2018-08-01 / Features

A World of Difference

Robyn Passante | Photos by Matt Fern

If you’ve been downtown in the last few months, you’ve no doubt seen the “You Are Welcome Here” banners highlighting Penn State’s international students and touting the diversity we have here.

But how welcome is everyone, really?

According to 2017 figures from the United States Census Bureau, Centre County’s estimated population of 162,660 was 87.9 percent “white only.” Thanks to the university, however, within this very white valley there are many pockets of diverse populations, people of varied racial and ethnic backgrounds, gender identities and sexual orientations who bring their own dreams, challenges and contributions to this community, making it a more culturally rich place to live, learn and raise children.

From the colorful banners to the new Martin Luther King Jr., Plaza, State College is making strides in the efforts of celebrating diversity. The borough’s “white only” population is lower than the county’s at 82 percent, with the Asian population comprising the largest minority at 10.8 percent. The Center for Spiritual and Ethical Development on campus — the largest of its kind in the country — houses 60 different religious and spiritual organizations under its roof. And there are more than a dozen groups and initiatives on and off campus dedicated to furthering the goals of diversity and inclusion in this area.

But how welcome is everyone, really?

A racist slur was spray-painted on a park bench in Tom Tudek Memorial Park last year. Confederate flags can be seen draped from houses and cars around the county. Some residents reported to a local diversity advocacy group this spring that bouncers had been asking certain bar patrons to show their visas in order to enter the establishment.

Like the rest of the country, Centre County has had its missteps in the march toward true equality and justice for all. But local activist Shih-In Ma believes a little understanding goes a long way toward those goals.

“I’m so convinced that if people would just meet each other and get to know each other, then that’s one way to start letting go of these biases, this conditioning, these beliefs that come out of nowhere, or come out of the media, or wherever.”

So we asked a handful of residents from marginalized populations about their unique experiences living and working here, to find out just how welcome they feel. They speak only for themselves, but they represent a larger goal and a bigger truth, that real inclusivity is reached not just when minorities are not harassed or feared for their differences, but when they are included in the conversation — when their voices are amplified until they are truly heard.

Kanchana Hettiarachchi, 30

Kanchana “Kanchi” Hettiarachchi’s profession as an English teacher in her native Sri Lanka came in handy when she flew to the U.S. in January to spend the year with her husband, Charith, who is here doing post-doc research in chemistry for Penn State’s Department of Food Science. The couple, married five years, met after both sets of parents had placed newspaper advertisements searching for suitable partners for their children, a manner of arranged marriage common in Sri Lanka.

Though she loved arriving in time to experience winter, the biting cold kept her inside for the first month, and she had a hard time understanding some of the American accents she heard around town. But in the months since, Hettiarachchi has attended many Global Connections programs, joined a knitting club and a book club, gotten a job at Weis Markets and started volunteering weekly at the State College Woman’s Club Thrift Shop.

Was it difficult to come to the U.S. and not know anyone but your husband?
I never thought I would be able to make friends here, because I didn’t know what sort of people [Americans] are. We had heard that Americans are so proud. But they’re so nice.

What made you want to do volunteer work while you’re here?
It’s just less than five minutes from my place. I just felt like going and helping. From the money they get they do lots of charity work, so I like that. I think teaching is also a kind of helping children. I work in a rural school back in Sri Lanka. So I have met lots of different types of children; I have helped them and I know how hard their life is. We always try to educate them and we always want to uplift their lives through education. We do it from the heart. So this is kind of like that. And l like those ladies. They were so welcoming.

What has your experience been like in State College?
I always compare the situation here with Sri Lanka. I have lots of freedom here, I can talk to any person here and they are always free-minded … they don’t judge us I think. I think more than Sri Lanka I have lots of friends here, and I always try to enjoy my life here to the best. I always look for the good side of people. So far I haven’t had any bad experiences.

Is it difficult for you to be a minority in this area?
No. I like to meet people from the other countries. I don’t want to be with Sri Lankans again here too. I’m happy!

Emil Cunningham, 35

Emil Cunningham grew up in South Bronx, New York, earned a master’s degree in college student affairs from Penn State in 2010 and a doctoral degree in higher education in 2015. After living on campus in his former Residence Life role, he and his wife, Tiffany, moved to Bellefonte, where they had to contend with neighbors who had swastika signs in their windows and made racial comments.

They now live in Boalsburg, where he sees Confederate flags hung in some houses but has been welcomed warmly by his neighbors.

As the director of diversity and inclusion for Penn State’s Office of Finance and Business, Cunningham is charged with advancing diversity and inclusion throughout the organization through programs, trainings, professional development opportunities and more. Their family now includes two children, ages 5 and 1, which has intensified Cunningham’s focus on making this area a welcoming place for all.

Is this community a safe space for you?  
It depends. I think we all put on different personas; some of us have to do it more often than not. Are there places where I can be my truthful, authentic self? Absolutely. Are there places where I know I can’t? Yes.

