Campus celebrates Unity Day 2023 with artwork, pride, flag raising and student voices

October 3, 2023
By: Deborah Alvarez O'Neil

At the start of Unity Day 2023, students gathered around a blank mural canvas and two bare, handmade trees within feet of each other at the Mary Cosgrove Dolphin Gallery. Spread out at their fingertips were charcoal sticks, a kaleidoscope of paints and brushes, unfinished wooden ornaments, rolls of yarn and pipe cleaners, fuzzy bells and sparkly baubles, stacks of construction paper. A colorful jumble of possibilities.

The invitation to the students—to everyone, really—was to create a Unity Day mural and two Unity Trees. What does Unity Day mean to you? What does unity mean to you? Do you have a message to share today?

By day’s end, the mural told a story of affirmation, pride, and plenty of unbounded creative expression. Messages like, “Better Together,” “Unity We Stand,” “Amplify Queer Voices,” “Black Is Beautiful in All Shades,” and “Be the Sun,” spread across the mural in black and gold charcoal. The two trees—forged from dowels, wire, and Kraft paper—blossomed with leaves, flowers, and ornamentation that spoke of solidarity, love, and merriment. Emblematic of the invisible threads that connect us all, students connected the trees, running yards of yarn from one tree across the floor and around the other tree. More yarn extended outward from the trees, connecting to the upper floors.

“Unity Day is about coming together despite cultural and social differences,” business administration major Andrea Ronnie 26 explained as she visited the art station. “Unity Day is bringing together communities—including people who don’t necessarily fit in a box.”

The messages, artwork, and voices of more than 400 students who participated in the arts event helped to give shape to the meaning of Unity Day 2023, a daylong celebration on Sept. 26 featuring a half-dozen packed panels, workshops, and sessions, a Unity Walk and a flag raising ceremony for the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.

Led by the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equal Opportunity and organized by a committee of university volunteers, this year’s Unity Day introduced 10 goals, among them, discovering new knowledge about yourself and others, building a collective sense of belonging for people of all identities on campus and finding common ground with individuals who have identities that are different from yours.

Throughout the day, across conference rooms, the art gallery and the Common Ground space, hundreds of students, faculty, and staff took up the charge. “Unity to me is encouraging people to embrace differences between them with equality and care,” said psychology major Angelina Mojomick ’26.

We Speak Up

Unity Day kicked off with a workshop on bystander intervention. In the We Speak Up workshop, a packed room of students, staff, and faculty learned how to recognize microaggressions and strategies for intervening when they witness microaggressions.

“As we celebrate our increasingly diverse student body, we are committed to the work of equipping students, faculty, and staff with the tools needed to build and navigate a more inclusive academic community,” said Omarthan Clarke, assistant director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equal Opportunity and co-facilitator of the workshop. “Among those tools is the confidence to speak up when facing or witnessing an act of bias or discrimination.”

Strategies included directly calling out harmful statements, diverting the conversation, and getting help from a staff or faculty member or friend. The interactive workshop also featured a video made by Caitlin Hickey, Residence Life graduate assistant, that featured current Worcester State students and staff addressing the importance of bystander intervention.

“We all have a role in creating a safe and inclusive campus environment,” said Sarah Valois, assistant director of Counseling Services and sexual violence response and prevention coordinator and co-facilitator of the workshop.

Spiritual/Religious Life Panel

At the Spiritual/Religious Life Panel, students met with religious leaders from across the Worcester area to discuss religion and learn more about opportunities to enrich their spirituality on campus.

Members of the panel included Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faith leaders from the greater Worcester area, as well as a representative from the HeartWell Institute. Sundous Nihwali, president of the Muslim Student Association, and Samuel Njuguna, vice president of the school’s Christian Fellowship, represented two of Worcester State’s student-led religious groups. In smaller breakout groups, each panelist led an open discussion on spirituality. Students were welcomed to join in the conversations and ask any faith-based questions they had, or to share their own experiences with religion and spirituality.

