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Diversity Peer Educators Advocate for Others

Leadership and Education Program Strengthens Campus Community

UMass Lowell Image
From left, students Bridget Sullivan, Shanice Smith, Justin Towner and Jeff Danso participate in a Diversity Peer Educators training session.

By Julia Gavin

When people are in a group and a thoughtless joke is made or an offensive term is used, some will simply sit in uncomfortable silence. But students who have participated in the University’s Diversity Peer Educators (DPE) program are better equipped to advocate for an accepting environment that welcomes and respects differences.

The program, started by the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) in 2012, has trained several dozen students of diverse backgrounds. Students attend two days of training during which they share their own experiences, learn about less discussed prejudices and gather resources to confront peers about diversity issues.

“We have conversations related to diversity in the office every day,” says Connie Cabello, assistant director of OMA. “We want to expand the program by partnering with other student leadership organizations and have many more DPEs on campus.”

Students join the program for different reasons, but all want to help strengthen their communities. Sometimes that means reflecting on themselves as well as their peers.

“I expected to help others with faults, but it opened my eyes to my own,” says Mark DaRocha ’12, a graduate student focusing on higher education administration. “It’s helping me be a better advocate for other groups.”

Freshman Sophia DeAraujo joined after seeing friends use their training in discussions on campus.
“We started having really good conversations about difficult topics,” says DeAraujo. “They were so insightful and found good ways to help friends, including me, become more aware. I wanted to know how they got there.” 

DeAraujo completed the training and has invited friends to participate.

Honors student Rishi Vangapalli recently completed the training and has already educated friends on how making insensitive jokes not only hurts others but reflects poorly on the jokester.

“Before, I thought people could be just making a joke and might laugh with them, but I can’t do that anymore without picking up on the kernel of truth,” says Vangapalli. 

Confronting friends isn’t always easy, but the DPE students know being direct is the best way to bring change.

“Every time I see an injustice, I challenge myself,” says DaRocha. “Am I going to step up and say something? Now I know how to intervene and keep reminding people to make adjustments to their words and actions.”

Continuing Training Beyond the Workshops

Students aren’t given strict rules on when to intervene and when to ignore an injustice. Instead, they use the tools and resources they’ve earned to respond thoughtfully in a way that makes them comfortable. Many students are leaders in campus organizations who – thanks to their conscientious voices – have also spread the fruits of their training throughout the school and their communities.

The DPEs have continued their own discussions online through a private group which allows students and staff to share experiences ask questions and gather resources to further the group’s goal of expanded inclusivity. Sometimes a simple questions turns into a big learning opportunity. 

“The use of automatic door openers by able-bodied friends came up, and we started talking in depth about whether or not it was OK,” says DeAraujo. “We researched the issue and found that some sensors only have a set number of uses before they need to be replaced, so people shouldn’t use them just to avoid opening a door, but should leave them for people who need the help.”

The group will continue discussing diversity topics in the new Riverview Suites residence hall, which will include a Living Learning Community for several DPE students. They will be encouraged to bring their lessons to more members of the campus community, making it even more inclusive with each mind opened.

“In our world there are lots of cultures and people coming together,” says Vangapalli. “Some people don’t know the lines of what’s OK to say or do. This training clarifies those lines.”