During her senior year of high school, Sky Bela, ‘22, boarded a plane from her home state of Texas to Pennsylvania to participate in Lehigh’s annual Diversity Life Weekend (D-Life).
Every year, Lehigh Admissions flies over 100 accepted students from diverse backgrounds to spend a weekend on campus in order to showcase the Lehigh experience and encourage diverse enrollment.
Over the course of the weekend, Bela and other participants interacted with students of color and visited inclusive spaces like Lehigh’s Pride Center and Multicultural Center. Bela left the weekend feeling that her lesbian and Mexican identities would not only be accepted, but celebrated at Lehigh.
“The consensus was that Lehigh welcomed you with open arms, and then I got here and that wasn’t the case,” she said.
Programs like D-Life and the Diversity Achievers Program are doing important work in attempting to diversify a historically white, straight campus. But are they selling a Lehigh experience that doesn’t exist?
Bela, who fears holding hands with her girlfriend on campus, is regularly dismissed as aggressive for voicing concerns about her Lehigh experience. Bela feels exploited by Lehigh’s administration and views her experience as a far cry from the image sold to her on that April weekend years ago.
“Seeing Lehigh up close and personal, it’s a very different picture of what they portray when you’re applying here,” Bela said.
Reflecting on her D-Life and Lehigh experience, Bela said she thinks the university exploits its students’ identities in order to appear more diverse and, ultimately, make more money.
“They say that they’re really welcoming and they’re really willing to listen to queer and transgender students when that’s really not the case,” Bela said.
Bela said when Lehigh tries to approach BIPOC needs and concerns on campus, the university often uses a diversity panel, but turns to the same student voices every time. According to Bela, these voices almost always belong to cisgendered, straight men, which leave out the QTPOC (queer, transgender, person of color) experience.
Bela said when QTPOC try to voice their concerns to the administration, they are often pushed aside or directed towards the Pride Center as evidence of inclusion. But the Pride Center is not a one-size-fits-all solution for LGBTQ+ inclusion on campus.
“I love the Pride Center, but they’re very white,” Bela said. “They don’t understand QTPOC experiences.”
Bela co-founded OSTEM (Out in Science, Technology Engineering and Math) to create a space for QTPOC like herself to feel seen and heard.
There is also a difference between resources available and campus culture.
Bela said Lehigh is quick to point out how various groups and spaces exist to support marginalized communities on campus. However, Lehigh is not willing to address how the institution itself may contribute to the need for these spaces.
“(Lehigh) recognizes that we have all of these inclusive spaces, but they don’t recognize that they are part of the problem, or (that) they’re the reason why these spaces need to exist,” Bela said.
According to Bela, Lehigh policies such as academic probation and criminalization of marijuana use, despite Bethlehem’s recent decriminalization, disproportionately affect students of color and thereby QTPOC. She said that Lehigh needs to address homophobia, transphobia and its racist policies.
Bela has dealt with racism and homophobia both in and outside of Lehigh’s LGBTQ+ community.
When Bela does raise concerns about racism, homophobia or transphobia at Lehigh to her peers, she said she is often dismissed as “aggressive” or “mean.”
This defensiveness when a person is confronted with their own racism is often referred to as “white fragility” and can end important dialogues before they even begin.
Bela said it’s important to identify your privileges so that you can use them to help others.
“If you consider yourself an ally, that’s your job,” she said. “You have to recognize your privileges and recognize how they can benefit other people.”
Approaching the end of her time at Lehigh, Bela said she has met some incredible people and made many good memories, but that is not the whole story.
“I can’t hide the very negative effects that Lehigh has had on me or the people that I love,” she said.