President Barry Maloney with students Alan Gomez and Haley Robles, who spoke at this year’s Unity Day flag raising ceremony. (Photo by Nancy Sheehan)

Unity Walk and Flag Raising

More than 150 students, staff, and faculty turned out for the day’s Unity Walk and flag raising. Participants walked from the front of the Sullivan Academic Center to the Common Ground outside the Student Center, accompanied by Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”

Worcester State’s new DEI fellow Ilyasah Shabazz joined in the Unity Walk with Chief Diversity Officer Edgar Moros (left) and President Barry Maloney (right). (Photo by Nancy Sheehan)

The group gathered near the Common Ground flagpole for the raising of a flag celebrating the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), of which Worcester State is an Associate Member Institution, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. Edgar Moros, Executive Director of Affirmative Action & Equal Opportunity / Chief Diversity & Equity Officer, delivered a welcome in both English and Spanish: “Es un placer poder recibirlos hoy en este espacio para izar la bandera HACU durante el mes de la herencia hispana. Worcester State se complace en tenerlos a ustedes presentes en este evento tan especial para celebrar la latinidad. Gracias por estar aquí.”

The flag raising marked a milestone for the university. With the start of the 2023-2024 academic year, Worcester State has met the criteria to be considered for listing as an emerging Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), a designation used by the U.S. Department of Education for colleges and universities where at least 25% of the full-time undergraduate students are Hispanic/Latine. The university is currently at 15% Hispanic/Latine, and its incoming first-year class is made up of 44% students of color.

“These are significant achievements,” Moros said, “as the campus begins to look more and more like the community it serves.”

Two first-generation student speakers expressed their appreciation for Worcester State’s commitment to increasing its diversity.

The university raised the HACU flag on Unity Day 2023.

Haley Robles, a Dominican American in her third year as a communication science and disorders major, said, “I’m not only here for myself but I’m also here for my family. When I graduate, I’m not walking across that stage for myself but I’m walking across that stage for all other Hispanics who feel like they don’t have an opportunity or who feel like they couldn’t do it. I’m doing it. You can do it.”

Alan Gomez, a Guatemalan American sophomore majoring in biology with a pre-med concentration, said, “Unity Day holds a special place in my heart. It’s a day that signifies acknowledgement and pride in what members of minority groups have accomplished and what we are still accomplishing to this day…. My biggest accomplishment is being here right now…. By becoming an HSI Worcester State would become a beacon for many more Hispanic individuals just like me to achieve our dreams and goals.”

In Our Shoes Accessibility Panel

The In Our Shoes panel at Unity Day 2023 featured student speakers. (Photo by Colin Joyal)

Worcester State’s Student Accessibility Services (SAS) and Gamma Chi, Worcester State University’s chapter of Delta Alpha Pi, the international honor society for disabled students, presented In Our Shoes, a student-led panel discussion. The students included English major Kat Kraszeki ’24, nursing major Brooke Dion ’26, business administration major Esther Celoy ’26, and sociology and history major Margaret April ’25.

“Disability is the one aspect of human diversity in DEIJ that is often overlooked,” said SAS Director Fran Manocchio at the start of the panel. “This is because of both personal and institutional barriers. The goal of this panel and SAS is to create access and reduce barriers.”

Student panelists went on to speak about what it was like to live and study at Worcester State with a disability, citing accommodations from willing professors and SAS as a point of access to higher education while speaking about the pressure to compensate for others’ discomfort and the tough skin that is needed to go through life with a learning disability.

“I am not the narrative,” said panelist Esther Celoy, talking about the general social perception of those with ADHD. The student panelists encouraged other students, especially freshmen who are struggling, to contact SAS, and for faculty to assist students in getting the accommodations they need.

Uplifting LGBTQ+ Voices

The Uplifting LGBTQ+ Voices panel gave members of the school’s LGBTQ+ community space to share their creative work and participate in a discussion about their experiences on campus and beyond. The event opened with remarks from Dr. Riley McGuire and Alison Park, leaders of the LGBTQIA+ Resource Center. They highlighted notable advancements in equity at Worcester State over the past several years and provided resources that offer support for LGBTQ+ students on campus and in the Worcester area. In his opening comments, Dr. McGuire celebrated the panel as “an outlet for queer and trans joy.”

The panel featured an exhibition of artwork, where LGBTQ+ students showcased their musical and poetic talents. This was followed by a question-and-answer session with the panelists, in which they shared their thoughts on the state of inclusion on campus and the importance of art as a tool for self-expression. (For more on the LGBTQ panel, see story by Nathaniel Barker.)

Unity Day 2023 closed out with an update on the university’s DEIJ strategy at the Board of Trustees meeting and a filled-to-capacity Unity Day yoga session at the Wellness Center. Back at the Ghosh Building, students made a few final flourishes to the Unity Day artistic creations, writing across the bottom of the mural: “We’re all in this together!

Editor’s note: Contributors to this story include Rebecca Cross, Bellalorraine Carey-Hicks, and Paul Davey. Artwork photos by Deborah Alvarez O’Neil.

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