the conversation. … There’s no one way, no right way to do it. You have to give everyone the chance to enter the conversation in their own way.
BDS: Why do you think a weeklong event focused on discussion, interaction and collaboration is good for Bowdoin and the community?
NB: I can’t take credit for the idea. … A lot of students were saying they needed a space where they could share their experiences and feel they were being heard. And a lot of students expressed that they don’t feel that students are necessarily malicious on campus or intentionally hurtful, but just many times ignorant, and they wanted to have the space to really talk and to share and to also listen and to ask questions. That’s what the week is trying to give the community the space to do: to ask, to listen. I’m hoping students and community members feel that through the speakers and through the interactive activities and through the films and the tea times and small discussions, and hopefully back in someone’s house or their dorm room, they have the chance to start to feel more comfortable to ask questions and to share and to take someone’s lecture and to take that further and to really wrestle with it and challenge their own opinions and beliefs.
In our brainstorming discussion about the name of the week, we spent a lot of time trying to figure out the last three words: the ask, listen, engage. We spent the most time figuring out what the last word would be and finally decided on engage, because we feel it’s important to start off asking questions and to have the curiosity to want to learn more, but also to take it a little further and actually listen to the answers that people are giving you. And to respect their answers and realize that they’re sharing a part of themselves with you and that’s a privilege and that’s an honor. We hope that the practice becomes habitual on campus and it’s not just something that’s going to last for the next seven days, but that it becomes a part of our culture.
BDS: And what kind of questions do you see people asking one another?
NB: I think it can be anything personal, like, where are you from, something about your family, to anything as far as your beliefs and opinions on religion or politics. … So all those questions that you might have thought, ‘I don’t know if I can ask that,’ or maybe ‘I shouldn’t ask that.’ I know for myself, I usually have my hair in a big old fro, and people are like, ‘I’m not sure if I can say this, but can I ask you about your hair? How do you do that?’ If you ask me if you can ask, that’s fine! I’m more than happy to share. I love my hair; I would love to talk to you about it!
BDS: What have you learned or taken away from your experience organizing this event?
NB: I think I have learned a lot about myself while doing this, and I think one thing that I found particularly interesting is … I had to, in some ways, check myself for the same things as I was creating the program for, and make sure I wasn’t playing into too many of my own biases and that I was really addressing the needs and concerns that the community wanted to see and what the community needed.
BDS: When you say your own biases, what are you referring to?
NB: As a black lower class female, it’s very easy for me to focus on class issues, and to focus on issues related to race and to gender, and I could very easily forget, because I’m a heterosexual female, I could completely forget to talk about issues that affect the LGBTQIA community. There are so many different aspects of identity and I had to remember to encompass all parts of that.
BDS: Is there anything new that you think you might learn or feel next week? What are your expectations?
NB: Right now, at the end of next week, all I can think about is sleeping. I think I will sleep like a baby at the end of next week!
But I can say that in my first year at Bowdoin, I had a very difficult transition, and a lot of that stemmed from the different parts of my identity. Being a black, lower-class female on a predominantly white campus was a very hard transition for me, and then, also the class factor was also very difficult in making Bowdoin really feel like home. So I’ve always had a desire to help change that for other people on campus and to hopefully make another student’s transition easier. And I think that by the end of next week, I will feel that I’ve really started to make some progress in that way, and I think that first-year Nylea would be proud of Nylea now!
BDS: Would you like to see Beyond the Bowdoin Hello become an annual tradition?
NB: I would really love to see this happen every year. I think that we’ll have to get a lot of feedback from the community and from the campus to see how they felt, to see how it can be improved and changed. But I hope that everyone enjoys it and gets something from it, and finds that it’s meaningful in some shape or form.
BDS: Anything else you want to touch on?
NB: I don’t know if can make a plug?
BDS: Yes. Make a plug.
NB: I would just like to say thank you to everyone who has helped me, because it has definitely not been the Nylea Show at all. I haven’t done anything on my own. There have been a lot, a lot of people involved, from the president’s office to the dean’s office to all the different student leaders and club members who have all been involved. So I would like to say thank you to everyone who’s helped out.