Students Experience 'Life-Changing' Diversity Conference

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Students Experience 'Life-Changing' Diversity Conference
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Three students who attended a recent Student Diversity Leadership Conference described their experiences there as "empowering" and "life-changing."


(From left) Senior Ibukun Ogunwomoju and juniors Meredith Moore and Jiberly Sandoval attended the SDLC in Atlanta December 7-10 with Eric Mathieu, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, and History Teacher Laura Swarz-Burt (missing from photo).

Students Experience 'Life-Changing' Diversity Leadership Conference

Three students who attended a recent Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) have described their experiences there as "empowering" and "life-changing."

Senior Ibukun Ogunwomoju and juniors Meredith Moore and Jiberly Sandoval attended the SDLC in Atlanta December 7-10. The theme for the conference, sponsored by the National Association of Independent Schools' (NAIS), was "Dreaming Out Loud: Waking Up to a New Era of Civil Rights." The three students were accompanied by Eric Mathieu, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, and Laura Swarz-Burt, a History teacher.

According to the NAIS website, the SDLC "is a multiracial, multicultural gathering of ... student leaders (grades 9-12) from across the U.S. It focuses on self-reflecting, forming allies, and building community. Participants develop effective cross-cultural communication skills, better understand the nature and development of effective strategies for social justice, practice expression through the arts, and learn networking principles and strategies."

Ibukun found the conference's use of affinity groups – made up of individuals who share the same race, ethnicity, or identity – very compelling. "I went to the black/African American affinity group, which had 600 people in it," she recalled. "I had never felt so comfortable in a space like that. I've never seen so many people who looked like me all at once either. It was really empowering."

Jiberly was in the Latin affinity group. "I was surprised to hear that students from other private schools from across the country were experiencing the same things that I have," she said. "It was a very free and open space that I think we all needed. I was surprised by how many students I met shared the same views, and how easy it was to be comfortable around everyone. We became a family so quickly and it made the experience that much better."

"I really enjoyed the guest speakers," Jiberly added. "They were unlike anyone I had ever seen before and they spoke about real things that I could relate to and it made me think of things we could talk about at Westover."

Ibukun also found a "fly on the wall" activity satisfying. "We had around 50 people in it," she explained, "and everyone would be in a room sitting with their backs to the wall. Then a group of people would be called and if you identified with that group, you would sit in a circle with the others and have a conversation. So, for example, if they said 'Asian-American,' they would go to the circle and have a conversation about their struggles in America." The rest of those in attendance would then listen to the discussion.

"What surprised me most is how similar all private boarding and independent schools are," Ibukun said. "It made me be even more encouraged. My experience at the conference has helped me figure out ways in which to deal with problems as they arrive within the School."

At the conference, Jiberly added, "I learned about things besides race and ethnicity that were really useful in helping me be an ally to all diverse communities."

Laura found the speakers at the opening and closing ceremonies, who included Congressman John Lewis, to be especially moving and inspiring. She attended sessions that focused on curriculum, visited the Civil and Human Rights Museum, which was near the conference site, and connected with a high school friend who shared her work experiences as a diversity coordinator in a small school in rural Georgia.

This was the third time that Eric attended the annual conference. "I am always impressed to see the number of schools, states, and backgrounds represented," he said. "I was particularly moved by the keynote address, delivered by Bryan Stevenson, a man for whom I have great respect. He spoke of his experiences as a black attorney in Alabama and some of the hardships that both he and his clients have faced. Additionally, I had the opportunity to meet and learn from educators from all over the country and connect, specifically, with members of other Connecticut schools."

Eric added, "As wonderful of a professional development opportunity as the conference is, the most important thing, for me, is the experience of the students. SDLC inspires young people to embrace diversity, respect and understand their peers, and feel empowered to take on leadership roles in their respective schools. I'm thrilled that Westover participates and I look forward to our continued involvement."