2017-03-29 / Voice at the Shore

TED Talk-type forum at Stockton highlights minorities’ challenges—and commonalities

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore editor


Hillel President Rachel Kern spoke about her Jewish identity and recent incidences of anti-Semitism. Hillel President Rachel Kern spoke about her Jewish identity and recent incidences of anti-Semitism. “What we need is a lot more empathy. You really don’t know what another person has gone through.” That was what Stockton University senior Jeremy Moscat, who described himself as “Afro-Latino,” told those watching the StocktonXTalk: “Overcoming the Challenges of Being a Minority,” a TED Talk-style event held at Stockton University on February 28. As with TED Talks, many of the StocktonX talks were recorded and posted on YouTube.

The event was supported by and gave voice to many different minority groups on campus, including Asian Americans, African Americans, Muslims and Jews. Most speakers told stories of difficulties they’d had in coming to terms with their identity as a minority as well as their experiences with discrimination.

Hillel President Rachel Kern recounted how she was the only Jewish student at her elementary school in Gibbsboro, NJ, despite the fact that the surrounding area, which included Cherry Hill and Voorhees, had a large Jewish population, as did her high school. Kern said she never felt fully at home in her Jewish identity until she got to Stockton. There, she began doing interfaith work with the Campus Religious Council along with being an active member of Hillel. “I found my calling in interfaith [work]….I wanted to help others.”


Calvin D. Sun, M.D., a TEDx Talks speaker, spoke about the challenges faced by Asian Americans. Calvin D. Sun, M.D., a TEDx Talks speaker, spoke about the challenges faced by Asian Americans. Yet after the numerous bomb threats received by Jewish Community Centers nationwide— including Katz JCC in Cherry Hill, where Kern interned last summer—and the recent desecration of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia, Kern said she has been forced to focus on her own identity as a Jew.

“Over the past 45 days there have been 190 incidents reported against Jews and Jewish institutions across the U.S.,” reported Kern. “All these things happening with the Jewish cemeteries and the Jewish Community Centers really did hit me and I got very emotional because I realized caring about other people doesn’t mean you have to come second. That was a very important lesson for me as someone who wants to care for other people and their issues for the rest of my life.”

Kern said she realized that it was easier to focus on helping others, such as her friends in the Muslim community, than to focus on helping her own people. In light of this, Kern was especially moved by reading reports that the Muslim community raised over $100,000 to help repair damage to the Jewish cemeteries.

“That is amazing. That is something that a few years ago would never be possible,“ said Kern, who added that Donald Trump’s presidency seemed to be having the unintended effect of encouraging more people to reach out, help others, and get involved in their communities.

Hillel Staff Director Andrea Heymann also spoke, recalling two back-to-back incidents that occurred when she was a senior in high school, visiting Poland with a group of kids from a Jewish camp. “In a 30-minute [time] span, I went from being spit on for being Jewish, to having someone apologize to me in broken English for what had been done” to Jews during the Holocaust, said Heymann.

Just as notable to Heymann was her response to the anti-Semitic incident she experienced in Poland. “It was just this kind of extreme moment that my 17-year-old mind couldn’t handle at the time… .now I look back and think: ‘Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up?’ And I’m sure there are people in this room too who were discriminated against or had something said against them and they just froze, they didn’t know how to deal. It is a lot to deal with.”

African student Adjoe Cofie also spoke of an incident that shocked her and changed her life. “A friend of mine called me a nigger, and I never thought that word would come out of his mouth,” she recalled. “To this day I still can’t remember anything about that guy except he was the first one to make me realize that my skin color carries a stigma to it.”

Cofie said that often times the first and only thing people see about her is her skin color. “When people ask about my lovely friend Kelly, they say ‘the nice red-haired short girl,’ but when they ask about me they say ‘the black girl.’”

A special guest for the evening was Calvin D. Sun, a TEDx Talks speaker who is an emergency medicine resident physician at Montefiore Hospital in New York City. Sun spoke about growing up Asian American and how he overcame the parental expectations and societal stereotypes placed upon him because he was Asian.

“I was born in a strict household of two Tiger parents,” said Sun. His parents expected him to become a doctor and devote himself to that and nothing else. “Parents taught us what their generation needed to do to survive,” he explained.

Sun said he was socially awkward and didn’t speak up for himself during most of his youth. “When it comes to being a minority, society often socializes us not to speak up.” This changed after he took on his first leadership role in an Asian appreciation club. At that point, a huge new world of possibilities that he’d never before dreamed of opened up for him. Although many Asian Americans have advanced degrees, he explained, most do not take on leadership roles.

For Sun, the challenge of being a minority was to unlearn habits he’d been socialized to have: The habit of studying all the time, and the habit of not taking leadership. In the end, he did drop these habits and become his own person, with a vibrant social life and a creative and entrepreneurial way of being. He also became a doctor, but on his own terms—unapologetic for his less-than-perfect grades and many non-academic pursuits, such as bartending.

Sun’s advice to minority students: Be your own person. Challenge yourself. Overcome your socialization, and don’t let it make you get stuck being a person you don’t want to be. 

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