Proposed VIP Weekend event raises controversy among students
A poster for the Black Student Union (BSU) found in the Gender and Diversity Center (GDC).

Proposed VIP Weekend event raises controversy among students

New College of Florida seeks to make its community thrive with diversity and inclusion in order to promote the voices of black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). However, the most recent diversity event proposal raises multiple issues, especially from the perspective of BIPOC students themselves. On Feb. 18, Interim Assistant Dean of Students Nicole Gelfert sent out an email describing the new “Valuing Inclusivity Program (VIP) Weekend” initiative and asking for student volunteers to help host 25 admitted students of color from Apr. 7 to 9.

“The purpose of this program is to provide students with the opportunity to meet other students, explore support networks available and provide an introduction to their journey at New College,” the email announcement reads.

Pioneered by Admissions Coordinator Destiny Peterson, the VIP Weekend event involves current students acting as hosts and sharing their dorm rooms with the prospective students for the duration of the event. Student hosts were selected through a VIP Host Survey attached to Gelfert’s initial email. The schedule for the weekend includes lunch at the Hamilton “Ham” Center, dinner at the Bayfront for two nights, a closing ceremony which highlights affinity student organizations and designated times for social hours.

One of the members of the VIP Planning Committee, Interim Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Queen Zabriskie explains the additional benefits this program offers to the prospective students.

“[VIP Weekend] offers the opportunity for participants to meet and hear from faculty connected to the different offices that are part of their support network on campus, the opportunity to attend mini-classes and the opportunity to learn about and connect to different resources in the community, giving them a better sense of the community they are moving into,” Zabriskie described.

However, as promotional as this may seem, some BIPOC students and members of the New College Student Alliance (NCSA) have expressed concern about the authenticity of bringing diversity to campus through this event. As a result, an open letter was sent through email to the students, faculty, and staff on Feb. 25 by NCSA President and third-year Sofia Lombardi in opposition of the VIP Weekend, which stated the general concerns of the student-led Diversity and Inclusion Committee regarding the proposed event. This letter was also signed by five other student leaders and members of the NCSA, including Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion and third-year Aurelie Campbell, President of the Latinx Club and thesis student Yamir Crespo Babilonia and President of the Black Student Union (BSU) and thesis student Ginelle Swan.

“While we value the College’s desire to create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community, we feel that this approach dismisses the negative experiences of our current BIPOC students and expects the burden of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work to be placed on prospective BIPOC students,” the open letter reads. “The timeline and framing of an event such as this demonstrates a lack of commitment to our current BIPOC students, and sends the message that the College is committed to diversifying the campus, only in terms of numbers, not in actualized support for those who choose to attend.”

Zabriskie recalled when she first was informed of the planning for the event.

“Ann Masterman sent me an email inviting me to a meeting on Nov. 2 [2021] in admissions to talk about the possibility of this idea,” Zabriskie said. “Her email mentioned [Destiny Peterson’s] great ideas about this type of program and things that they could do to increase diversity.”

“I think that the opportunity for students to meet with and hear from students connected to and leading diverse student organizations are important because they will help to build valuable connections that will aid in the transition to New College,” Zabriskie concluded. “I also think that the sessions where we are showing students the support networks that exist on campus are important. We have two sessions that do this: one focused on different offices and a second one focused on student groups and student affairs.”

Campbell said that she was thrown off when she learned of the VIP Weekend a day after the initial email announcement instead of knowing beforehand. 

“I learned about it on Feb. 19 through a text from the Vice President of the NSCA saying, ‘Hey, did you know about this?’” Campbell explained. “I wish that the school did not keep VIP Weekend a secret. The lack of communication to not just me but the entire student body makes us wonder why they didn’t say anything about it.”

Campbell touched repeatedly on the “secrecy” of the administration’s efforts in planning the event. She said that she wishes that the students at New College could have had more of a say in the situation, and that she feels that the college’s attempts to bring diversity onto campus focus on quantity more than quality.

“I agree with the event focusing on BIPOC students,” Campbell said. “However, it is a mission for numbers in the sense that New College is not meeting the amount of diversity compared to other campuses. There is a lack of outreach and communication to the predominantly black communities near the campus.”

Zabriskie additionally agrees with the event focus, describing the previous issues and improvements regarding enrollment numbers into New College of Florida.

“When I was completing the college’s Equity Report in the beginning of the academic year, I had an opportunity to have a meeting with VP Wade about some of the tables in the report that pointed to areas of improvement with the number of first time in college and transfer students in protected classes we enroll,” Zabriskie said. “He mentioned that our numbers of applicants from protected classes had actually increased, but we were struggling to get people to enroll at the college. In other words, we were struggling with the bottom part of the admissions funnel.” 

“When I saw that folks in Admissions were planning this program, it seemed like a great possible way to try to address the issue that VP Wade talked about in our meeting, especially since he also stated that we are pretty successful in getting people to accept our admission offer when they come to campus,” Zabriskie continued.

An additional concern shared among members of the NCSA and the Diversity and Inclusion Committee is that for years , many students have shared complaints that housing, Hamilton “Ham” Center food and campus accessibility are not on par with where the campus should stand on these issues. 

