Opinion: Student senate as an example of diverse leadership

As winter winds down and spring starts up, even the air itself smells of change. This change extends past the weather, into the leadership at Calvin College. Former leaders are striving to finish well, and new leaders are stepping up to fill those very shoes. As each organization appoints its new leaders, there are numerous factors to consider. While each factor is important in its own way, one factor must be held in the highest of priority: diversity within leadership. To understand this necessity, one need only look at student senate, quite possibly the most diverse organization on-campus.

Looking at the Calvin campus, it’s hard to deny its homogeneity. Brimming with banket, bicycles and buildings containing “De” or “Van,” Calvin first appears as little more than Dutch-American mecca. And yet, underneath this very Dutch surface, Calvin’s non-majority population is rising. Currently, 16 percent of Calvin’s campus is made up of US ethnic minorities and 12 percent is comprised of international students. Student senate goes above and beyond that statistic. Compared to Calvin’s 28 percent ethnic and international minority composition, a prodigious 72 percent of student senate is made up of ethnic and international minorities.

This uncommonly high representation of minority students has been integral to student senate for years. Out of the past four student senate presidents, three have been ethnic minorities, two of which were also international students. Although it’s hard to cite exactly why that is, current student body president, Andrew Oppong, offered some explanations for this irregularity, clarifying first that his opinions are correlational rather than causal.

Oppong first traced it to cultural differences, attributing his time at boarding school as a key factor for his dedication to leadership within the student body. His second explanation was based on the previously established diversity within student senate, stating, “You can’t become what you don’t see. If you see it, you can aspire to be it.”

Though student senate rarely receives due credit for their commitment to a diverse set of issues, it is this commitment that continues to make Calvin a safe space for all of its students. Oppong credited extending gym hours and implementing gender-neutral bathrooms in Johnny’s as two examples of the importance of diversity of thought in leadership.

“Even with extending the gym hours, you wouldn’t think that the Calvin lifting squad and those who do that are people who’d usually be associated with senate,” stated Oppong. “But that was a minority group of students concerned with gym hours. We looked into it, researched it and effectively changed it.”

Alongside the racial and international diversity on student senate, Oppong also stresses the importance of diversity of opinion:

“People often attribute [diversity] to skin color and racial diversity, but diversity means difference…difference in race, in sexuality, in opinions. On our senate, we have it all. We have very different opinions on issues, but we celebrate that difference. Our diversity is not only based on the color of our skin; it transcends beyond that.”

Student senate represents what departments, clubs, and on-campus jobs should strive for in terms of leadership. Although most on-campus organizations don’t have the pre-established diversity that senate has cultivated, Oppong offers some suggestions for reaching that state. First, he suggests taking stock of what an organization is doing that might not be attractive to non-majority students. That organization must recognize the cultural undertones that exist underneath each action. Second, he advocates for authenticity of outreach. It’s all too easy to want diversity for accolades and statistics, but that will not create an authentic environment truly receptive of new thoughts and outlooks. His final, and most stressed, suggestion is to build relationships. Everything comes down to intentionality and building trust.

We are a diverse campus and a diverse kingdom of God. As the Bible states in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” We as a community must take up the difficult work of finding students with fresh opinions and ideas and getting them into leadership positions.  As we go into the season of finding new leaders, we must take these thoughts into consideration, else we continue in homogeneity of the past. As Oppong poignantly stated, “There’s a danger in the single story. If you don’t listen well, you’ll miss that.”