Students step into shoes of others
It was difficult for freshman Courtney McCallister to get into a cramped bathroom stall in a wheelchair.
It was uncomfortable for junior Joe Rasmussen to be objectified, ridiculed and criticized by women because he didn’t measure up to the muscle-bound men in magazines.
It was heartbreaking for freshman Nicole Lemanczyk to watch her family, friends and community fall away after she told them she was a lesbian.
The Boxes and Walls diversity experience is designed to teach students to throw away the boxes and tear down the walls that oppress people, said Terry Tumbarello, assistant director of residence life and organizer of the biannual event.
Hundreds of students stood in a long line Thursday night to learn what it feels like to walk in another’s shoes.
They entered six rooms in Esker Dining Hall. In each room, their peers acted out situations to help them feel the discrimination that students face because of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or disability.
In one room, Rasmussen, 25, Janesville, crouched in a small space beneath a glass ceiling.
Every time he said something, it was dismissed.
In another room, Jacey Coen, 19, Kenosha, fidgeted as her boyfriend’s parents refused to shake her hand.
“You know we don’t date this kind,” the father said to his son, who is black.
In a different room, McCallister, 18, West Allis, sat quietly at her desk as her teacher, who spoke only Spanish, asked why her test had nothing written on it.
She couldn’t answer him, so he gave her an “F.”
Boxes and Walls is unlike the diversity programs presented on most college campuses, Tumbarello said.
Most programs tell students about diversity, focusing on facts, figures and history, he said. Boxes and Walls is emotional, moving some students to tears.
“You have no choice but to acknowledge that this is reality for some people,” Tumbarello said. “And for a lot of students, they have that proverbial ‘A-ha!’ moment.”
Before they began, students were told they could leave if anything upset them, and when they finished, students talked about the experience in a loosely moderated discussion.
McCallister, who has struggled with discrimination from her family because her older brother is biracial, said parts of the experience hit home. Other experiences opened her eyes.
“It just goes to show you how much you don’t think about until it’s right there in your face,” she said.
Of course, the students said, the program was only the beginning. Participating in a diversity program is one thing; treating those who are different from them with dignity, respect and kindness is another, they said.
Tumbarello hopes the experience opens students’ eyes to the possibilities of a world free of discrimination.
“Hopefully we’re making a difference,” he said. “Hopefully, we’re making this world a better place.”