Sitting in a UW-Madison classroom, you are seated next to an English major and a biology major, an international student and someone from Milwaukee, a liberal and a conservative, and a legacy student and a first-generation college student.
At first glance, it may seem like no one at the university has anything in common with so many diverse backgrounds.
However, a new initiative — I am UW — put forth by student leaders at the university promotes unity on campus through the common identity of being UW-Madison students.
“It’s really meant to show that every person in Madison has different stories and they come from different backgrounds,” the Associated Students of Madison Vice Chair Yogev Ben-Yitschak said. “But in Madison … we’re all the one identity of being UW students, even though we all have our own stories and experiences of how we got to where we are.”
I am UW is a storytelling platform where students with different backgrounds and life experiences share their stories and by doing so promote campus inclusivity, Ben-Yitschak said.
The campaign experienced a soft launch last week and plans to mainly take place on social media this semester along with merchandise, hashtags and filters before the official launch in the fall.
ASM Equity & Inclusion Chair Agalia Ardyasa is one of four students on the I am UW implementation committee. Currently, the committee has 20 student ambassadors but is recruiting more to assist in promoting the campaign, Ardyasa said.
She also emphasized that I am UW will not falsely represent the student population by portraying UW-Madison as more diverse than it actually is.
“It’s less about proving that we’re diverse and more about appreciating and embracing the differences,” she said.
The I am UW campaign was born out from results of the university’s first-ever campus climate survey, which were released in the fall of 2017. The Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement Director of Communications Mary Carr Lee said the student feedback revealed some individuals didn’t feel included on campus.
“[Students] said being welcomed is not the same as feeling welcome, and it’s our job to change that,” Carr Lee said in an email.
The survey reported 81 percent of the overall student population generally felt welcome on campus, while 69 percent of LGBQ students, 67 percent of students with a disability, 65 percent of black students and 50 percent of trans or nonbinary students felt the same.
Ben-Yitschak said the results of the survey, while not positive, were not surprising to most people. However, these results were essential to launching plans like I am UW.
“A lot of these feelings people had been feeling for a long time,” he said. “[The university is] trying to find all these different ways to change the climate and one of the recommendations for the effort was to make UW-Madison more welcoming.”
While I am UW will not be the only initiative the university is putting forward in response to the campus climate survey, the committee hopes it has a lasting impact on the inclusive atmosphere on campus, Ben-Yitschak said.
Ultimately, the I am UW campaign plans to highlight how UW-Madison values a culture of diversity and ensure every student feels welcome, Ardyasa said.
“The end goal would be people feel like they belong on campus — that people feel that their identity is appreciated by the administrator, by their peers,” she said. “It’s just a celebration of diversity, a celebration of inclusivity, to acknowledge that we’re all different.”
If I am UW’s efforts to create a more inclusive campus are successful, Ardyasa believes UW-Madison can become an example to other institutions on how to handle university environments where everyone doesn’t always feel welcome.
Students can get involved with I am UW both online and in person, according to Carr Lee. By sharing stories and pictures on social media and wearing I am UW merchandise, conversations about representing the UW-Madison campus community in all forms can begin.
Correction April 4, 2019, 3 p.m.: The original article incorrectly stated that I am UW was put forth by ASM and the DDEEA.