Why have you decided to put down roots here?
For us, State College is a great place to raise a family. And it’s a great place for my children to thrive. It comes with its challenges, but I think you’re going to have that anywhere you go. Overall I think what this community has to offer for families of difference is phenomenal. Now, I’ll be the first one to say there are places here I would never recommend some folks move out to, and that’s just because there are some communities that aren’t as accepting just yet. I think in most areas surrounding Penn State University proper, State College proper, yes, you are safe.

What can a fellow Centre County resident do to make this a more inclusive and tolerant place for everyone?
I think it’s hard to say ‘Here’s what your individual action needs to be in order to improve my overall climate experience while I’m here.’ I think there needs to be more of a recognition society-wise that these things exist and persist in spite of so much history of showing why it’s a problem.

When you’ve been subjected to racial injustice or harassment here, has anyone come to your aid?
No, because I’m fairly vocal myself. I’m not afraid to be that person, and I’m not afraid to report it. My wife is also not afraid; in fact, she reported an incident that happened on Arts Fest Kids Day. We are no longer those people who are afraid to do stuff. We are now the people who are the source of support to try to make sure that everybody else feels welcomed and included. It provides us with a sense that we are creating that better community that we want to ensure our children can grow up in.

Lane LaBelle, 22

Lane LaBelle was assigned female at birth but uses the gender-neutral pronouns they/them/theirs and considers themself non-binary or genderqueer. LaBelle was kicked out of their home at age 17 when their parents realized they were not heterosexual, but they say it changed the trajectory of their life for the better, granting them the freedom to begin truly living and expressing themself as they wish.

Now married for four years, LaBelle and their spouse have lived in the State College area since 2014. LaBelle says they are “an open book” when it comes to their gender identity and sexual orientation, but they don’t share too much with co-workers because they have been treated differently in the past after doing so.

How do you feel about gender identity?
I just feel like I want to be left alone. I feel very alienated by both masculinity and femininity, the whole gender identity and everything about it. I wish it just wasn’t a part of life; I want to opt out. I vacillate dramatically between dressing very feminine and very masculine, but frankly if I could I would rather just be a bodiless voice. I would rather not have any of that put on me. But I’m here, so I guess I’ll do whatever feels most comfortable in the day.

What kind of support have you found here?
State College is really good because, even though it’s a very monolithic culture, the little pockets or marginalized communities or alternative communities or whatever are very strong. They’re small but they’re there and they’re in full force.

From your experiences, is this a welcoming community?
I’m OK with the milquetoast people who say ‘Whatever you feel like, honey.’ It’s the vocal minority that makes it hard to live here. It’s the people who made finger guns at my spouse and I in our car, the person who pushed me into a parked car… It’s those kinds of people that make it an unsafe environment because then the middle, the moderate people, don’t address it. That’s where the big fracture comes from.

How can somebody be a better ally?  
You don’t have to come to pride parties… That’s not what I want from straight allies. It’s just making sure the people who are hateful or are vehemently against people like me don’t have a platform. Most of the checking of those people comes from other marginalized people.

I think listening to what marginalized communities have to say is very important. And going into your own communities of your straight friends or your male friends or your white friends, and addressing those problems there. Any rudimentary knowledge that you might have is gonna be better than the hateful stuff they say. You don’t have to be perfect; you just have to be better. Use your privilege in that way.

Nursen Konuk, 34

Nursen Konuk grew up in Turkey and came to the U.S. 10 years ago. After studying English for a year at a language school in Delaware, she moved to State College in 2009 to attend graduate school at Penn State, where she just earned her PhD in Mathematics.

Konuk was raised in the traditions of Islam but had not been practicing, as the religion seemed to her to be more about traditions than faith. Then she began studying more religious texts about five years ago, and her mindset changed. “Eventually I started thinking religion is not a tradition, but it’s a way to live your life,” she says. “And then I started connecting religion and faith.” That’s when she began to veil, wearing the traditional Muslim hijab and covering the rest of her body, including while swimming and playing basketball, which she loves.

So you had friends and co-workers who knew you before you started to veil. What were their reactions after?
Here in the United States, especially within State College and Penn State where people are really respectful and hesitant to ask any personal questions that might offend a person, it wasn’t bad. I received a lot of interesting questions. If you stand as a diverse person, you have more options to meet with people. And it kind of helps me to reflect on what I believe.

Why did you decide to start veiling?
I do that because it’s the order of God; it originates in our holy book. The idea is just to value a person not because of their appearance but because of what they think, what they represent and how they contribute. So I think veiling is a way of protesting that idea of being judged on my appearance. I find it meaningful. But I just want to highlight that that doesn’t mean people without hijab are accepting being valued by that. You just might show that in a different way.

