On October 19, the Student Government at the University of Texas at Austin hosted a story night focusing on race relations on campus. Student Government invited eight current UT students to share their experiences with race, identity, and diversity.
Story and Photos by Imani Sebri
The opening remarks by student body Vice President Binna Kim emphasized the importance of engaging in open conversation about race relations regardless of how difficult or uncomfortable it may be.
Plan II Honors Senior Arjun Mocherla shared the first story concerning his struggle with identity. “I was told that I wasn’t ‘Indian enough.’ I was told I was whitewashed,” Mocherla says. “We need to practice acceptance within our own communities, because if we can’t accept each other how can we reach out to those different than us?” Mocherla stepped off stage with a simple but powerful piece of advice: “Just be yourself.”
Business Honors Junior Anna Hiran opened up about the stereotypes she faces as an Asian-American. “People have told me my accomplishments are just because I’m Asian and not due to my hard-work and effort, they always discredit my work,” Hiran says.
Hiran went on to explain how UT has provided a safe environment for her to express herself. She says she remains wary about life outside The Forty Acres. “I’m a little afraid, honestly. I don’t know what I could encounter out there,” Hiran says. She ended her story on a positive note. “It’s up to us to change the problems we have on campus. I know we can do that.”
As students shared their stories, onlookers noticed that although they come from different backgrounds, their experiences are shaped by race and ethnicity. International Relations & Public Relations Senior John Paul Napleton climbed on stage with a friendly smile. He described how being adopted by parents who weren’t Latino affected him growing up. “I couldn’t relate with other Latinos but I was ‘too’ Latino for white people,” Napleton says.
Other storytellers like International Relations and Government Junior, Joy Gassama, addressed the complexity of facing stereotypes that can be self-fulfilling. Gassama started her anecdote with a disclaimer. “Anyone that knows me, knows I’m not big on public speaking but this...this is something I’m passionate about,” Gassama says. “I remember walking down the hallway in high school and a stranger reaching out and touching my hair without my permission. I was livid but I didn’t want to be that Angry Black Girl.”
Circumstances changed when Gassama came to UT. “I discovered the Multicultural Engagement Center and its social justice lending library. I saw people lounging on the couches, openly discussing racism and other forms of oppression,” Gassama says. “It was a place where I found my passion and it really shaped my experience here at UT.”
As the final speaker of the night, Finance Sophomore Maysa Alqaisi closed out the night with an honest spoken word piece about her life as a Muslim-American woman. “I chose poetry as form of expression because I just thought it was a cool way to let my thoughts out on paper,” Alqaisi says.
The night promoted understanding and acceptance on behalf of the students in attendance and those performing. “When I was a freshman, I saw diversity on campus but I didn’t really feel it, you know?” Alqaisi says. “But now, in this room, I feel it all around me and now when I interact with other people I’ll keep this story night in mind. I’ll remember the different backgrounds people are coming from and keep an open mind.”
Neuroscience Senior and student body President Kevin Helgren wrapped up the event with some candidly inspiring words. “The state of our education here at UT really depends and hinges on the differences that we as a student body bring to the table,” Helgren says. “As the student body president, as student body vice president, and as a group of student leaders we can and should make a difference on this campus but we can only do it if we’re all moving in the same direction together."