As a first-generation immigrant, my family was never my source of political information. When my parents were finally allowed to vote, they simply taught me one thing: Always vote Democratic. I never questioned their advice, as I believe most teenagers do when they start learning about politics.
I blindly followed my parents’ beliefs up until high school. I lived in one of the wealthiest cities in Michigan and attended a prestigious private institution. My environment drastically changed, and I was surrounded by people from contrasting socioeconomic backgrounds, and — most strikingly — conservative political stances.
At first glance, people may assume I struggled in a community of peers who come from conservative backgrounds and perspectives strikingly different from mine. However, to my surprise, I strongly gravitated towards people who thought differently than me. While I didn’t seek out people on the right side of the political spectrum, the students I got along with and enjoyed the company of happened to have views that strongly opposed my own.
My first two weeks as a freshman at the University have been an overflow of information, from figuring out where to find lecture halls to how one can “Stay in the Blue.” But perhaps the biggest change I’ve noticed from my high school is how the University of Michigan community is fairly liberal, based on my experience of hallway talk and classroom discourse.
In my first-year seminar, the Anthropology of Resentment, my professor assigned a New York Times column for us to observe how colleges are being criticized for being too liberal. Author Molly Worthen questioned how and if colleges are truly intellectually diverse. She refered to conservative watchdog groups who warned students of socialist professors and their prohibition of conservative expression. While these were hyperbolic claims, she strove to seek the source of the claims.
Worthen proceeded to study whether professors successfully create intellectually diverse communities. My assignment led me to propose my own questions: Is the University creating an open environment for not only conservative views, but for all beliefs of the incoming freshmen and the entire student body? This poses another question: How does the University condemn hate and encourage an open space for all opinions at the same time?
Having been surrounded by peers with beliefs that contradict my own throughout my secondary educational experience, I understand the value of being challenged, whether the topic is politics or any other issue. By the time of my high school graduation, I realized my closest friends came from the opposite side of the political spectrum. My personal growth in high school was thanks in part to my peers. However, while I got the most out of my high school experience, I understand that a high school community can be much more welcoming than a larger university. I wonder if certain conservative students who have different views from the majority liberal community feel at risk for being rejected or alienated.
While it is refreshing and comforting to know that there are many people who share my beliefs, it is disheartening to know the atmosphere could also be hindering other students from speaking up. With the current political climate, it is more important than ever for individuals to understand perspectives other than their own. Like other students, I came to the University to be challenged. If we continue to create an atmosphere that reflects the same perspective and ideals, there is no opportunity for personal growth. A homogenous mindset stunts progression, and it would be a shame to waste a campus that is composed of minds that think differently and has students who are passionate about what they stand for.
Even though I am an advocate for open spaces and allowing people to converse freely, it is imperative to note the need to prevent hate speech on campus. With the 2020 presidential election coming up, it is easy for students to allow the tension, both inside and outside of political parties, to dissolve respect and courtesy for one another. Students have a key responsibility to know the difference between an intellectual debate and unnecessary conflict. The complexity of creating an open community shouldn’t deter us from attempting to balance an intellectually diverse conversation without malicious input.
Rarely in our educational careers are we given a space where we can openly discuss contradicting opinions in a respectful manner, especially given the political climate. That said, I think everyone at the University should strive toward creating an environment where all opinions are welcome, especially the students.
Cheryn Hong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.