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August 5, 2002

Cultural inclusion

By Eric Rangus

“It’s very gratifying,” said Donna Wong about the feeling of seeing her name on the cover of newly published book.

That book, Making a Difference: University Students of Color Speak Out, was released earlier this year, and Wong is one of its four coauthors.

“Typically in research and literature you hear only about the mainstream experience of the dominant culture,” said Wong, associate director of Multicultural Programs and Services. “When people talk about higher education, the administrators are white, the faculty is white and the students are white. This book is unique because we focus on students of color, and they speak for themselves about what it’s like to be on a college campus.

The intended audience of the fast-reading, 242-page work is university educators and administrators. The term “students of color,” as the name implies, covers a lot of ethnicities. And the book’s authors took great pains to include as many as possible: Asian American, African American, Hispanic American, Native American and international students all are heard from in the book.

“The beauty of the book is that we have lots of representation by students, so there isn’t just one experience,” said Wong, a second-generation Chinese American. Her parents emigrated to southern Californ-ia, and Wong was born in Los Angeles.

“Even among African Americans, due to being male or female, the experience is different,” Wong said. “There was variety among groups as well as within groups.”

The first half of Making a Difference, literally, is the students speaking out. A number of students of color from the University of Oregon—where Wong worked for 12 years before coming to Emory—comment not only on their school experiences as students of color but also on their places in the wider social structure and the accompanying challenges.

The second part is a series of essays that delve deeper into a variety of aspects of diversity. Wong wrote two of them: an overview of diversity in higher education worldwide and a historical look at students of color at Oregon. Wong also cowrote the book’s conclusion.

Along with a well-annotated index and list of sources, Making a Difference includes two checklists. One helps administrators and educators track how their institutions stand up in the area of diversity planning, and the other lists institutional barriers and negative attitudes than can hamper a university’s commitment to diversity.

“It’s a user-friendly book,” Wong said. “For instance, we talk about collaborative efforts where offices [like multicultural programs] work with the admissions office to recruit students of color from the local community.”

The book came about as an offshoot of a 40-minute video called “In Plain English,” which was produced by Julia Lesage, associate professor of English at Oregon and Making a Difference’s lead author.

The video is pretty straightforward. More than a dozen students of color, all of whom also are quoted in the book, tell their stories to an off-camera interviewer. There is no narrator, and just one student appears at a time. What is missing in flash is made up for in substance.

With their unfiltered stories, the students’ comments carry a great deal of resonance. And they hit home just a bit harder than if someone else was paraphrasing. They certainly made an impression on Abby Ferber and Debbie Storrs who at the time of the video’s release in 1992 were graduate students at Oregon.

They asked Lesage for a copy of the video and began transcribing the students’ responses. Those transcriptions became the basis for the first part of Making a Difference. Lesage then asked Wong, who was working in Oregon’s Equal Opportunities Program office, to contribute to the work.

“We wanted to have a full perspective with multiple voices,” said Wong, the only non-professor among the book’s authors. Ferber and Storrs now have faculty positions in sociology at the universities of Colorado-Colorado Springs and Idaho, respectively.

“I worked with a broad range of students over a long period, so I would see the changes over time as more students of color came to campus,” Wong said.

While Wong is enjoying the release of her first book, she also has the excitement of new job responsibilities. Since coming to Emory in 1999, Wong has been coordinator of academic support programs for Emory College student academic affairs. She provided college students with peer tutors and a variety of counseling services ranging from study skills to time management. She coordinated mentor programs in the sciences as well.

When the new academic year begins later this month, Wong will be well entrenched in her new position as associate director of Multicultural Programs and Services. She will be responsible for cross-cultural education programming, working with faculty for mentoring, and also helping coordinate Diversity Hall, an office program based in Clifton Towers.

Now in its second year, Diversity Hall is an all-volunteer dorm in which its multicultural residents focus on presenting a variety of programming throughout the year to their fellow hallmates aimed at educating them about different cultures. Wong will be assisting the students with programming ideas.

“This is a great opportunity because I am just passionate about working with students,” Wong said. “They come from a community where they have a certain identity, but then they come here to Emory, where they are exposed to all these different perspectives, and they get to develop their own self-identity.”

Wong has seen the increasing diversity of American universities (she calls it the “bronzing” of the student body in her book). She graduated from UCLA in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. At that time there were few service organizations working toward diversity or many mentors for students of color. After working in various positions in California as well as in Japan and Taiwan, Wong entered the University of Oregon, where she earned a second bachelor’s degree—this one in education—and a master’s in curriculum and instructional leadership.

She taught an ethnic studies class while an instructor at Oregon and also worked in outreach with migrant workers.

While there is still a long way to go, Wong said diversity is becoming a driving force in university life—particularly at Emory.

“What surprised me was that there are so many Asian groups here,” said Wong, who added that Eugene, Ore., was not a particularly diverse place. Emory’s student body has about 30 percent of students of color. “I think that’s one of the reasons students come to Emory—because there are already established clubs, combined with academic excellence.”