Holidays at CSU: Education, celebration, understanding

Decorating committee with inclusive holiday display at Collaborative for Student Achievement at Colorado State University.

From left: Jose Valdez, Terry Richardson, Sam Desta, Aaron Escobedo and Carla Barela-Bloom, members of the the Holiday Decorating Initiative for
the Collaborative for Student Achievement. Not shown: Jordan Ervin, Melanie Nichols, and Brett Caskey.

Depending on the calendar and how you count, about 20 holidays important to people of various faiths take place between Nov. 20 and Jan. 8 each year. With nearly 30,000 students and 6,000 faculty and staff – more than the city of Northglenn – the Colorado State University campus community includes individuals from all the United States and more than 100 countries around the world, a population noticeably more diverse than the rest of Larimer County.

So, it’s a good bet that every one of those winter holidays holds some significance to someone on campus, but traditionally, only those important to one culture have been recognized. Because of the deep personal meaning holiday celebrations can have, not honoring them can leave people feeling left out during what should be a festive time for all.

“Expressions of faith and belief are an important part of who we are as individuals,” explained Christopher Watkins Lamb, spiritual care resident in the CSU Health Network. “For people who observe the dominant holidays, inclusion can feel like giving away a piece of ourselves. Others, though, may never have had a chance to bring their full selves to their larger community.”

Students with minority beliefs have long struggled with their identity on campus, Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik said. And while belief is important, it is perhaps more important to not define ourselves or others simply by affiliations.

“Religious, political, sexual affiliations don’t define the core of a person,” said Gorelik, also a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy. “I have students in my classes from all denominations, and I try to create an atmosphere of healthy engagement. We’re all human beings, and we should connect on a personal level.”

For a while, the University decided that the best way to address the issue was to strictly adhere to the First Amendment ideal of separation of church and state, and there could be no official celebration of religious holidays on campus. Any of them.

That may have been the “safest” policy, but it had its own consequences, not all of them positive. In fact, a presentation from the Division of Student Affairs is titled “Is it OK to Talk About Faith, Belief and Inclusion at CSU?” (Spoiler alert: Mostly yes.)

Shift to inclusion

With the adoption of the Principles of Community in 2015, CSU began to reframe the issue around the idea of inclusion. How could the University ensure that all voices can be heard and honored and none diminished?

That’s a thornier challenge than it might seem.

For the past year, the Faith, Belief and Cultural Inclusion Committee, a subcommittee of the President’s Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, has been wrestling with how to create and communicate university-wide best practices to assist with office decorations and celebrations. The committee includes faculty, staff, students and members of the Fort Collins community from a number of different faith traditions and perspectives.

“We worked really hard to develop guidelines for best practices, not create a university policy,” according to Ria Vigil, director of diversity education and training, and a member of the committee. “We wanted to be mindful of religious beliefs, not just come up with a list of what you can’t do. It was important to create a space to recognize that other people have different ways to celebrate, and that’s not something you can put into a policy.”

Vigil’s advice is to look at the end of the year as a time to celebrate the accomplishments of the department, to use the holidays as a time to reflect and look forward, and most importantly, talk about things like decorations as a staff.

“Inclusion takes intention, not just doing the things we’ve always done,” she said. “Include all the voices in decision making, allowing and recognizing other perspectives.”

Following that advice, holiday decorations can open up key communication within campus workplaces.

“Take the pulse of your community, and educate yourself a little bit to acknowledge that not everyone shares your perspective,” Lamb suggested. “We don’t just have to find what we have in common, but can celebrate our differences for being differences, and allow each of us to bring our full selves to any discussion. There is resilience in diversity.”

Education and celebration

That was the approach adopted this year by the Collaborative for Student Achievement, which just combined the two separate offices of CASA into one space in the new stadium, and took the opportunity to create a truly welcoming atmosphere for all students, their families, and other visitors.

“We had tried celebrating just the seasons, Fall, Winter, Spring, without mentioning any specific holidays, and no one was happy with that,” said Aaron Escobedo, assistant director for the Community for Excellence Scholar Programs within the Collaborative. “People felt like they had something taken from them.”

Escobedo, who is quick to point out that his department doesn’t have the complete answer or perfect solution, explained how a committee formed to create an inclusive observance that honored everyone.

As befitting an institution of higher education, the committee members – who come from faith traditions ranging from “seasonal Catholic” and Eastern Orthodox to Islam and Judaism – started by researching the different holidays during the season.

“We really nerded out on holidays,” said Carla Barela-Bloom, a member of the committee.

The next step was to solicit authentic artifacts symbolizing each holiday from members of the department. Someone contributed a Buddha for Bodhi Day (Dec. 8), another borrowed a gilded plate with an image of the Virgin Mary from his mom for the Feast Day of Guadalupe (Dec. 12), and yet someone else brought in a gnome and candles to represent the Winter Solstice (Dec. 21). A lighted Christmas tree to collect ornaments with memories for team members sits next to a menorah on a table displaying all the collected artifacts in the lobby of the Collaborative.

On the actual celebration day, the artifact representing that holiday and a short explanation of its significance takes center stage on the table.

Escobedo said the display has been a hit, not only with employees who stop by to see the celebration of the day but students who are waiting to meet with their advisers. Escobedo says it has created an atmosphere of openness and sharing about the holidays and beliefs throughout the department.

“It’s really exciting to people starting to decorate their offices with items that are important to them, and to ask questions about others in the department about what’s important to them,” Escobedo said.

“The key is respect and authenticity and inviting all voices to the conversation,” he added. “We’ve made mistakes, but if we are all willing to learn and understand each other, it really works to build a great workplace atmosphere.

The Collaborative will hold a potluck featuring foods of different cultures before the end of the year, and the display will continue year-round. The committee is already researching holidays that fall within Spring semester, Escobedo said.

Happy holidays to all.