Photo via Fordham CCEL Blog
Fordham University is a predominately white institution (PWI): a school, university, or organization in which the total enrollment of white participants is greater than 50 percent. The role that PWIs have played in the historical inequality of higher education institutions is ripe for criticism, but we must consider the role they play right now. That said, there is nothing wrong, at least on the surface, with having a predominantly white campus. In the realm of ideals and modern activism, as long as people of color are not only welcome, but respected on and off campus, there should be no real problem with the lack of color. Having a predominantly white base is not something that should be inherently political for a school, if respect and understanding is held throughout the student body.
But it is political!
The student body, by nature, is political. Separate from race and the roles we play in the systemic issue of racism, there are a lot of factors that define the student body of a PWI, or any school in general. Aspects such as disabilities, economic status, immigration/citizenship status, sexual orientation, and identity all help to characterize the student profile of a school.
The factors of economic status and race can help us analyze the ways PWIs interact with their communities—specifically, how Fordham’s outreach and activism programs actually interact with the outside world. The program of interest for this opinion piece will be the Fordham Urban Plunge program, a “three-day pre-orientation program directed by Fordham University’s Center for Community Engaged Learning.” The mission of Urban Plunge is to connect incoming students who are interested in advocacy and activism with New York City’s communities, as well as with like-minded peers. The program aims to integrate, educate, and engage Fordham students with their new home, bringing to life Fordham’s motto of “Fordham is my school, but New York is my campus.”
Despite the following claims to be made, it is important to recognize the incredibly beneficial role Urban Plunge plays for Fordham students and for the communities and organizations working alongside the Center of Community-Engaged Learning (CCEL). As someone who has had the opportunity to participate in this most recent year of Urban Plunge (as an Urban Plunge Assistant/UPA), I have had the experience of hearing the praises delivered to the program; by not only students, but a variety of community-based centers and organizations like NYC Parks and POTS (Part of the Solution). They have specifically thanked Urban Plunge for its contributions in volunteer work and enhancing community engagement.
Urban Plunge, despite any and all possible critiques, is a program that allows Fordham students to learn more about their community in a meaningful way. Now, the validity of and the sentiment behind this bond may be less than desirable—but that has to do more with the culture the students foster within the program.
Urban Plunge displays itself as a program directed at community engagement and enhancement, and the people in charge (the program managers, CCEL, Urban Plunge captains and some select assistants) most definitely see it as such, but the actual students participating in this pre-orientation program are severely removed from this sentiment.
Many of these freshmen openly admit that their desire to sign up for Urban Plunge roots itself in a desire to move in early, rather than a desire to learn more about their community. My plungers and I shared this sentiment ourselves. While this issue is not one I plan to argue with, it does already give you a sense of the kind of mindset these students are coming in with. However, the program does acknowledge this. It is clear that while these incoming freshmen might not have the strongest connection to community engagement, they had enough curiosity in the concept to write a multitude of short essays explaining their interest and desire to learn. In an effort to build on this curiosity, Urban Plunge decorates its three days of festivities with a myriad of key speakers and presenters to hopefully entice these students into caring about and bonding with the communities around the Bronx and Lincoln Center campuses. Herein is where the primary issue with Urban Plunge lies.
While a bond is made with these environments for the vast majority of these students, this bond is beyond superficial. In my experience and from the words of Urban Plunge captains themselves during multiple panels, Urban Plunge is not about tangible change, but instead about the relationships you make. The relationship formed is as strong as wet glue between two hands and as deep as the weeds in a freshly mowed garden. The students who enter Urban Plunge enter with curiosity and slight interest in community buildings and engagement, but the students who leave simply come out a little less curious and a lot less interested in actually interacting with their neighborhood.
This ultimately paints urban plunge as an opportunity for affluent, privileged, white private school students to invade, predominantly, people of color’s spaces in the vein of solely growing themselves. But these people and their communities don’t exist as teaching experiences for the privileged white students who are more concerned with living out their NYC dreams. The New York that a lot of these students are here for is not necessarily the one constituted by struggle and hardship. Fordham and its student body perpetuate this specific strain of white liberalism—they present themselves as advocates for knowledge over action in all cases. The students coming into these spaces have no problem talking about racial inequality, the effects of redlining, segregation, impoverished communities and economic and social inequalities, but that’s all they are prepared for or interested in doing.
In the New York Times article “How White Progressives Undermine School Integration,” journalist Elizabeth Shapiro outlines a fairly similar issue of white progressives not really wanting to try to desegregate our schools. Therefore, the problem continues. The same way “desegregation has failed because America has not really tried” is the same way integration of Fordham students into the Bronx and Lincoln Center communities continues to fail.
Ultimately, this makes the three-day program feel a bit circus-like. Frankly, this is caused by the delicate dancing of a PWI and its students in unfamiliar communities for the goal of self-improvement and growth. Even a fair amount of those who come back to this experience as Urban Plunge assistants “do so either in the vein of moving in early or getting the opportunity to create more long-lasting friendships, but not so much to learn more about their community or engage” (former Urban Plunge assistant, Sadhana Muthukumar.) The students who participate leave as they were, except they, in my personal perspective, become a little less likely to engage again.
While Urban Plunge is an inclusive and positive experience for almost all who join, it lacks a sense of depth and meaningfulness within its student participants that takes away from the intention and drive of the program. This ultimately results in an unmotivated and uninterested approach to activism. Students expand their knowledge of inequality and oppression in the New York area just to reduce this opportunity to engage with their community to a 3-day friendship-making excursion on how they could (but probably won’t) affect change.
This article was edited by Renee Agostini and Delbar Nonahal.