Meeting new roommates for the first time is incredibly intimidating. At the University of Michigan the rules specify that if you’re “going in blind” you don’t fill out a questionnaire. This was done to “increase diversity” and make sure that people live with others who aren’t like them. This also means you may end up with someone totally opposite from you. In other words, your anxiety is warranted. In D.C., however, the Michigan in Washington program allows us to either pick roommates or fill out a questionnaire about living habits to make sure our roommates have similar routines as us. This took a lot of the guesswork out as we moved in and were relieved to find that our roommates had similar living customs and bedtimes. After all, living with three other people, one bathroom and a brand new city carries enough anxiety with it as it is, so this knowledge added a cushion and made us feel better.

Maura Levine

What we quickly came to realize, however, was that our room was extraordinarily diverse. All four of us are of different religions and come from different backgrounds. Layan is from Lebanon, Brie is from downtown Detroit, my family is Russian-Jewish and Katie is Catholic. At first we tenderly danced around these obvious differences, finding out everything we had in common and bonding over similar shopping habits and our collective obsession with fro-yo. But after we became more comfortable, we started willingly talking about our differences, opening up a dialogue about diversity that I have never been able to have on campus in Ann Arbor. The truth is, MIW is much more diverse than the rest of our Ann Arbor campus, and this program truly fulfills the Michigan promise of diversity. Ironically, we are off campus and finally having a positive dialogue about cultural and race issues. While we may be uniquely positioned, it is apparent to us that on-campus students are more polarized, often hanging out only with their own cultural groups and therefore stifling a positive cultural exchange like the one we have in D.C. The difference about MIW is that we are placed here, all alone, without our other friends from similar religions and backgrounds. We fend for ourselves here and find that we have grown together despite our differences, opening our minds to new ideas and issues.

On campus I participate in Hillel, the Jewish student organization that provides a home away from home for Jewish students. We have a place to go for Shabbat each Friday night, have Jewish extracurricular activities and community service groups to participate in and social events, too. I am appreciative for this community because there I feel like people understand me. Most on-campus cultures/religions/ethnicities have a similar haven, a place where they can find others just like them and feel the comfort of the community they know. Granted, there are many other opportunities on campus that are diversified, where people of all races and religions can join, but I find that often, minorities tend to stick together.

When the on-campus divestment debate came up last spring, campus felt more polarized than ever to me. From students shouting at each other at a rally to alleged writing on people’s dorm doors, tensions were high. Pro-Israel students and pro-Palestinian students alike came out to a heated rally, and even some professors expressed a stake in the debate’s outcome. This polarization scared me, making me feel uncomfortable and sad. While I too had opinions, it was hard to see a campus divided.

I have never had pro-Palestinian friends. At Michigan and even before I was in college, the Arab-Israeli conflict prohibited me from the possibility of open dialogue about these issues. But when I met Layan in D.C., we were already friends on a different basis. Our family backgrounds and views on the debate were secondary to our growing friendship, and eventually we started talking about the elephant in the room: the Arab-Israeli conflict. We vowed to each other that we would always be open to answering questions the other person had about our respective religions and viewpoints, and we wished for a better world for our children where this debate will be null and void and replaced with peace. Hearing her perspective after becoming good friends with her changed not only my whole view on the conflict, but also the importance of diversity on campus. Layan has shared with me her cultural norms by cooking a traditional Lebanese breakfast and letting me watch her pray. I’ve told her about the Jewish high holidays that are coming up and explained what keeping Kosher is like. We’re learning so much not only about each other’s religions but also about each other as people.

It is unclear how this kind of positive dialogue could be fostered on campus. Here in D.C., Layan and I have left our respective cultural groups that foster the homogenous thoughts and encourage a sense of group dynamic that make you part of one side or the other. Here we are just people, interested in political science and living together. Here we are roommates and foremost friends, which is what makes it possible for us to talk so frankly about such heavy issues. This puts us in a unique situation that Michigan strives for but is only achieving minimally on campus. It is rare to find friends from polar opposite groups like those with opposing stakes in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

While Michigan can’t prohibit people from finding and supporting groups of their choice on campus, something should be done about the polarization between different groups that has obviously cropped up. The first step to recovery is realizing there is a problem. If we keep allowing ourselves to join groups that foster a cohesive group dynamic and we don’t meet other people on the opposite side, issues like the Arab-Israeli conflict will never be solved because polarization will continue to thrive.

Maura Levine can be reached at mtoval@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.