Diversity, Unity and Justice: Building a Bearcat Perspective Together

Common read project for first-year residential students will help build community

Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.
Photography: Jonathan Cohen.

COVID-19 dramatically changed the way Binghamton University students, faculty and staff completed the spring 2020 semester, and the fall semester will also look a bit different than in the past — but COVID-19 has also brought opportunities to campus.

Taking advantage of one such opportunity, the collegiate professors, who lead the purposeful integration of academics and residential living in the University’s residential communities, began brainstorming and are this summer launching for the first time a common reading experience for first-year students called “Diversity, Unity and Justice ─ Building a Bearcat Perspective Together.”

Now, with collaboration and support from the Division of Student Affairs and the COVID-19 Fall Student Life Working Group, led by Assistant Vice President for Student Success Kelli Smith, the program will expand to encourage all first-year resident students to participate in reading the same book and watching the same documentary.

“First-year residents will enter campus with a common experience, connections to other students and connections to the intellectual life of a great University in a way never offered before,” said Donald Nieman, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost. “Especially during this unprecedented time when people have to maintain physical distance, the opportunity for our first-year students to begin building community before even arriving to campus is invaluable.”

The book chosen, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, tells the true story of Walter McMillian, whom Bryan Stevenson began representing in the late 1980s when he was unjustly convicted and sentenced to death row for killing a young, white woman in Monroeville, Ala. Selected for its accessibility, topical relevance and gripping narrative, Just Mercy will be mailed to students’ home addresses over the summer at no cost to them. This proved to be no small feat, but Deanne Ellison, the University’s director of Auxiliary Services, worked with Heather Sheffer, Binghamton University Bookstore manager, to order and ship the books with little lead time.

Just Mercy is being paired with 13th, a documentary by filmmaker Ava DuVernay that explores the history of racial inequality in the United States, focusing on how the nation’s prisons are disproportionately filled with African Americans. The film was uploaded by Netflix to YouTube for free use so there are no accessibility issues; it’s easily available, said Stephen Ortiz, associate professor of history and collegiate professor for College-in-the-Woods.The collegiate professors are also working closely with Services for Students with Disabilities office to ensure full accessibility to any students who need accommodations.

Pre-move in, students will read the book and connect virtually with other first-year students and their collegiate professor, by community, in a planned way, said Ortiz. Once the students have moved in, discussions will continue in small groups within their own residential communities. “The pandemic also gave us familiarity with some tools that we will use to virtually meet with students in July and August as a way to cultivate their engagement with the materials,” Ortiz said.

The program meets dual goals. “First, the pandemic has moved us to seek new approaches to build first-year student connections to the University and to each other,” said Ortiz. “But also, the death of George Floyd and others brought racial inequality and discriminatory policing and judicial practices into intense focus and has served as a call for mass protest and political reform across the nation.

“With an election on the horizon, we hope to help students gain experience with reasoned discussions and respectful disagreements over contentious topics, and to foster greater levels of civic engagement over the most important issues of our day,” he added.

“Luckily, we were able to draw some faculty and staff into the conversation over the reading choice. But if projects like this become part of Binghamton’s culture, we will use a far more inclusive and deliberative process to select books in the future,” Ortiz said. “It just wasn’t feasible when we had so little time for this initial common experience.”

“We were thrilled the collegiate professors were willing to take on this idea, and were confident in their ability to pull this off in a relatively short time,” Smith said. “In talking with the vice presidents for student affairs and academic affairs, and knowing the move-in process was going to happen over a longer period of time than usual, it offered up a window of opportunity we could capitalize upon and, fortunately, the collegiate professors said they would make a try of creating this unique, new program.

“We pivoted quickly,” Smith added. “Here’s a new program for our first-year students that we might not otherwise have done as we try to create as much of an experience for our students — especially our new students — to build community. And this is one way to connect to collegiate professors in a different and earlier way as well.”

The program has come together as quickly as it has due to the synergies created within the campus-wide COVID-19 Fall Student Life Working Group, said Smith. “Thankfully Steve (Ortiz) accepted my invitation to be part of the team, representing the collegiate professors. Our early planning for fall programming, with University-wide representation and the value we set for collaboration and creating a sense of community for our students, helped make something that might not otherwise happen possible.” This project would also not have been possible without the strong support from both our provost and Vice President for Student Affairs Brian Rose.”

Basically, the book and the documentary tell similar stories and will be explored in each residential community based on the personality and interests of its collegiate professor and in collaboration with multiple campus partners and volunteer facilitators, tailoring the discussions by community. “There will be an idiosyncratic feel as we work our way through and into the conversations on the ground, reflective of the unique communities,” Ortiz said. “It’s more than a special attempt to connect these new students to one another. We also want to address the important questions of our times. That’s the benefit of a full campus operating on all cylinders.”

“Some universities have a shared read, but we have more of a shared experience, also with some programming, that is tailored and personalized in a way that takes advantage of our wonderful collegiate professor model,” added Smith. “We hope this will help students with their sense of belonging and sense of community. In the fall they will have had the same shared experience, but balanced with an early connection to their own collegiate professor.”