Diversity panel encourages community inclusion
FORT KENT, Maine — One thing many students agreed on who participated in a community diversity and inclusion panel at the University of Maine at Fort Kent on Wednesday is that their hometowns are much larger than the small university town of Fort Kent at the top of northern Maine.
“I pretty much had everyone (added) on Facebook within a week,” joked senior Rosevelt Smith, who came to UMFK from California.
He and seven other students from a variety of backgrounds took part in the diversity panel, the aim of which was to “foster a complete community of inclusion and diversity,” according to Theresa Biggs, the university’s associate director of student activities and diversity programming.
“We’re committed to diversity here at UMFK. Diversity makes us stronger. It’s such an important part of a university including free speech, tolerance and understanding,” UMFK President John Short told a group of about 30 students, staff and members of the public.
Panel member Habib Mohamed, who grew up in Kenya, said when she first arrived in Fort Kent she was concerned that the majority caucasian Christian population would not accept her.
“After awhile, I noticed that the community was very welcoming,” she said.
Mohamed said she works at an assisted living center in town and received some advice regarding the Hijab she wears, from an older woman for whom she was caring.
“She told me, ‘this is America. Don’t be afraid, you don’t have to wear it,” Mohamed said.
She explained to the woman that she chooses to wear the Hijab out of respect for her religious beliefs, and has done so since she was 7 years old. Mohamed said the Virgin Mary also wore a scarf on her head, and that her Muslim religion teaches her to respect the Virgin Mary.
“Sharing something she valued kind of brought her closer to me,” Mohamed said of the older Catholic woman.
George Safonov, a panel member from Kiev, Ukraine, said he feels that in some respects the United States is a welcoming place.
“I think the U.S. has come a pretty long way in terms of embracing and accepting different people, not only race but sexual orientation. In my country the mindset is pretty homophobic,” he said. “They go easier on women. If you’re a male and gay you are most likely to get beat up.”
Panel member Kyle Robin of Scotland said that the younger generation in his home country is more accepting of homosexuality than are older people. Robin’s own brother came out as gay several years ago, and Robin said his father was concerned that Kyle’s high-school classmates might find out and treat Kyle cruelly as a result. This did not happen, and Kyle said he is completely accepting of his brother’s sexuality.
“It really didn’t bother me at all. He was still one of the boys in my eyes,” Kyle said. “The newer generation is more open-minded, more educated. They are still two people at the end of the day, just a person dating another person.”
The panel of students said that, although life in Fort Kent may not always be exciting as city life, it has its perks.
“When I go to Shop ‘n Save or Al’s or everywhere, I see somebody or know somebody that I’ve had a conversation with,” Smith, who is a student/athlete, said.
Armairani Carbajal of San Jose, California said that when she first came to northern Maine she was taken aback by the friendly atmosphere.
“People here are very nice,” she said.“The first semester I was here walking downtown and the people were very friendly. People walking around town exercising would say ‘oh, good morning.’ At home people don’t do that.”
Carbajal said she unwittingly carried some of that small town cheer back to San Jose during a holiday break. She said she went out for a walk and smiled and greeted a man who was also walking.
“He gave me the weirdest look,” she said. “I thought ‘oh, I’m not in Fort Kent, Maine.’”
Ryan Merckel, who is originally from South Africa, said he appreciates both the intimate connection people in Fort Kent have with one another, as well as the low crime rate.
“Where I come from you barely know your next-door neighbor. Everyone has a wall (surrounding their homes). They have an electric fence and a gate. People try getting in to steal,” he said.
Joshua Kurensky, another student from South Africa, expressed appreciation for the Fort Kent Police Department, and said he is less trustworthy of police in his home country.
“Our police are horrifically corrupt. The police here are open to internationals and welcoming of internationals,” he said. “I certainly commend them.”
Safonov added that there are similar concerns regarding law enforcement in Ukraine.
“I actually feel safer here than back home,” Safonov said.
FKPD Chief Tom Pelletier, who also attended the session, said the respect between the community and the international students is a two-way street. He said that 20 years ago Fort Kent was not as diverse, and that UMFK brings to the community students who are top quality human beings.
“The community looks at how you treat the community when you come here,” he said. “You folks have been a great part of our community and we do consider you part of the community. You have been outstanding and thank you for that.”
Following the discussion, guests dined on a lunch buffet prepared by the college’s food service Sodexo .
The diverse menu included Syrian bread, pita bread, eggplant baba ghanoush, hummus dip, Moroccan chickpea stew, Jamaican jerk chicken, beef stroganoff, sticky rice and a baklava dessert.
The student panel included: Kyle Robin, Faizi Salim, Rosevelt Smith, Ryan Merckel, Habiba Mohamed, George Safonov, Armairani Carbajal and Ruth-Ann Lorman.
Caryn Cleveland-Short moderated the event.