Faculty, staff, and students gathered for the Division of Student Affairs 6th Annual Social Justice Symposium on Thursday, January 21 to spark dialogue about current issues affecting the student experience at Pitt as part of the University’s MLK Week celebration. Students were invited to share their experiences about issues affecting various underrepresented populations, including people with disabilities, military veterans, those who have been victims of sexual assault, the LGBTQIA+ community, people from various religions with an emphasis on Muslims, and race issues on campus.
Eight students began the Symposium by sharing their intimate stories with the group. The students included Michael O’Brien, Antony Gnalian, Jason Martin, Trevor Hardwick, William Hinard, Eleanora Kaloyeropoulou, Esosa Ohonba, Shamari Johnson, Isaiah Michael Spencer-Williams, Jahari Mercer, and Brandon Morrison.
Antony Gnalian contributed to the discussion about religion, by speaking on behalf of the Muslim community about stereotyping. “I, for one, am not Muslim. I’m a brown skinned male,” Gnalian said. “But I think what happens is sometimes people like me can be misrepresented as being a terrorist or being someone who is out to harm someone else – when in reality I’m just like anyone else.” When Eleanora Kaloyeropoulou approached the podium to speak about sexual assault – she was candid and brave. “This presentation was important to me because sexual assault is something so often not talked about,” Kaloyeropoulou said. “It needs to be talked about.”
The conversation continued during the afternoon as the members of the University community joined one of the breakout sessions based on six discussion topics: disability, veterans, sexual assault, the LGBTQIA+ community, religion, and race. Attendees brainstormed ideas to further enhance the cultural environment in the Pitt community.
During a luncheon following the sessions, each group shared three takeaways from their hour-long dialogue. These suggestions ranged from specific ways to enhance communication among students to establishing a math class for veterans who are returning to the classroom. Students from the earlier presentation and additional students from a newly formed diversity committee, Jack Heidecker, Marcus Robinson, Gabby Wynn, Huda Algasas, Aaron Smart, Stefan Lambert, and Isreal Willliams, then sat in on a student panel. Those in attendance posed questions based on the suggestions and solutions expressed that day.
Sherdina Harper, coordinator of cross-cultural programming, was pleased with the open and beneficial dialogue produced by the program. “The Symposium provided faculty and staff with valuable insight that will help all of us better serve our students,” said Harper. “It’s great to see students share their ideas with administrators and express themselves in a healthy and productive manner.”
The Symposium marked one of the many events during the week in celebration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., including the National Day of Service, a Candlelight Vigil, a presentation by Opal Tometi, a co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, an Interfaith Service, and the annual Equipoise Luncheon, where interim associate dean of students and director of student life, Linda Williams-Moore recovered the “Creating a Just Community Award” for her many years of service to students and commitment to social justice issues.