The Lehigh-LGBTQ+ Experience: Feeling like a diversity token

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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. 

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12 Comments

  1. Bruce Haines ‘67 on

    I was following this story until Bela complained about Lehigh Academic probation. There is nothing racial or inequitable about the ground rules for Academic Probation. Holding students accountable is part of the process of learning.

    Secondly Bethlehem has not decriminalized marijuana in Lehigh County where Lehigh resides.

    Clearly Bela wants to remove all accountability for personal behavior & perhaps that should include simply receiving an attendance diploma when she graduates versus a conferred degree from our beloved institution of higher learning.

    • Lehigh resides in Northampton County. Confusing, I know. And it actually has been decriminalized.

      “In Lehigh County, we are going to enforce the state law, which means a small amount of marijuana or a small amount of drug paraphernalia is a misdemeanor under the state drug act,” DiLuzio said Wednesday. “Now in Northampton County, we’re going to give the discretion to the officer.” – Lehigh Valley Live article

      “Bethlehem City Council took a progressive stand when it unanimously decriminalized possession of a small amount of marijuana back in 2018, in hopes of preventing a minor arrest from derailing a person’s future job and school prospects.” -Lehigh Valley live article

    • A student actually on campus on

      if your case is that there is no racial component or inequity then I’m really curious why Greek life, primarily the predominantly white fraternities, get away with cocaine parties. Compared to the numerous QTPOC who have had cops called on them for marijuana, in some cases the POC being the one targeted and not the white person.

      Your username says ‘67, I sincerely doubt you’re on campus to witness any of this and if you are then you’re blind to the ACTUAL truth of what’s happening. It’s happened to my neighbors, my friends, and even acquaintances. A QTPOC person is telling you their experiences, part of the whole reason for this series and you are attempting to vilify her, the same attitude she is critiquing of lehigh.

      Bela wants Justice. If anyone is getting a free diploma with no consequences, let’s once again look at Greek life who faced a pause two years ago for their behavior and now are back and still throwing parties with coke, assaulting for women, and getting away with far more. She detailed in her experience that she started a club. She works infinitely harder at Lehigh than many people I’ve ever met. Being a woman in stem is hard enough. Being a POC woman in stem means she constantly is questioned and if I had permission I would absolutely name drop the awful professors who have treated her like garbage in class when she was one of like three women in a male dominated class. She’s good at what she does so she’s not asking for a freebie. You, however, read the article and decided to say that a QTPOC woman was asking for a freebie when the laws regarding marijuana are outdated and ridiculous.

      Also if your complaint is about marijuana, please join the rest of society and stop viewing it as “reefer madness” and just accept that some people use it for anxiety or other medical reasons.

    • Lehigh University is actually in Northampton County, part of the city limits of Bethlehem (where the city council voted to heavily decriminalize possession of cannabis). Google is free.

    • There are several things not only factually wrong with this comment, but condescending and racist as a whole.

      Firstly, “commitment to accountability” and racial inequity can and DO exist at the same time. On a broader scale, look at the U.S. carceral system. On Lehigh’s campus, talk to the students who are racially profiled by LUPD. Lehigh is not exempt from the trends that exist within punitive systems just because it’s an academic institution.

      Secondly, Bethlehem resides in Northampton County. In 2018, the city unanimously passed a unique ordinance to decriminalize marijuana. The Brown & White have actually covered this ordinance in articles over the past year.

      Thirdly, Sky has invaluably contributed to academia at Lehigh. Her founding of oSTEM is not only a celebration of identity, but an invitation to change & expand Lehigh’s STEM fields. She excels in her studies & innovates every space she exists in on campus. Your quip about “attendance diplomas” is beyond offensive and leaves me shocked your comment was approved at all.

    • If the case is that there is no racial component or inequity then I’m really curious why Greek life, primarily the predominantly white fraternities, get away with drugs at their parties. Compared to the numerous QTPOC who have had cops called on them for marijuana, in some cases the POC being the one targeted and not the any other person.

