Changing Campus Culture, One Party at a Time

“What runs our parties?” asks junior sociology/anthropology and Spanish double major Brandon Wafford. To answer his question, Denison’s sororities and fraternities most often host the parties in the senior apartments. These parties are often overcrowded, overheated, and contain over-intoxicated students of all ages. Because these parties are hosted by Denison’s Greek life, the approximate 70 percent of campus students who are not involved in the Greek system are not welcome until 11 p.m. But, with this scenario comes the uncomfortable reality that not all students enjoy going to parties in the “Sunnies.” Not all students have a good time. And, not all students feel that they are included in the Friday and Saturday night happenings due to the fact some of the party hosts segregate based on race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

“People are unhappy with the social life here and they aren’t saying anything,” says Wafford. And this is exactly what he and junior Alma Pinto brought to President Weinberg. Pinto and Wafford were looking to create more social opportunities for Denison students of all genders, races, and ethnicities, who may not be comfortable in the typical “Sunnies party” environment, which doesn’t often cater to the needs of Denison’s diverse student population.

After Denison was recognized by the NCAA for “its dedication to diversity and inclusion,” according to the school’s press release, Pinto wrote on her Facebook page, “I'm conflicted. Don't get me wrong, I'm damn proud of this school, but I'm also still bothered that the diversity being celebrated on campus is just based on numbers. We are still an ‘invisibly’ segregated campus…We have the stats in numbers, now let's actually put them into play.”  

Based on the statistics, there is no question that Denison has become more diverse in the past 10 years. According to Julie Tucker, Denison’s Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs, in 2006-2007 Denison’s student body was 84 percent white, 5 percent African American, 3 percent Asian and Hispanic, and 4 percent international students. This past year, 2016-2017, Denison’s student body is 65 percent white, 7 percent African American, 10 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian, and 8 percent international students.

Pinto’s feeling of the “invisibly” segregated campus, seems to be shared by many members of Denison’s student body and faculty. Former Denison Campus Governing Association (DCGA) president, graduate Sara Shore, says, “Honestly, I do feel that racial inclusiveness is an issue on campus… all Denison students should be doing more to increase feelings of respect and inclusion. I believe that this starts with our dialogue. Denison students need to be having the difficult conversations regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, affirmative action, and the 2016 election — not just in the classroom but in the dorms and dining halls as well. It's okay to disagree, but it's not okay to be disrespectful —a lesson that many students still need to learn at times. I also think that students should attempt to go outside of their social comfort zone a little more as well.”

A similar call to action is shared by Dean of Student Leadership, Erik Farley. “I believe that Denison is a racially inclusive campus with room to improve. As our society becomes more globally connected, fostering cross-cultural and cross-racial interactions among students is increasingly important… An honest discussion about where we are as a campus and a realistic, comprehensive plan for moving forward. All constituencies must contribute.”

Even President Weinberg recognizes what more needs to be done. “Denison is a microcosm of the world you [students] will inherit and I find it deeply exciting that our students are civically engaged.” he says. He remains optimistic, saying, “I see conflict as something positive and I think that it is important that we are honest about what more we have to do.”

Weinberg, among other members of the administration, have been working to bridge the racial divide among students and in doing so, supported Pinto and Wafford’s plan to begin hosting weekend events. The goal of which was to give students other options, party-wise, and to create an environment where students can connect with others different from themselves.

With Pinto and Wafford working with the students, Weinberg has assigned Farley and Dr. Alison Williams “to develop a strategy to help Denison move from a place that is simply diverse to one that embraces difference,” explains Farley. “Along with faculty, staff and students, we are reviewing climate data to analyze and articulate the state of diversity, equity and inclusion at Denison University, creating a list of priorities for the University with respect to addressing issues like inclusion on campus, and creating an action plan with both short and long-term goals.”

With the financial assistance of Dr. Laurel Kennedy and the support of Weinberg and campus security, Wafford and Pinto held their first event, last year, in the Shepardson lounge. Kennedy provided Wafford and Pinto with 100 dollars to pay for food and drinks with the stipulation that the party be held in an alternative social space, for example Lamson Lodge or the Shepardson lounge, where Wafford and Pinto chose to have their party. “I would say that around 100 people were there,” said 18-year-old junior Annabelle Cullinane, a sociology/anthropology major from Hong Kong, China. “There was a lot more talking and there was not as much pressure to drink just to get drunk.”

“It was a very positive experience,” said another student who attended the event, 18-year-old junior Kate Piscetta, a native of Akron, Ohio, majoring in communications.  “It was definitely different than other parties in the way that a lot of people had real conversations and were enthusiastic about meeting new people. It was not like the “sunnies” at all. People wanted to get to know each other and bridge the racial gap that is undoubtedly on this campus” she says.

“Denison has aspects of diversity, but not inclusivity.” said Wafford. By helping more students branch out and start to become more open to putting themselves in uncomfortable situations, Wafford hopes that more students won’t jump into the Greek system just to fit in or have somewhere to go on the weekends. Rather, as a campus, we will begin to resist majority culture and start utilizing the power we have as students to change our campus.