Let’s talk about race and ethnicity

LA’s South Bay will always be my stomping ground. The predictable sunniness is more than heartwarming, and I have a soft spot for the grittiness of urban living. But, my favorite is the amount of cultural cross-pollination that naturally results from being one of the most ethnically and socioeconomically diverse counties in America.

But as much as I love Olin and as much as I have grown here, I can’t help but think that last piece is what’s missing.

I don’t have an overwhelmingly huge problem with Olin’s racial diversity deficit. Administration is making an effort. This past August, Provost Vin Manno signed a White House/American Society of Engineering Education pledge committing to increasing campus diversity and inclusiveness. Admissions Dean Emily Roper-Doten is working on, to quote her recent email, “creating an admissions process that is equitable and supports students of all backgrounds, especially those from low-income families or those traditionally underrepresented in college.”

No. What I find more troubling is the reluctance to learn from those fundamentally different from ourselves – outside of a small group of friends. We have no problem sharing the whacky, off-the-wall we do inside and outside class. I’m always impressed! But, I want to get to know my peers as whole people, not just as engineers-in-training.

Changing the school’s numbers on paper means nothing if we students don’t know how to identify and embrace each others’ uniqueness. I’m talking about here and now, not the fuzzy, distant future when administration’s plans have been defined and executed. We Oliners value harmony, and naturally so. It’s a tiny community. By refraining from recognizing differences and sticking to safe topics, we reduce the risk of offending our friends, neighbors, peers.

The result is a clean, neutral space. But where is the vibrancy in that?

If we fail to acknowledge the impact that any axis of diversity – ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, whatever – has on a person’s background and experiences, we are invalidating chunks of identity. If we avoid our peers’ differences instead of embracing them, then we are silencing what makes each individual unique. If I want to be a thoughtful human being, let alone an effective designer and engineer, I can’t afford to ignore the dimensionalities of a person. I can’t even abstain, because every conversation I abstain from means that I am losing knowledge and insight.

I don’t have any formula or magic bullet. But I believe that if we can discard our discomfort, we can navigate this space together.

Ethnic Breakdown of Classes 2014 – 2017

For anyone that’s curious, this is what the student body looked like when I was a freshman. Data from former Dean of Admissions Charlie Nolan, compiled Summer 2014. His breakdowns are percentages, which I understand might not be the best representation of a tiny student population. Quoting Charlie: “1) These are self-reported data as indicated on the Common App. 2) The Common App added “multiracial” for ℅ 2016. 3) There are likely more underrepresented students who are more than one race or ethnicity or, who list themselves as multi-racial or don’t declare a race or ethnicity.”

Rethink Education @ Olin College

Oliners do big things. We drive startups, make humanoid robots, question everything. If you were around last semester, you may have heard whispers of a multi-school hackathon being hosted at Olin – a pretty big event.

True and false.

The Foundry, Olin’s entrepreneurship group, is hosting Rethink Education, a weekend workshop that will give local undergraduates the opportunity to think critically about revamping the K-12 education space through user-oriented design. On March 28-29, mentors, educators, K-12 students, and undergrads will populate Olin for the weekend.

It is our hope that the design thinking we introduce to attendees will become another tool they can utilize to tackle challenges in a meaningful, productive manner. Collaboration with like-minded students hailing from various schools and backgrounds will only fuel the fire. The odds are against attendees coming up with a revolutionary idea within two days, but we hope they will leave Rethink inspired to continue addressing the problems that they see.

What exactly is going to happen? Unlike a hackathon, Rethink will not be a sleepless event; exhaustion, which can work wonders for code, is detrimental to good design. But there are similarities. In teams of 4, attendees will mingle with stakeholders, identify a pain point, and develop an idea to address said challenge. The entire event will take shape over the course of twenty hours. The core ideas behind user-oriented design will be delivered in three phases (Empathize, Conceptualize, Develop) that will give the event structure.

In the true spirit of Olin, we’re approaching Rethink in the same fashion that we do our projects: iteratively. On Saturday September 13 from 10-5, we will be hosting a 10-15-person, small-scale, Oliner-only version of Rethink. This is your chance to take a step back to contextualize our education and work with people from other years on a topic that affects everyone (backgrounds play a huge role on how you learn and your approach to Olin) – which will in turn give us valuable feedback. As stated in a Carpe, sign up here http://goo.gl/2OEhPn by Tuesday night!

Some Questions You May Have:

Q: Why is the Foundry hosting a design-focused weekend?
A: To the casual observer, the link between design and entrepreneurship is tenuous at best. But design, as nebulous and indefinable a word as it may be, is important to identifying change that needs to be made. Yet design cannot exist in a vacuum. Entrepreneurship makes such change possible. Great design and great entrepreneurship make change longlasting.

Q: Why the focus on education?
A: Olin was founded as an experiment in breaking engineering education traditions. It only seems fitting that the theme of Olin’s first-ever design workshop be along those same lines.

Q: Stakeholders?
A: Yes! During the Empathize phase, K-12 students, parents, and educators will be present to mingle with attendees.

Q: Why should I attend?
A: In typical Olin fashion, this is an opportunity to facilitate change for a high-impact cause – age, major, etc. are never a barrier to entry. Unlike most Olin projects, there is zero-risk and zero cost associated. Think blue sky!