In response to students of color feeling unsafe on campus, 40 handwritten letters, containing messages of gratitude and unity, were handed to the Ethnic Student Center on Monday, Dec. 7.
Western alumna Destiny Petroske, student activities and leadership coordinator at Northwest Indian College, emailed students and faculty on how they might offer support to students at Western. The heap of letters, written on scrapbook paper and each much larger than the blue folder they were tucked within, were written in response to students feeling unsafe in the aftermath of racially charged comments, Petroske said.
On Nov. 24, university president Bruce Shepard sent out an email announcing the cancellation of classes. The decision was made following the report that threatening posts targeting students of color had been made on social media app, Yik Yak.
“It is important for minorities to reach out to minorities,” said Lea Scott, Petroske’s intern and student within NWIC’s care program.“I can’t imagine going to school and not feeling safe, so I felt in my heart that it was important to express how I felt for Western students and to let them know that we support them.”
Whatcom Community College, NWIC, and Western are all connected, and the opportunity to reach out is much greater when the trauma happens close to home, Petroske said. Petroske believes this is a bond that has existed in the past, but has been renewed in the midst of recent events.
The letters were left open ended and are presented in the form of poems, drawings, and honest expression on how students and faculty are feeling.
“You can’t tell the students how to feel; all you can do is support them,” Petroske said. “They know what they feel and what it feels like to be the student that is not accepted. As a student of color, you know that feeling.”
Scott’s personal letter thanked Western for their efforts to cater to different ethnic backgrounds on campus. Her letter was written to motivate students to stay focused and stay strong, Scott said.
Associated Students ESC coordinator Nate Panelo accepted the letters and voiced his appreciation for the efforts those in the community have made to offer their support. Panelo hopes to find a creative way to display the letters or get them to students at Western.
Students need to know that there are people that care about them in the community, Panelo said.
“It was just sweet to see these letters come in, especially with where we are at,” Panelo said. “In my position, I am very humble about what others have been saying about us and letting us know that they are standing in solidarity with our students here.”
Petroske has many takeaways from her experience working within the Ethnic Student Center. The basic principle she learned at Western was that everyone on campus makes up a tree, she said.
“We are a tree. The tree has many roots and it has all of these branches. All together we are very strong,” Petroske said.
Whether at Western, NWIC, or just within the Bellingham community, diversity is everywhere; it does not matter if someone is of color or not, Petroske said.
Petroske and Scott hope to come back to Western and discuss the letters in detail. NWIC and Western have always had a relationship, but building a stronger connection is something that can be worked on, Panelo said.
“We are still trying to figure out all of the things that need to be resolved in the Ethnic Student Center, internally, first,” Panelo said. “It has been motivating to see other organizations wanting to work with us.”