Tearing down the walls of taboo topics on our campus

By Ian Rodgers

Last week’s issue contained an editorial about topics on USD’s campus that are considered “taboo” within the classroom. It made a very worthwhile point about the reluctance of many collegians to voice their opinion on controversial topics. This editorial is the second installment in response to the original “Taboo Topics.”

The university on a hill. We do not attend just a classroom on a hill. Although an academic institution, USD is home to many more facets of life than simply the academic pursuit.
The reluctance of our students to share their voice extends well beyond the classroom.

Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe it’s not our students who are to blame; at least, not in the sense you might be thinking.

Instead of focusing on the lack of meaningful dialogue between students on campus, we would do well to look at the other side of the story.

Apart from our close friends, we don’t trust ourselves to share much deeper conversations than your typical face value greetings, a few minutes about what we had for lunch and our thoughts on the morning fog or the afternoon heat.

We wouldn’t dare tell someone how we are actually doing, lest we be perceived as weak or imperfect. How could we possibly trust those who might be listening?

Therein lies the problem. It’s not that our students are afraid to have an opinion. They are intelligent and informed, and above all, they care. No, they’re not afraid of the opinion itself; they are afraid of its reception, how it will be perceived and how they will be judged because of it.

That is why the lack of voice extends beyond the classroom: the environment in which voices are received is aloof, separate. Just like our university, our university on top of the hill. It is separate. Above the rest, above what is “real.”

USD is a competitive place. It is the youngest school to make it on the U.S. News & World Report’s Top 100 national universities.

The average USD student was in the top 15 percent of their high school class. That puts a lot of pressure on our students. It puts pressure to excel and out-compete our peers.

There’s little room for error, and the fear of being wrong, the fear of being judged is something that stops meaningful conversation in its tracks.

I was able to speak with Carmen Vazquez, the Vice President for Student Affairs, who gave an administrator’s perspective on how the transition from high school to college affects students.

“Everything is resetting. I think what that gets to is ‘How will I be perceived?’ I think that goes back to, ‘If I say what I really mean or think, will I be unfairly judged? What will that mean for my relationship with others?’” Vazquez said. “For me it’s a growth. Being able to engage in civil conversation around differences is a growth opportunity.”

Sophomore Jordan Lemoine offered another aspect to the story.

“I think a lot of the reason that students fear talking about controversial topics is because the vast majority of students conform to a white, heterosexual, christian norm, and they fear offending any of the lesser number of students who don’t fit this mold.”

Lemoine continued to say that the inclusivity of USD was something that originally drew him to the school.

“Personally, if I am in class and a touchy subject comes up, I will probably not be comfortable speaking about it if there are those in the class that are in the minority,” Lemoine said. “I want to try and maintain the inclusive nature of our community that originally attracted me to come here.”

Lemoine is right, and his view is shared among many students here. It is time we begin to shift our gaze.

We must begin to create a community in which all opinions are heard and appreciated first and foremost, not judged. We have vessels for open conversations about important issues on our campus and students welcome, even cherish these interactions.

University Ministry, Associated Students and Greek Life, among many others, provide a forum for discussing issues.

But these isolated conversations don’t seem to venture outside the boundaries of those organizations.

Outside the comfort of open discussion in safe spaces such as University Ministry, the reassurance that we will not be rejected for voicing our thoughts quickly fades. When that reassurance disappears, something else takes its place. It might be a smile, a confident posture. Or it might just be a cool indifference.

Either way, we build a wall to protect ourselves as soon as we leave the protection provided by the groups we feel safe with. Nobody can penetrate our facade.

I have a lot of experience with this, as I’m sure many of you do as well. I struggled with major depression my sophomore year. I was a mess; I couldn’t sleep, wasn’t eating or exercising and couldn’t find the energy to go to class or hang out with friends.

But as soon as I stepped out of my Vista apartment every morning, I put on a smile. Nobody could see through that smile unless I let them.

As odd as it may sound, I compared my sophomore self to the USD campus.

It is pristine; perfectly landscaped gardens, spotless white Spanish architecture, a view fit for the gods. Our university on a hill. It is immaculate.

But step inside one of these wonderful buildings, and what do you notice?

At first it may be the ornate interior, but soon after, you begin to realize there is something else. A human aspect. These buildings hold human beings, our students and professors, people who are not perfect or immaculate in any sense of the word.

They hold people who are happy, but they also hold people who are broken. People like sophomore me, who put up a front to keep people from seeing their pain, who are afraid to be judged by their weaknesses.
I did not trust myself or the people around me to open up a conversation about mental health, about seeking help. Many students feel the same way about a number of issues.

Vazquez believes this is because the USD administration has not yet been successful in creating an adequate forum for such important conversations.

“I think we need to affirm that the dignity of every person is respected,” Vazquez said. “Maybe the question of why people are not willing to talk openly is because we may not have created a forum for those dialogues to happen.”

So what is next? There are a number of things that need to be done in order to foster a more open dialogue about issues important to our students here.
A simple first step is education, according to senior Anastasia Osowski.

“I believe that educating the community on how to have these conversations is key,” Osowski said. “Nothing is going to come of avoiding issues that make us uncomfortable; we need to foster relationships where the hard topics are talked about, where we choose to be open to others’ viewpoints and educate ourselves on these issues.”

The great thing about this is that it can happen anywhere, both in and out of the classroom. We can learn anywhere.

I have learned vast amounts both sitting in class learning about other lifestyles and by having conversations with my roommates and friends.

One thing all of my experiences at USD have taught me is that, in order to quell our fears of judgement or rejection by others, we must first let go of our own judgements.
Vazquez put it beautifully.

“When I look into your eyes, I see your beauty, your sacredness if you will. I’m not coming from a place of criticism, I’m coming from a place of openness. So if we can be a more open, caring, just, loving community for all, wouldn’t that be beautiful?”

Maybe that is the heart of it all. It’s not necessarily what we can do to educate our community about having important conversations.

It’s not what we can do to create forums for these conversations to happen.

It’s about changing the USD culture. It’s what we can do as students to accept each other for all aspects of our humanity.

The strengths we have, but also the weaknesses. The opinions that differ from others on critical societal issues. They may be different, but we can appreciate them more because of that.
Let’s step down from our university on our hill, join the world, embrace each other’s humanity and begin to dialogue about issues that truly matter.