To date, the Young Leaders in Education About Diversity pre-orientation program is the best thing I have done for myself. I realize that’s a loaded statement, but I mean it – even after two years at Georgetown, a study-abroad experience and a handful of incredible internships in D.C.

YLEAD is a truly unique experience.

It is different from the perceptions my peers have expressed about a “diversity program.” In my years engaging in diversity education, many people have shared with me their ambivalent or negative view of the word “diversity.” I feel that these sentiments taint many serious efforts to enhance intercultural learning and self-awareness. For me, YLEAD is a carefully constructed learning experience that introduces a group of first-year students to the richness of the Georgetown community while prompting them to examine the perspectives of others and themselves.

Diversity at YLEAD does not mean we are teaching students to be politically correct at the expense of their freedom of speech. It does not mean that we watch a cultural performance or eat a foreign dish and leave feeling good about ourselves for embracing differences for one day of the year, with little reflection or personal growth. It’s not a group of minority students sitting around talking about oppression, discrimination and hate, pointing the finger of blame at particular identity groups or communities.

Instead, during this year’s YLEAD program a week before New Student Orientation, I met with 14 incoming freshmen each bringing a collection of unique life experiences. Some students, like me, had been engaged in discussions about diversity or social justice in various capacities throughout their high school careers. Others joined the program because they came from homogenous home environments, which did little to broaden their horizons or challenge norms, a frightening experience for many coming to a diverse and complex community like Georgetown.

From my experience as a participant, peer leader and now coordinator, I would venture to say that it is fairly impossible to leave YLEAD unchanged, whether you realize it by the end of the program or in the years following. Through open, authentic dialogue about aspects of identity often referred to as the D7+ (including, but not limited to, race, social class, religion, sexual orientation, gender, ability and age) and the intersections of these identities, one is challenged to re-evaluate how one views oneself and one’s place in the world, as well as one’s role as an ally and agent of change on Georgetown’s campus.

At one point in my life, I would have considered this experience a feel-good, “let’s-get-in-a-circle-and-talk-about-our-feelings” love fest. I have since come to realize that it takes a mature person to acknowledge that he or she does not know everything and look inwardly to gain personal insights, before working for change outwardly.

Such an open and constructive discussion prepares students to impact the Georgetown community in direct and indirect ways. For example, I was moved to become involved in the university’s Diversity and Inclusiveness Initiative that formed following THE HOYA’s controversial 2009 April Fools’ Day issue due to my experiences in YLEAD. Some of my fellow YLEADers went on to join Leaders in Education About Diversity, an organization that trains people on campus to facilitate diversity-related dialogues. Others apply their new awareness and sensitivity to their coursework, transforming the academic environment for themselves and their peers.

I have returned to YLEAD for three consecutive years because I believe it is more than simply a touchy-feely orientation program. It is a structured personal and interpersonal learning experience aimed at helping prepare a group of students to contribute in a positive way to our diverse Georgetown and global community.

Lauren Reese is a junior in the College and the coordinator of YLEAD.

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