Standing in front of Centre Stage holding the microphone firmly in her hand, her turquoise earings, a piece of her culture, dangling to her shoulders, Billie Atsitty told her story.
Visibly rising taller and standing straighter, Atsitty spoke in her native tongue, as she described her heritage. Atsitty is a full-blooded Navajo, of the Sleeping Rock People. She continued to proudly name her paternal and maternal tribes.
Yet, as she described her experience on this campus, the tears began to flow.
“Being on this campus is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Atsitty said.
As part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration, diversity expert and filmmaker Lee Mun Wah conducted a diversity training for students.
The hope for the training was to make students more aware of those around them. Mun Wah did this by sparking a dialogue between students and creating an atmosphere where students could learn about each other.
“Curiosity is the gateway to empathy,” Mun Wah said throughout the training.
According to Mun Wah, when we are curious about those around us, we ask questions. When we ask questions, we learn more about the other person, which then allows us to empathize with their sitution.
So, Mun Wah asked questions. He asked Atsitty about her experience here on this campus. For the first time in four years at this school, Atsitty had the opportunity to tell her story of the struggles she’s faced here at UVU.
Several students listening began to tear up as Atsitty’s story unfolded.
“I’ve been called a savage, a squaw, a drunken Indian,” Atsitty said.
She then spoke of the pride of her people, who had once been warriors, and how they had lost some of that pride because it was not accepted.
“I have to leave behind some of who I am, because it won’t be respected here,” Atsitty said.
Once Atsitty had told her story, Mun Wah asked the audience to respond to her, and not go silent.
“We need to be warriors for you, and for everyone in this room,” responded one student in attendance named Matthew.
While some entered the room afraid of the person sitting next to them because of their differences, many left feeling empowered by the dialogue opened up by Mun Wah. Many developed a desire to change the small world around them.
Another student, Claudine Kuradusenge, from Rwanda, Africa, had the opportunity to tell her story. Kuradusenge lost both her parents as a child. She recently came to America, not to live the “American dream,” but just to live.
“We come here to survive. We want an education, a better life,” Kuradusenge said. “We just want a life like everyone else.”
The training brought attention to the fact that, for many students of different ethnicities, being on this campus isn’t easy. Every day is a struggle to fit in, to feel accepted and to feel welcome. “It’s a nightmare, to get up and go to school, go to work,” Kuradusenge said.
After several students had the opportunity to tell a part of their story, Mun Wah asked them for suggestions that would make their lives easier here on campus.
One suggestion made by Kuradusenge was to just say “hi” instead of looking the other way and not acknowledging people. “Maybe it’s the first time someone has said ‘hi’ to you,” Kuradusenge said.
Mun Wah closed by encouraging students to stop being afraid, as “we are all afraid,” and to instead reach out to those around us, and be curious about their lives and to then show empathy.