Shippensburg University is home to a diverse population of people among its students, staff, faculty and administrators. While the local community may not be the most diverse place on earth, the university has worked to carve out welcoming spaces for those in our campus community.
Shippensburg University was recently honored with the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine. This award “recognizes institutions with a demonstrated commitment to diversity and inclusion,” according to an article on the ShipNow website.
SU was chosen for its “everyday commitment to diversity and inclusion,” ShipNow said. The Diversity Week Initiative, the Multicultural Students Association, online resources, and more were mentioned in the award announcement. I believe Shippensburg University — from the students to the administrators — is dedicated to ensuring, protecting and supporting diversity in our campus community. We have a variety of offices and staff dedicated to this value, such the Pride Center, the Women’s Center and the office of Equity, Inclusion and Compliance.
Despite all of these efforts, the SU community periodically encounters groups that value exclusion and embody hate toward those different from themselves.
A more infamous of these groups is the self-proclaimed “religious” demonstrators led by self-proclaimed “pastor” Aden Rusfeldt. This group brandishes signs with derogatory statements and slurs about women and the LGBTQ community and insult them with inflammatory remarks.
When this group comes to campus, daily life for students is disrupted. When this group comes to campus, we suffer mental and emotional harm during the demonstration and in the days after.
As a student, I want to share my firsthand account of these demonstrations.
I am negatively affected by this group for a few reasons. Coming from a private religious education, I grew up hearing authority figures tell me as a woman, I was not equal to the men around me. During my teenage years, repeatedly the same authority figures would say how sinful the LGBTQ community was. For several years, I was surrounded by hatred masqueraded as love and an “Us vs. Them” mentality that would shape my future self.
For several hours I was at both the April and September demonstrations this year. During the hours I was covering the scene in April, I heard James Ross, one of the demonstrators who has been seen with Rusfeldt at demonstrations in other communities, say a number of abhorrent and shocking things.
When the group was still outside of the Ceddia Union Building, Ross briefly spoke about women’s roles and repeatedly referred to them as whores. I remember him telling the women gathered around, “Our women are gonna preach to you whores later, you just wait, you just wait.”
When onlookers tried to rebuff him, Ross mockingly said, “Yes, no hate is welcome on this campus. That’s why we need all the homosexuals to leave and then it will be very peaceful.”
After moving to the Resiner Dining Hall lawn, Ross began to tell those gathered that they needed to find Jesus. While engaged with an onlooker, Ross told her “you’re a lesbian, you’ll never find God no matter how much you search.”
When Ross said women should dress modestly, a student quoted scripture, Matthew 5:28-29, to him. The verse says a man should gouge out his eyes if he looks at a woman with lust. In response, Ross told the crowd, “I don’t look upon you whores with lust, in fact every time I show up you hoes start to strip.”
Later in the afternoon one of the demonstrators even made a sign that said, “Sluts deserve Rape.” Another held a sign that said, “Fags are rapists, killers, pedophiles.”
These people are not an ordinary group of religious demonstrators. They are instigators who are fueled by hate and prey on the emotional vulnerability of young adults who are exploring the world and their identities for the first time on their own.
As a woman, as a member of the LGBTQ community and as a person of faith, I am deeply hurt, repulsed and disgusted by this group.
By the end of the night, I sat in my dorm room reflecting on the hours of turbulence. I felt awful, like there was a void where my stomach should be. I had identified as LGBTQ for a year and half by this time and never experienced such blatant, abhorrent and, yes, proud homophobia. I felt vulnerable and powerless.
That night, it was like time had reversed. It was like being 17 again, surrounded by a toxic faith community that left me questioning my self-worth.
I was a junior and if this was my experience, I wondered how much worse this could be affecting a first-year student. In the days following, I spoke with fellow students expressing our shock about the demonstrators.
The university did not leave us out to dry in April, but it could have done more for students.
I spoke with Stephanie Jirard, the chief diversity officer at SU, during the April demonstration, she said students can express their opinions through organizing events like sit-ins. She encouraged students to get together and support groups that may feel marginalized.
All of her sentiments are supportive and healthy. However, as students we are facing a mountain of other issues like academics, mental health, social lives, physical health, financial issues and COVID. We cannot heal properly on our own and combat this tsunami of hatred by raw willpower.
I was relieved and happy to hear Jirard openly say, “We at Shippensburg embrace everyone, welcome everyone and support every single student. We condemn hatred; we condemn discrimination.”
But when this group showed up in September, all we got was an email that acknowledged the demonstrators presence on campus, listed educational resources about the First Amendment and how students can exercise their voice in these situations.
Again, that information was helpful, but it was missing something. It was missing the acknowledgement of how these people hurt us. All I want to hear from our school is “We know you are hurting.”
As students, we want acknowledgement that this group causes distress and harm, because when all we hear is “its their First Amendment right” it feels as if our suffering is glossed over.
I am confident the university does not intend to dismiss our suffering out of hand, so I ask that instead of telling students to take the initiative to combat this hateful group and others like it, the university take the first steps.
University leaders and administrators are the ones who define the values and atmosphere of our campus community. They are the ones who have the power to make change on a university-wide scale.
Many students, and especially student leaders, are stretched so thin that we cannot start a new initiative on our own.
I ask that the university reach out to students and student leaders and ask, “What do you need from us when these demonstrators show up? How can we help keep you mentally and emotionally safe? What can we do to help you heal?”
The Higher Education Excellence in Diversity award is given to schools that meet INSIGHT magazine’s standards. “Our standards are high, and we look for institutions where diversity and inclusion are woven into the work being done every day across their campus,” Lenore Pearlstein, the publisher of INSIGHT Magazine, said, according to ShipNow.
Shippensburg University received this award because diversity and inclusion are not just stated values, but a part of who we are. To stay worthy of that award, we need our administrators to provide their acknowledgment, power and support to students. We need those in power to purposefully reach out, find out how to support us and put that information into action so we are prepared for the next time a hate group comes to campus.