Our Wisconsin, the first-year student diversity training at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had an extensive change this school year with marginalized students in mind. 

“My goal was removing the burden from marginalized students to educate their white peers on these issues,” Aaminah Long said.

Long is beginning her second year as the Coordinator for Inclusion Education at the Center for the First-Year Experience. Her position includes overseeing Our Wisconsin and implementing its new curriculum this year. 

The new curriculum focuses on the theme of home. It uses tactile learning activities, small and large group discussions, and video on redlining that all centered on the ideal of home. According to Long, this was a shift to the previous program that was often described as “preachy” or “lecturey.” 

There were concerns about the original lesson’s step forward activity that singled out students of color and other marginalized groups. It took the experiences of oppressed people as a learning tool for their peers.

“I felt, with the old activity, it was more putting people out there without bringing it back home to that community aspect. As a black woman, I felt more comfortable in the session.” Kaitlyn Jackson, a second-year house fellow in Witte Hall, said.

The new curriculum went through many phases to get to the final version first-year students currently experience. The process was very political. The drafts of the curriculum went through various offices on campus and many cuts and changes made.

“Originally the curriculum was a little bit spicier, in terms of holding folks accountable. Specifically, white folks accountable for what they bring into the space,” Long said.

All of Long’s changes did not make the final cut, but the mission of Our Wisconsin remains. This mission is to “provide all University of Wisconsin-Madison students with an understanding about culture, identity, and difference, as well as the skills and commitment to create a community that is inclusive for all people.”

The original Our Wisconsin program was inspired by campus-wide protest in 2016 under the slogan #TheRealUW. After a series of racist incidents occurred on campus, the movement focused on the isolating experiences of marginalized people by their peers and faculty. Some of the demands of the movement the president admit the failure of the school’s diversity, hiring more colored mental health professionals, and the creation of a diversity task force.

Another one of those demands included was diversity training for the student body to avoid students of color having to endure similar racist attacks. This demand was met with the Our Wisconsin program.

In Fall 2016, a pilot program launched on campus. The following fall, it was offered to all first-year students in the residence halls. The reactions to this program were split between white students and students of color.

The 2017 program review does not reveal this split and displayed largely positive results. However, according to Long, the aggregated results of students of different identities do. White students either saw Our Wisconsin as a great community builder or biased against white people, while students of color described the curriculum as othering and not going far enough.

“I felt sort of like a spectacle, stepping forward, sometimes alone, in that circle. We’re supposed to be a school that welcomes diversity, not one that singles it out,” Mickenzee Okon, a second-year Black student, reflecting on her previous Our Wisconsin experience, said.

Many institutions of higher education include cultural competency training in new student orientation similar to Our Wisconsin. However, according to Long, there is not as much financial support at UW-Madison compared to other Big Ten Universities.

According to research done by the U.S. Department of Education, training for students can be more effective when “they involve active learning techniques, not just lectures, so participants engage with the course content, and when the trainings avoid assigning blame or responsibility to participants for current diversity issues.” All of these are apparent goals in the new Our Wisconsin program.

Diversity initiatives are the standard across the United States at colleges and universities since the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision. The Supreme Court affirmed the importance of diversity in higher education and reinforced the expectation that elite institutions have a responsibility to instruct their students to become leaders in a diverse world. 

Our Wisconsin will continue for first-year students in the residence halls throughout the month of October. As the program moves forward, Long will be exploring what it would look like to make it mandatory for all first-year students.

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