      Your username says ‘67, I sincerely doubt you’re on campus to witness any of this and if you are then you’re blind to the ACTUAL truth of what’s happening. It’s happened to my neighbors, my friends, and acquaintances. A QTPOC person is telling you their experiences, part of the whole reason for this series and you are attempting to vilify her, the same attitude she is critiquing of lehigh.

      Bela wants Justice. If anyone is getting a free diploma with no consequences, let’s once again look at Greek life who faced a pause two years ago for their behavior and now are back and still throwing parties with drugs harsher than weed, assaulting women, and getting away with far more. She detailed in her experience that she started a club. She works infinitely harder at Lehigh than many people I’ve ever met. Being a woman in stem is hard enough. Being a POC woman in stem means she constantly is questioned and if I had permission I would absolutely name drop the awful professors who have treated her like garbage in class when she was one of like three women in a male dominated class. She’s good at what she does so she’s not asking for a freebie. You, however, read the article and decided to say that a QTPOC woman was asking for a freebie when the laws regarding marijuana are outdated and ridiculous.

      Also if your complaint is about marijuana, please join the rest of society and stop viewing it as “reefer madness” and just accept that some people use it for anxiety or other medical reasons.

      If it pleases the brown and white gods, I would appreciate my comment being posted because I’m not being mean I’m just trying to educate an older fella on how he’s wrong :)))

    • Hi Bruce, I have a small issue with two things you said. One being that you said there is nothing racial with academic probation so let me educate you. Minority students at Lehigh especially the Black and Hispanic population is disproportionately affected by academic probation more than white students. This is because they are the majority of students who benefit from financial aid. Unfortunately for these students, financial aid can be taken away from them (their only means to afford school) if the mess up on one semester. Additionally, many students of color who attend Lehigh did not go to private schools or get paid tutoring to do well in classes so they may not be as ahead as their peers who receive that extra support.
      On the other hand, marijuana is actually legal in Bethlehem if you do your research and minority students are disproportionately affected by consequences of having it whereas a cop will play baseball with drunk white students off campus while multicultural parties are shut down right away. Here you can see there is obvious discrepancies between straight white students and Queer people of color.

    • Lehigh Student on

      “Secondly Bethlehem has not decriminalized marijuana in Lehigh County where Lehigh resides.”

      Lehigh University is actually in Northampton County, where decriminalization is upheld.

      I am not sure how questioning policies that disproportionately affect students of color = removing all accountability for personal behavior. And it is extremely rude to suggest that a hardworking member of our community, both in and out of the classroom, should not be given a degree.

    • Amy Charles '89 on

      Bruce, let me just tell you:

      I love Gen Z.

      For years and years, you’ve been posting your racist, bigoted-every-which-way runny garbage on this site. And now the kids aren’t having it. Or you.

      Lehigh people: Bruce is the managing owner of the Hotel Bethlehem. Every time Lehigh holds an event there, or reserves blocks of rooms, it puts money in his pocket. If you’re not interested in Lehigh’s funneling money to Bruce, I’d suggest going to admin with a request to shift business away from Hotel B. until Bruce is no longer involved and has no stake. While Hotel B. is lovely, there are other lovely hotels in the area.

  2. I was following this story until Bela complained about Lehigh Academic probation. There is nothing racial or inequitable about the ground rules for Academic Probation. Holding students accountable is part of the process of learning.

    Secondly Bethlehem has not decriminalized marijuana in Lehigh County where Lehigh resides.

    Clearly Bela wants to remove all accountability for personal behavior & perhaps that should include simply receiving an attendance diploma when she graduates versus a conferred degree from our beloved institution of higher learning.

  3. Lehigh Student on

    “Secondly Bethlehem has not decriminalized marijuana in Lehigh County where Lehigh resides.”

    Lehigh University is actually in Northampton County, where decriminalization is upheld.

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