Yale-NUS Diversity Week 2020 – Approaching inclusion With Open Eyes

4 February 2020

By Lim Tian Jiao

Yale-NUS community members at the Night Market. Image by Glen Ang for Yale-NUS College

From 28 to 31 January, Yale-NUS College celebrated its third Diversity Week, comprising a series of events aimed at increasing openness and inclusion among students, staff and faculty. This year, the series of events was themed “With Open Eyes”, highlighting the importance of awareness and empathy in creating a truly accepting environment for all.

Diversity Week featured a wide range of performances, hands-on activities, talks, and displays. From a batik-painting workshop and a theatre production raising awareness on mental illness, to a film and panel discussion on sustainable diets, the activities were aimed at engaging with as much of the school population as possible.

“Diversity Week brings the Yale-NUS community together to address specific topics of identity,” said Sahar Kazemini, Senior Programme Manager, Intercultural Engagement at the Dean of Students Office. “Of course, this is not the only time we care about diversity and inclusiveness, but it’s a very intentional and focused way for us to dedicate our time and commitment to these issues.”

The Night Market and Showcase, an annual staple event, kick-started the series. Students from various nationalities manned booths, sharing samples of their local cuisines.

Two such students were Tomas Trusovas (Class of 2023) from Lithuania and Christian Dimitrov (Class of 2022) from Austria and Bulgaria, who manned a booth of European foods on behalf of student organisation European Horizons. “Europe is very diverse, and we’re trying to share our food from home to showcase our different cultures,” said Christian.

“A lot of the food here today is from Eastern Europe, because we feel that this region is underrepresented internationally,” added Tomas. “Through the Night Market, we want to show that there’s more to Europe than most people’s first impressions.”

Sharing her home cuisine as well was Leah Kioko (Class of 2023) from Kenya. “This Swahili dish, viazi karai [[deep-fried potatoes in batter], is a common street food in most parts of Kenya,” she said. “It reminds us a lot of home and childhood. With this booth, I hope to showcase our culture and explain the stories behind the dishes we have.”

The event was well-received by the attendees. “I really enjoyed experiencing different cultures, not only through performance but also through an often-underestimated reflection of culture: food,” said Joshua Vargas (Class of 2023). “It was my first time tasting chaat [an Indian snack]; it tasted unfamiliar but I liked it!”

Chai performing at the Showcase. Image by Glen Ang for Yale-NUS College

The Showcase featured seven student performances, ranging from singing and dance to spoken word poetry. One performer, Chaitanyasre Lenin (Chai) (Class of 2022), sang an original song, which included English, Tamil and Malayalam alongside elements of Indian classical Carnatic music.

“I wanted to fuse modernity and tradition, expressing my Malayali and Tamil identity, and Carnatic influences while staying accessible to the general audience,” said Chai, who is trained in Indian classical music. “Diversity Week is about meaning-making from culture, so it seemed like an apt place to perform this song for the first time.”

Other Diversity Week events allowed participants to critically engage with different perspectives. For instance, in a sharing session for the Yellow Ribbon Project (YRP), an organisation that focuses on the rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-offenders, representatives highlighted the challenges faced by ex-convicts.

“While celebrating diversity is often associated with the inclusion of different races, genders and religions, we need to remember that our personal histories are also strong parts of our identities,” said Ms Nabila Binte Abu Talib, Assistant Manager (Arts Programmes), who coordinated the YRP sharing.

“We should seek to listen and empathise with one another on our past — whatever that may be — which makes us who we are now.”

Apart from talks and performances, events in Diversity Week included hands-on activities like a batik-painting workshop. Image taken by Rhyhan Astha.

Another event promoting awareness was a panel discussion with the Disabled People’s Association (DPA) titled ‘Inclusion in Action’. DPA’s Inclusion Ambassadors, themselves persons with disabilities, shared their lived experience and led participants in brainstorming solutions for a more inclusive campus.

“We grow up thinking there is a template to living, with standards set by society and our parents. When society sees an individual that does not conform to the perceived standards… segregation, isolation and ostracism come in,” said Inclusion Ambassador Iskandar Shah Ismail.

Amal Husnah Jamaludin, another Inclusion Ambassador, added, “The traditional view is that persons with disabilities are always on the receiving end of charity and sympathy. But a disability doesn’t mean we can’t actively contribute — it’s just that we face many barriers as well. So it’s about how we can remove these barriers so that people can integrate more into society.”

All in all, Diversity Week sought to create a learning space for students to interact and engage with different narratives. Ms Kazemini noted, “I hope students attended at least one programme about something they’re not usually exposed to or need to think about, because that is oftentimes the space where they can learn the most. That is the essence of Diversity Week — to let attendees experience something that can help them to think in a different way.”