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Allison Schuette, left, and Heather Taylor from Valparaiso University's Welcome Project present an interactive presentation at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Strongbow Inn.

The search tags read: disability, diversity, ethnicity, gender, geographical region, Greek life, international race, religion, roommates, sexual orientation, socioeconomic, sports and transgender.

One click of the mouse on any tag, and you’re sharing the real experience of a real person. Then, there’s a series of questions for self-reflection or group discussion.

By shining a spotlight on the complex state of relationships on campus and in the surrounding community, Co-Directors Allison Schuette and Liz Wuerffel of Valparaiso University’s Welcome Project hope people will also discover the things we share in common.

The seeds of this enlightening project were planted when Wuerffel, an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art, returned from three semesters of teaching in Beijing where she was working with students who had plans to enroll in Valparaiso University.

When she ran into one of her former students on campus, he described how he had been out walking one night when a car pulled over and the occupants yelled, “Go home, Chinese dog.”

Later that week, one of her American first-year students completed an informal writing assignment, relating what it was like to live in the student-branded “international dorm.” She wrote that she couldn’t stand the smell of “those” students’ cooking and the way “their” noodles clogged the kitchen sink.

Reflecting on the opposing experiences of these students, Wuerffel wondered if there was something to be gained by sharing their stories as well as those of others. As she shared her thoughts with Allison Schuette, Associate Professor of English, they both began to think that it would be possible to start a conversation about diversity using the experiences of people who encounter those who are different from them for the first time.

Schuette was dealing with her own issues in the classroom, being hesitant at first when it came to managing the extra challenges of meeting the needs of English as a second language students. Once she allowed herself to see the opportunities over the challenges instead of the challenges over the opportunities, Schuette was on board with the premise behind the Welcome Project.

“There are certainly some challenges with us as faculty and staff,” Schuette said. “As the numbers of international and domestic minority students continues to rise, we’re all experiencing change. Just as there needs to be a vocabulary for talking about difference – people are tend to be defensive and shutting out when they experience something new instead of curious and welcoming - we need this project Liz has been envisioning.”

Today, with the help of more than 50 students, the Welcome Project at Valparaiso University provides ongoing opportunities for students, staff, faculty and community members to tell their stories through audio and video. Earmarked as a five-year project, from 2010-2015, the growing interest at this early stage has Wuerffel thinking it may last longer.

“It’s super exciting and unexpected,” she said. “We didn’t think the project would take off like it has. The stories speak volumes about what it feels like to be different. It’s about creating welcoming place for all of us – here at the university, in the community and the world at large.”

In January, Schuette and Wuerffel were honored as recipients of the 2013 MLK Award during the 24th Annual Celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and work. The Welcome Project was selected for making a significant and lasting contribution that continues to create an environment where diversity is honored and respected in the campus community.

“Receiving the MLK Day Award means a lot, it’s a great honor, especially here at Valparaiso University,” Wuerffel reflected. “I remember back to the days when I was a student attending the convocation, even at that point, understanding what a great a day it was, what an important day it was, but also remembering the struggles of the civil rights era and social justice in general.”

“Receiving the MLK Day award for me is such a privilege,” Schuette added. “The Welcome Project embodies the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the way that he was interested in the concept of love – not as a feel good emotion that makes everyone feel safe – but actually as a power that works in the world to enact change. A love that isn’t afraid of challenges, isn’t afraid of conflict but will go into those situations in order to address the conflict in a way that remembers the humanity of the person on the other side.”

Wuerffel also sees two sides to the coin.

“A deeper realization that we are in the middle of growing pains right now, our community population that’s more traditional might not be used to the kind of people that they’re meeting, the cultures that they’re meeting. On the other side, some of the folks that are coming in are expecting it this be a much more diverse place than it is.”

Also this year, Elizabeth Lynn, Director of the University’s Institute for Leadership and Service, which aims to expand and enhance opportunities for experiential learning, service and vocational reflection throughout the University’s curriculum and in the larger community, has brought her experience in civic reflection and facilitated conversation to the Welcome Project team. In addition to building an archive of stories, the group has been introducing the Welcome Project around campus and the community at large.

“Through our partnership with Elizabeth Lynn, we’ve been able to effectively use the Welcome Project clips to generate much-needed conversations,” Wuerffel said. “We just completed a session with the Orientation Assistants on campus. Hopefully, they’ll be able to think through what it might be like to be in someone else’s shoes when the new students arrive on campus over the next five weeks.”

Plus, along with the Diversity Job Fair & Business Symposium, the Welcome Project has been presented to the Valparaiso Rotary Club, Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce and Valparaiso Human Relations Council.

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