What has your experience been like as a veiled Muslim woman in this community?
I have never been treated nastily. I’ve had some stares and sometimes mumbling, but I haven’t experienced any harsh things. State College is different from Spring Mills. State College is different from Phillipsburg. So 30 miles from here, life is completely different from here. But in State College I was always respected. I think (hijab) doesn’t have much meaning for people in State College. It doesn’t make you so much different from others. And that’s a good thing. •SCM

Implicit Bias

What it is: the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner

Who has it: Everyone, to some degree

How to discover yours: Go to and take a series of free online assessments that will show you what implicit biases you have regarding race, religion, gender, weight, age, disability and a number of other things.

Why it’s important: “We can’t change what we’re not aware of,” says local activist Shih-In Ma. “I’ve done (the tests), and as much as I’m involved in this I’m still biased — at least mildly biased across the board, even against myself, my own demographics, against my friends, against everything. Which is painful to see but really important to know. Because then I start to see the awareness when something happens, before jumping to a conclusion.” 

If you want to help create a more inclusive community here, and enrich your own life by getting to know people with different backgrounds and beliefs, there are many established channels to go through. Pick one and get involved: They would love to welcome you!

Center for Spiritual and Ethical Development
The center’s main focus is to provide the opportunity and resources for anyone from the community, not just students, to be able to grow and develop as a religious or spiritual person, and in terms of ethical and character development as well. The center hosts programs geared toward ethical and character development and moral issues. It is the largest center of its kind in the country, with 60 different religious and spiritual organizations represented and supported under its roof.

Central PA SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice)
The State College chapter of this national organization is dedicated to furthering racial justice through educational programs and activism. Recent programs included how to talk to your kids about race, and the reality of racism in Happy Valley.

Centre LGBTQA Support Network
The mission of Centre LGBTQA Support Network is to bring the community together through LGBTQA education and activities in the Centre Region. The group hosts monthly support groups, Friday Night Live performance and open mic at Webster’s Bookstore Café and the occasional Drag Bingo event.

Community & Campus in Unity
This advocacy group meets once a month during the school year to discuss and research issues brought to the group regarding discrimination and other forms of racial and ethnic injustices. The group includes borough staff, university students, local police and community members, all working together to solve problems as they arise and advocate on behalf of those who’ve been unfairly treated.

Community Diversity Group
This group fosters and publicizes opportunities for community members to meet each other and expand their consciousness. Its mission is to create and support a community based on inclusion, acceptance and equal representation. They meet monthly and host special programs, events and inclusivity training.

Global Connections
Global Connections aims to cultivate interpersonal relationships and build bridges across cultures through social outings, language strengthening and interpreter assistance, an international friendship program, resources for international students and their families, cultural luncheons, an International Children’s Festival and much more.

This nonprofit housing cooperative in downtown State College strives to promote diversity as well as be environmentally sustainable, socially responsible, queer positive and egalitarian. In addition to having space for up to 10 residents, Houseasaurus regularly invites the community to join house members and friends for dinner.

Interfaith Initiative Centre County
Started after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, the goal of Interfaith Initiative Centre County is to get people from different faiths to meet each other in a non-proselytizing way. There’s an interfaith coffee hour with a different discussion topic monthly for members to engage in meaningful conversations with those of varied religious and spiritual backgrounds. Special programs also are offered and the group publicizes special services and gatherings from specific religious groups that are open to the public.

LGBTQ Advisory Committee
Established in 2017, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Advisory Committee advises the Borough of State College on LGBTQ matters. The borough’s community engagement director Kevin Kassab serves as the liaison between the LGBTQ community and the borough, and works with the advisory committee, borough staff and the community at large on inclusion and anti-discrimination efforts.

LGBTQA Student Resource Center
The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Ally Student Resource Center provides a comprehensive range of education, information and advocacy services to the university’s students, faculty, staff and alumni. The center uses educational, social and supportive
programming, workshops and individual consultations to create and maintain an open, safer and inclusive environment honoring gender and sexual diversity.

Paul Robeson Cultural Center
The Paul Robeson Cultural Center provides programs and services that cultivate the appreciation and celebration of the diverse perspectives and cultures of Penn State’s underrepresented communities. There is a mentoring program for students as well as programs dedicated to social justice, identity development and cultural enrichment.

Stand for State
Penn State’s bystander intervention program focuses on what bystanders can do when they witness sexual and relationship violence, mental health concerns, acts of bias, and risky drinking and drug use. People from the community may attend their bystander intervention training for faculty and staff.

3rd Way Collective
A Penn State student organization founded by University Mennonite Church in State College, 3rd Way Collective aims to connect and collaborate with people of all walks of life on behalf of peace, justice and faith. The group is part activism, part education, and all open communication.

World In Conversation
This student-driven center for public diplomacy uses trained facilitators to facilitate conversations that respect every perspective about varied topics that include faith, race, climate, gender and more. They host hundreds of face-to-face dialogues on campus and virtual dialogues between students from around the world.

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