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Exploring diversity of people, cultures in Louisiana

| Judy Berthiaume

As a criminal justice major with an interest in equity, diversity and inclusivity issues, Taylor Gosz is well aware of how certain groups of people are marginalized within the criminal justice system.

A UW-Eau Claire spring break immersion trip to Louisiana gave Gosz an up-close look at some of the conditions she’s only read about.

“We got to see the conditions that many of these marginalized groups are living in,” says Gosz, a senior who will graduate in May. “You can learn as much as you want about these conditions and how they relate to criminal activity, but it isn’t until you actually witness it for yourself that you start to fully understand. It was really interesting to see real-life examples.”

The “Cultural Identity in Louisiana” immersion experience took Taylor and about 50 other Blugolds to Louisiana, where they interacted with locals and explored the diverse regions of the state.

The first-time program was created to provide opportunities for Blugolds to explore the concept of cultural identity in a guided manner, says Dr. Leah Olson-McBride, associate professor of social work and one of the program’s faculty leads.

Louisiana is a great place to offer students a range of experiences because the regions of the state are so distinctly different in terms of the culture, Olson-McBride says.

The program included a visit to Xavier University of Louisiana, which is located in New Orleans and is considered a historically black college or university.

The Blugolds met with the newly inaugurated president of the university, Dr. C. Raymond Verret, who shared information on the successes that the campus has had in terms of the number of students of color from their institution who have entered medical school or graduate programs.

He also spoke about the interconnectedness of their campus and the city of New Orleans, especially in terms of social justice issues, Olson-McBride says, noting that her students also spent time with three members of the college’s historically black Greek organizations.

These were the kinds of experiences she was looking for when she decided to be part of the immersion program Gosz says.

“Over the past couple of years I’ve gotten really interested in EDI and tying into that to politics, Gosz says. “My passion for EDI was a big part of why I wanted to be a part of the cultural immersion trip to Louisiana.

“Coming from a very white campus, I wanted to experience an area of the U.S. that has a lot more diversity in regard to race, but also the extremes of social class as well and how that plays into the culture that is of Louisiana.”

The experience will help her better understand her white privilege, as well as help her to better advocate for minority groups, says Gosz, a Sheboygan native who plans to attend graduate school in the fall to begin work on a master’s in student affairs administration in higher education.

She hopes her graduate degree will put her in a position to help marginalized groups of people in higher education settings.

"With a degree in student affairs, I could work within a conduct setting of a university,” Gosz says of her future plans. “With a position like this, it would be my goal to assist marginalized students in achieving success, even though there have been many institutions that have been fighting against their success their entire lives.”

Having an opportunity to explore such a diverse region has reinforced those goals, Taylor says.

“I’m really thankful for this experience,” Gosz says. “Being a criminal justice major, I learn a lot about how certain groups of people are marginalized within the criminal justice system, and it was really interesting to see more of a real-life example of that. We saw the conditions that many of these marginalized groups are living in and you can learn as much as you want about these conditions and how they relate to criminal activity, but it isn’t until you actually witness it for yourself that you fully understand.”

Her work as a resident assistant in the residence halls at UW-Eau Claire helped her prepare for the conditions that she encountered in Louisiana.

But even more helpful were the documentaries the students watched on the long bus ride down south, Gosz says.

“The documentaries were a lot about Hurricane Katrina and the types of people who were affected by it,” Gosz says. “It really was a good eye-opener to how the government worked to help certain types of people in the community after the disaster, and also how it neglected to help other people, typically people of color and of a lower socioeconomic status.”

As part of their weeklong immersion program, the Blugolds also visited places of historic importance to Louisiana.

“New Orleans and the vast amount of diversity in that city was beautiful and refreshing to see,” Gosz says. “The most eye-opening part of the week was visiting the Whitney Plantation. We learned about the lives of the slaves and the daily struggles they would go through, as well as some of the big events in history.”

The Whitney Plantation is unique because it focuses on the experience of individuals who were enslaved as opposed to romanticizing the experiences of the individuals who owned the slaves, Olson-McBride says. The students learned about the day-to-day activities engaged in by people who were enslaved as well as the implications for them after emancipation, such as limited economic opportunities, no wealth to build upon and little education, she says.

Another highlight of the program was the students’ involvement in two different activities associated with spoken word poetry, says Olson-McBride.

The first was the Eclectic Truth poetry slam/open mic in downtown Baton Rouge, where several UW-Eau Claire students performed during the open mic portion of the event. Several Blugolds also served as judges for the poetry slam portion of the event.

The group also traveled to Louisiana State University, where they were part of a poetry writing workshop led by two of the teaching artists from Forward Arts Baton Rouge.

The workshop centered on the idea of identity so students read and watched performances of poems centered on identity, and then had a chance to write and share their own poems.

“It was a powerful and passionate experience,” says Holly Hassemer, director of UW-Eau Claire’s Collegiate Bridge program, an academic support program for first-year students.

Many of the students participating in the immersion program were either freshman or former students in the Collegiate Bridge program. About half the students in the program are social work majors.

“All the students were incredibly engaged and approached the immersion experience with an openness to really grow from the experience,” Hassemer says, noting that while they were engaged in serious work while there, they also enjoyed some of the regional activities, music and Cajun cuisine.

Photo caption: About 50 Blugolds explored the diverse regions of Louisiana during spring break as part of an immersion program.