Orientation Program Highlights a Moment for Racial Justice

Program follows Living While Black pledge to incorporate racial justice discussions into orientation, campus life

objectives of racial justice workshop

“It’s our moment and our movement,” Duke’s Director of New Student Programs Jordan Hale said about the racial equity sessions added to this year’s student orientation program.

It is a moment that was a long time coming for many on the Duke campus — including Hale. The Office of New Student Programs first introduced an orientation module that explored identity in 2015. But after George Floyd’s death in late May sparked a national conversation around issues of racial equity, and ignited a series of events and discussions at Duke, Hale and his team set out to develop a new program for incoming students, with a vision of an interactive examination of identity, culture and racial justice within the context of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“After the campus-wide Living While Black event in mid-June, we were asked by Student Affairs leadership to live our convictions,” Hale said. Following the event, Vice Provosts Mary Pat McMahon and Gary Bennett pledged four actions to address concerns raised by Living While Black speakers. One of the pledges was to implement anti-racist and anti-bias programming during orientation.  

“We saw orientation as a chance to give new students a shared foundation in equity that we could build on,” Hale said.

“We saw orientation as a chance to give new students a shared foundation in equity that we could build on.”
-- Jordan Hale

Meeting the challenge in time for this semester was not easy. Hale was asked to bring together the Class of 2024, incoming transfer students, and students from Duke Kunshan University in a way that was “safe, efficient, thoughtful, engaging and affordable” even though he didn’t know how many would be on campus, and where students would be.  

The program was designed to start a conversation that could last beyond orientation, Hale said.

“A lot is going to happen in the year ahead, so the ability to focus solely on the concept of equity from the start was critical. That's why we deemed it appropriate to introduce it during orientation — a time that signals to students what’s most important to Duke.”

Working with The Equity Paradigm, a Durham-based racial equity training consultancy, Hale and his team developed a program to enable students examine issues such as living inclusive values and driving systemic change.

The program consisted of two parts, both conducted via Zoom. Students gathered in online “pods” of 55 to 60 students, each pod led by two university staff members plus older students who functioned as mentors. There were also breakout sessions, which allowed for smaller group conversations.

One session explored featured profiles of Duke students discussing the Duke experience affected their identities followed by monologues performed by members of All of the Above, a campus group that highlights the challenges involved in discovering and embracing your identity as a female student at Duke. Featured monologues included reflections on what it was like to be a female student who was also a member of a minoritized group such as immigrants or people of color. 

This prompted student discussions within their pods about wider issues of microaggression and intersectionality. The session ended with an interactive exercise that grouped students based on shared identities using categories such as gender, race, citizenship, religion, sexual preference and others. One thing Hale noted: The groupings highlighted those students who stood alone, and provided opportunities for students to connect to them.

The second session examined the foundations of equity in America, covering the history of Black identity, anti-Black racism and systemic oppression. One emphasis was providing resources to allow students to support the rights of marginalized people.

Both orientation sessions incorporated Duke faculty research and scholarship as well as work being done by campus groups. Students responded well to the experience, Hale reports. “They worked really hard and paid attention,” he says. “They were all talking about how to change the system for good.”

One senior who was involved with the program said she was impressed by the quality of the sessions’ instruction.  Gia Cummings said organizers’ ability to “facilitate an incredibly difficult conversation with short notice speaks to the resourcefulness and commitment of the team.”

However, Cummings added that the three-hour session needed to be a first step.

“What are our next steps to make Duke an institution that produces students who know how race in this country works?” Cummings asked. “Where do we go from here?"

A CAMPUS-WIDE EFFORT

Hale said he’s committed to making the orientation session the beginning of a robust effort.

“This is not a spectator sport,” Hale said. “We all need to move from being allies to being accomplices. Everyone needs to understand our equity priorities when they first come to the University, just like they receive a Duke card and campus email address.”

Hale intends to keep developing programs that educate students, train student leaders, and engage student families to bring lasting change to Duke.

“Duke will be in a really good place to drive permanent change. But to do that, we’ll have to be willing to take risks with some of our stakeholders.”