The verdict was clear last night at an open forum on Cultural Connections: reactions to the orientation program that year opened its doors to white students this year, were overwhelmingly positive.

The meeting was organized by Realizing Race, a group founded last year to promote dialogue about race on campus. Several students at the meeting, where most of the 35 attendees were freshmen and had attended Cultural Connections, said they made lasting friendships in the program before they started school. Some hailed from largely minority high schools, and said they wanted to ease the transition to Yale. Others attended high schools filled with upper-class white students, and they said they wanted to experience something different.

This year, the program was open to all students, regardless of their race. One white student attended.

Students at the meeting agreed the program has two functions: to foster friendship among people of color, and to create a dialogue about diversity.

“It’s so nice to [see] other [minorities] who are smart and happy to be smart and trying to be smarter,” one female audience member, who had attended Cultural Connections, said.

For Dorothy Marshall ’08, the presence of other minorities was a secondary attraction. She said she was most excited about meeting professors and deans and getting to know the campus. The cultural part was “a plus,” she said, “but I would have gone if it was called [just] ‘Connections.'”

This was the first year Cultural Connections sent applications to the entire incoming freshman class. Peter Nicewicz ’08, the white student who attended, received a round of applause at the meeting. Some students said they had not realized Nicewicz was white, and they did not care.

“I felt like I was part of this big family,” said Nicewicz, who moved from Poland to Chicago at age nine. “I felt like I was in the right place, and I definitely didn’t need to explain why I was there.”

But some other white students at the meeting said they would not have been comfortable attending Cultural Connections. They feared they might have created tension and spoiled the dynamic. Citing such reasons, Norie Pride ’08 said, “If I were white, Cultural Connections wouldn’t be on my agenda.”

Several students said the presence of whites would make dialogues about race more meaningful, while others cautioned that the program might lose value as a haven for minority students.

Playing devil’s advocate, one student asked if Cultural Connections presents a problem because it encourages self-segregation. The group’s answer was a resounding “no.”

Several students said they reached out to their white suitemates and classmates, introducing them to their Cultural Connections friends. Marshall said other orientation programs, such as the Freshman Outdoor Orientation Trips, foster lasting friendships as well, but they do not come under scrutiny.

The meeting was a success, Eleanor Anderson ’06, head of Realizing Race, said.

“I was very pleased with the turnout. It’s a great start for the first discussion of the year,” she said.

The 25-member group, which facilitated several discussions on race last spring, will hold monthly open forums this year.

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