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Cultural Diversity Advocate finds a community through shared stories

Whitworth receives Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award

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Asa Arhelger

Whitworth University received a national 2016 Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine, the oldest and largest diversity-focused publication in higher education. The award recognizes U.S. colleges and universities that demonstrate an outstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion. As a part of Whitworth's commitment to walking alongside those from underrepresented and minority populations, student leaders serve as Cultural Diversity Advocates (CDA) on campus. CDAs connect students to resources, facilitate opportunities for dialogues and develop cultural programming. Hawaii native Asa Arhelger, '17 is one of Whitworth's CDAs serving in Arend hall this year.

"When I entered as a freshman living in the Village, I felt hopelessly alone," Arhelger says. "My identity as an orphaned child along with my status as a low-income, first-generation college student that was a minority with respect to sexual orientation, ethnicity and even religion, made me feel isolated from my peers, making it extremely challenging for me to flourish as my fellow residents did."

CDAs were among the first people Arhelger met on campus.

"Their work in nurturing international, first-generation, and third-culture students made me feel part of the community, like I belonged and like my presence enriched the community," Arhelger says. "I began to find my home in the Intercultural Student Center in Hendrick Hall as I often walked in to find other students who felt as I had."

This is Arhelger's second year serving as a CDA. His first was spent in the community of Stewart Hall and the Village. Arhelger views being a CDA as an opportunity to encourage students to share their stories.

"We all have a story to tell," Arhelger says. "We each experience life differently based on the color of our skin, on our physical ability, our gender, our biological sex, our religion, the amount of financial capital we possess, and so many other dimensions. We've accumulated experiences that range from tragedies to miracles, where the impact of those experiences tugs our worldview in various directions, influencing our ethics, our behaviors and our decisions."

One opportunity for students to share their stories is through Whitworth's Diversity Monologues, an event where selected students share a part of their story with the community. Arhelger participated in the most recent Diversity Monologue event.

"The night before the submission deadline, I took the leap and decided to share," Arhelger says. "It was a powerful, cathartic experience that I had never felt before and after reflecting upon what I had written, I was empowered. I committed myself to share because I wanted to give my story to others so they could be empowered to share their own."

In addition to serving as CDA, Arhelger is a student representative on the Institutional Diversity Committee, whose goal is to develop intercultural competence on campus. He is also involved with the Hawaiian Club and International Club.

After graduating from Whitworth, Arhelger plans to work at a biotechnology company to hone his skills in preparation for a graduate program in Plant Pathology, with the ultimate goal of returning to Hawaii and contributing to a movement to protect native plants and preserve native Hawaiian culture.

"As I count down the days to graduation, I can't help but feel a mixture of emotions ranging from sadness to anxiousness," Arhelger says. "From my acceptance to Whitworth to my final year, I have received an abundance of love and support from staff, faculty, fellow students and even community members during every step of my journey. I entered Whitworth as a doubtful, cynical freshman that was fearful of following in the footsteps of his ill-fated parents. My defeatist mentality has since changed. My world is a much brighter place thanks to those who have helped to illuminate it. It is thanks to the Whitworth community that I'm able to fund my education and that I've found a place where I feel that I truly belong. Choosing words to describe my profound sense of gratitude is difficult and may not do it justice, but I hope that I've communicated how honored and privileged I feel to be a part of the Whitworth community."