“Students have voiced concerns about hosting a prospective student in their dorms due to the prevalence of housing issues such as mold, bugs and malfunctioning heating/air conditioning systems,” the open letter continues. “Additionally, concerns regarding the COVID-19 pandemic have been heightened due to the lack of control by the College on these prospective students’ positivity status nor proof of vaccination. We feel that the state of our dining services and housing facilities would likely discourage these prospective students from depositing at New College.”

“There are safety concerns in housing and accessibility that would be dangerous to these admitted students … Concerns about COVID-19, lack of community investment and input in the program, the state of current housing and food services, and lack of feedback from current students,” Campbell said. “There is no average BIPOC college student. Everyone’s input is important.”

Campbell later added that “[administration] reached out to certain BIPOC members on campus, but I wish they would have opened it up to all BIPOC members on campus—even all students on campus.”

Zabriskie quickly and publicly responded to the complaints stated in Lombardi’s open letter that BIPOC voices were being reduced in a letter of her own published on Mar. 4.

“The planning committee included four NCF student leaders representing diverse student organizations who were active participants in the planning process,” Zabriskie wrote in her response to Lombardi’s  letter. “[The committee] was intentional about engaging diverse student leaders in the process so that students could play a role in shaping the design of the program. We did not anticipate, however, that the leadership and engagement of four NCF BIPOC students would not be perceived as engaging the student community.”

“New College could do better to attend to and look at representation,” Campbell said in response. “The students were not going to be fully supported enough to understand the value of the community. I was concerned about the initial list of activities and it felt rushed. I asked the administration if they contacted any of the clubs, or anything.”

Additionally, the current students hosting prospective students for the event would have to undergo the proper training to maintain an extra individual—and potential minor—living through a day on campus and inside their dormitories. The hosting position is fully volunteer-based and is not paid.

“I don’t agree that students hosting would do it for free, that students are just being made aware of this event instead of this being an open conversation from the start and these hosts are being trained without being paid,” Campbell said. 

“When we talk about community, we have to talk about what that means and how it is interpreted to someone,” Campbell elaborates. “If you come from a socio-cultural background that holds trauma, learning aspects of a new community can unlock new aspects of trauma. That’s what the training should get the students to understand.”

Both Zabriskie and Campbell were asked if they were comfortable with VIP Weekend going forward on its expected date.

“I would be comfortable with the project moving forward,” Zabriskie asserted. “It is a pilot project, so I think it is important to start somewhere solid so that we can continue to build on and develop the program. We have a solid plan and are working to finalize things so that we can build on things for this and subsequent years.”

Campbell would prefer this event to occur when it is more thought through.

“I would be comfortable with this going forward if it were a year from now, with more student input in this program,” Campbell said. “There needs to be more input on how the activities are going to go. If this happens on Apr. 8, I will not support it.”

A VIP Planning Committee meeting took place on Mar. 9 in order to address some of these concerns. Some of the members of the committee—specifically Peterson, who pioneered the event, third-year Jasmine McCastler and Dean of Outreach Bill Woodson—explained that the event was in response to underrepresentation of marginalized communities.

“Students from underrepresented communities come to campus and envision themselves in this community and see if they are able to be a part of it,” Peterson elaborated.

“I see it as prioritizing students of underrepresented backgrounds,” McCastler added. “It’s an effort to rectify the diversity issues that New College has.”

“Having an orientation just for them would prioritize that they are important in the community,” Woodson continued.

According to McCastler and Peterson, the possibility of this program was first mentioned when Peterson was being interviewed for her school position in May 2021. The planning for the program was revealed to have started in October of the same year, and the first official VIP Planning Committee meeting was in November. 

The main disagreement regarding VIP Weekend among the committee in these early planning stages was figuring out the name of the program itself.

“From what I recall, the main disagreement was over the name of what to call the event,” McCastler responded. “It wasn’t a serious disagreement; it was about what sounded better—what sounded catchy.”

The VIP Planning Committee is unanimous in their decision to still proceed with the event on Apr. 7-9. Peterson emphasized that this is an admitted students event that invites specifically students of color in order to promote diversity.

“I’m okay with it going forward,” Peterson said. “We’ve all worked hard to make this happen. We made sure we included students. We want admitted students to have a unique experience when choosing their college. The only difference in this event is that it’s highlighting students of color . . . If any students would like to still join this committee, we would love to have them with open arms.”

People of Color Union (POCU) President and first-year Shawna Itakura said that they were faithful in this program’s outreach despite the controversy from students.

“I think despite the backlash, we have enough time to have conversations with people and make sure they are satisfied,” Itakura said.

Woodson remained persistent in his excitement about the aspect of community connection interrelated within the program.

“I think we have a really exciting product in the education offered to young people, and to the extent we can be authentic to where they can understand what this college is about.” Woodson replied. “Creating experiences that create connections within the community is proven by research to be a major factor of helping students navigate the campus.” 

With a nod and a smile, he concluded, “I’m extremely pleased we’ve put this together and considered student voices every step of the way.”

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