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Tunnel armed with tissues and tolerance

When entering the Tunnel of Oppression, participants are warned that they are about to encounter an emotional experience they can exit at anytime. Immediately they are confronted with prejudice perspectives, racist remarks and ignorant attitudes.

“Why don’t you dress like a normal person, you faggot?” a woman says to a transgendered person outside of a bathroom.

The tunnel explores different derogatory stereotypes and oppressive social situations that many students deal with daily on college campuses and across the world.

“It’s something we felt important to keep going,” said Claire Gonyo, the Andros 1 Residency Life coordinator. “Some people think discrimination and oppression has stopped in our society, but it hasn’t.”

Sophomore Stanford Kefalos, a secondary education major, said after going through the Tunnel of Oppression he realized that a lot of people are still uninformed.

“There are a lot of people who don’t know a lot about different people,” he said. “That’s really sad.”

Upon entering the tunnel, Kefalos said he thought it would be mostly about racism, but was pleased to find it dealt with many other issues. He said he is surprised at the ignorance and racism that still exists in all cultures.

“I hate the word ‘cracker.’ The n-word is bad and so is cracker. No one should be allowed to say that,” he said.

Located in Cypress E, the tunnel is in its fifth year of production, with various tweaks and differences occurring through the years.

Last year, the tunnel opened with a Nazi shouting, at the participants. This years does not feature anything as interactive.

However, it isn’t unique to USF. The University of Maryland, Pennsylvania State University and Syracuse University have also had their own tunnels of oppression.

The tunnel is open from 6 to 9 p.m. and will continue until Wednesday.

Actors participating in the Tunnel of Oppression are mostly Resident Assistants (RAs) and have experienced the tunnel as participants in previous years.

Jamie Rich, an RA for Delta and a senior majoring in social work, said that she has seen the tunnel for the past three years and thinks that it is a great message to propagate.

“It’s an emotional experience, it’s not unusual to see people cry,” she said.

The tunnel outlines different areas of oppression including racism, gender identity, homosexuality, religion, ableism – being mentally or physically unable to do something – body image and the genocide in Darfur. The skits are written in a college setting to better connect with students.

“We definitely tried to bring all of them to the college setting,” Gonyo said. “Students relate to them within their own setting.”

Ebony Jones, an RA for Castor and a junior majoring in criminology, was an actress in the Darfur skit. Her character tries to make her roommates more aware of the genocide in Darfur, but they are more interested in watching American Idol.

“What is American Idol going to do for you?” Jones’s character said. “People are dying in Darfur everyday.”

Jones said the tunnel puts things in perspective for students.

“It puts a face to what is happening,” she said.

Jones also said that she, as an actress, benefits from the tunnel.

“It’s a new experience to teach people how to be diverse,” she said. “It helps myself become more aware.”

During the coming-out skit, a woman tells her roommates that she is a lesbian. She then overhears them discussing how they are uncomfortable with her homosexuality. One roommate even suggests moving out.

Katrina Klett, a junior majoring in history, is an actress in the coming-out skit. She is one of the roommates who are initially uncomfortable, but sticks up for her gay roommate later on. Klett said that saying oppressive words like “dyke” upset her, but she feels like she is helping.

“I’m very passionate about liberal rights,” she said. “To have to say (the derogatory) words myself, it hurts me.”

The skit about racism dealt with a person who felt she did not belong to either race. Neither white nor black, she was rejected by her peers of both colors. Cynthia Holifield, a junior majoring in sociology, played the part of the “Oreo chick” and said she identified with the part on a personal level.

“In the past, I’ve been called an Oreo,” she said.

Holifield said that it is interesting to see how deep people can be in college.

“To get the different audiences and different reactions is pretty cool,” she said.

After the participants travel through the Tunnel of Oppression, there is a facilitation period where they sit with graduate students or non-student employees in resident life services and talk about their experience with the prejudices they have faced in their life. The discussion is completed with a slideshow that elaborates on each skit and provides information on how to seek counseling, along with a variety of posters to sign. The posters ask how the participant feels after they go through the tunnel, what they learned, how to overcome issues of diversity, what they can do to stop oppression and to explain a time when they were oppressed.

“It will give participants a chance to express their feelings, share their thoughts (and) be challenged,” Gonyo said.

Participants are also asked to sign a declaration of acceptance, which pledges that the individual will “help keep diversity a priority in an ever-changing and growing world and make their world a better place for all.”

David Betsch, assistant director for resident life and a facilitator, said he is involved with the tunnel to make a difference.

“Our college students are our future,” he said. “My job with housing is to change the world, one student at a time.”

Each facilitator is armed with tissues and tolerance. The facilitators let the participants know that the conversation will be confidential and they ask all to be understanding and listen to each other.

Betsch said he enjoys being a facilitator because he gets to communicate with the participants.

“I enjoy the conversation, the open-ended questions,” he said. “It pulls the whole experience together.”

Gonyo said she hopes those who experience the Tunnel of Oppression will come out more informed.

“(We’re) working to help students grow holistically,” she said. “Sometimes just one person standing up and saying something makes a huge difference.”