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College is a time for new experiences, and that means interacting with different types of people.
For some, it’s the first time they’ve had a class with a disabled student. Others have their first face-to-face encounters with the homeless. And many meet someone their own age who is a military veteran.
But how much can really be learned from brief interactions? And how much needs to be learned?
“I rock back and forth during class because it helps me focus and deal with sensory input,” said Jenna Breunig, explaining a behavior that is often misinterpreted as intentionally disruptive. “I could get up and pace instead, but I doubt that would be more conducive to a classroom setting.”
Breunig is a computer science undergrad at ASU. She’s also autistic and wants to bring more awareness to the disorder and common misconceptions about it. That’s why she and several other socially conscious students are participating in Tunnel of Awareness, an interactive exhibit sponsored by ASU Student and Cultural Engagement in partnership with ASU Salute to Service.
On Tuesday, Nov. 8, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Arizona Ballroom at the Memorial Union on the Tempe campus, several student organizations will gather to share knowledge and shatter stereotypes.
“Tunnel of Awareness is meant to highlight both the bad and the good about certain social justice issues,” said Charlinda Haudley, who has been coordinating the event for Student and Cultural Engagement for three years now. “It’s a place for students to say, ‘Hey, let’s talk about these issues. This is the bad part, but also how can we educate people about what they can do to help?’ ”
Breunig’s organization, Autistics on Campus, will be busting assumptions and using their space to ask visitors to be more mindful of certain comments and actions.
“I constantly get told, ‘You don’t look autistic!’ And (people) mean it as a compliment,” she said. “But if that’s a compliment, it’s coming at the expense of my autistic friends. I don’t want that.”
President of ASU’s Student Veterans Club Marcus Denetdale can relate.
“Not every veteran has PTSD,” he said. “And just because we all served doesn’t mean we’re all the same person. We’re all individuals.”
The Student Veterans Club will be present at Tunnel of Awareness to help spread that message, and to encourage more meaningful interactions with student veterans.
“We’ll more or less just be asking people to come hang out and meet with us. Get to know who we really are,” said Denetdale, an ASU grad student and academic success specialist for the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment with four years of active-duty experience in the U.S. Air Force as an avionics specialist.
Other student organizations on hand will include the Asian/Asian Pacific American Students’ Coalition; S.H.O.W. (Student Health Outreach for Wellness); Peace Corps at ASU; and Nations Movement. They’ll be addressing such topics as representation of Asians in the media; perceptions of homelessness; global poverty and community economic development; and stereotypes of Native Americans, respectively.
“As a senior at ASU, I think the Tunnel of Awareness has been one of the greatest things that I’ve participated in,” said Bree Gonzalez, whose Peace Corps at ASU exhibit will feature video, audio and photo components to tell stories that student Peace Corps members have encountered, including that of an HIV-positive man who couldn’t find work because of the stigma associated with his disease, leading him to a life of poverty.
“Tunnel of Awareness has been able to help me grow, and I already thought I was such an aware individual,” Gonzalez said. “It helps people to be more inclusive and understanding and have humility and empathy. That’s ultimately the greatest thing about this entire event.”
Social work undergrad Diana Pacheco said she hopes to educate other students about how misconceptions can halt social progress, something she has personal experience with. When Pacheco first volunteered with S.H.O.W., she realized she was “very judgmental” toward the homeless.
“I realized some of the perceptions that I had were wrong. So it’s really eye-opening to see that these people are humans; they are individual people,” she said.
S.H.O.W.’s exhibit will feature Instagram-type stories about homeless people from the clinic in downtown Phoenix who chose to share their stories.
“These people have backgrounds, they have stories; some of them have college degrees,” said fellow S.H.O.W. member and ASU student Alex Biera.
Other topics addressed by student organizations at Tunnel of Awareness will include: LGBT stigma; anti-Semitism; mental health awareness; undocumented students and DREAMers; self-love, body image and acceptance; and free speech.
“I hope that maybe someday people will be more understanding about the fact that different people have different needs,” Breunig said, “and will be willing to accommodate them and treat it like it’s not a big deal.”