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Engaging Minds aims to break the barriers of multiple stigmas and stereotypes

The student organization seeks to provide others with a greater understanding of stigmas involving law enforcement, gender identity and mental illnesses

Scott Sefranka, a community advisor, and his service dog, Bigby Wolf, talk about service dogs at the Salute to Service event hosted by Engaging Minds on Feb. 18, 2017 on ASU's West campus.

Scott Sefranka, a community advisor, and his service dog, Bigby Wolf, talk about service dogs at the Salute to Service event hosted by Engaging Minds on Feb. 18, 2017 on ASU's West campus.

A developing on-campus student organization urges students to kick down their mental barriers and educate themselves about the University's diverse community.

Engaging Minds seeks to stop various stereotypes and stigmas that appear on and off-campus about various social discussions regarding law enforcement, LGBT groups, gender identity and mental illness, the organization’s president and ASU graduate Michelle Di Muria said. 

The organization has been around since last November, but it wasn’t until this semester that they started actively participating in the community, Di Muria said. She also said she started the organization because she had been bullied for a majority of her life.

“I’ve been made to feel unwanted because I am not your average woman,” she said. “I do have curves. I wanted to provide an organization where people can feel safe. They can express their concerns when it comes to stigmas and stereotypes and know that we will do everything we could with our resources to provide the education needed.”

What is a stigma?

Bethany Pittman, a forensics sophomore and the planning committee chair for Engaging Minds, said she wants to create a more inclusive environment at ASU.

“Stigmas are negative connotations (where) you associate one thing with another thing,” she said.

Di Muria said the issues that surround stereotypes and stigmas are sometimes overcomplicated.

“Stigmas and stereotypes are often simple problems with straightforward solutions,” she said. “In general, the solutions are education and awareness along with opening the lines of communication.”

Di Muria said many people who are inexperienced with certain communities follow the norm instead of stopping the stereotypes that burden them.

Breaking stigmas through social events

Di Muria said her goal is to create a more diverse, welcoming atmosphere for ASU’s students.

“We want everyone to feel like they’re a Sun Devil officially or unofficially,” she said.

On March 17, Engaging Minds hosted an event, How to Get a Service Dog, to help bring awareness to the importance of having a service dog and provide resources that will answer anybody’s questions about the four-legged helpers, Di Muria said.

Di Muria said Engaging Minds has 20 events planned for next semester. The main events would include a six-part series of talks about mental health that will take place from September to November.

“We will be bringing in nonprofit organizations that deal specifically with various mental illnesses,” Di Muria said. “We also have some guest speakers coming. Last year, we had 27 organizations come to our mental health week. This year we’re planning for an even higher attendance with 100 and our goal is 200.”

The series of talks will include topics such as suicide preventionPTSD and mental illness within communities such as law enforcement, LGBT, veterans and Native Americans.

Di Muria said the organization is rapidly growing with 24 active members and support from several ASU faculty.

“Even if it’s a small amount of impact, it’s the most amazing feeling in the world to know that we are helping students each and every day on campus,” Di Muria said.

Why the members got involved

Bethany Pittman said she heard about Engaging Minds from Di Muria and jumped at the idea.

“I’m a community assistant, so I live in with the freshmen and help them get through their freshman year and a lot of problems that I’ve seen are just with stigmas that haven’t been broken yet,” Pittman said. “There’s a lot of need for diversity training.”

Pittman said she has been a student at three different college campuses and said she had never heard about anything like Engaging Minds at the other campuses.

“The work we’re doing in Engaging Minds is beautiful because it’s so difficult to go through life without all the information,” she said. “I feel like it’s not even necessarily people’s fault that there are stereotypes and stigmas because they’re not dealing with all of the information.”

Zev Goldberg, a forensic chemistry freshman and the Engaging Minds marketing committee director, said he enjoys the club because of the environment.

“It’s an environment where everybody, for the most part, talk very openly about how they feel and how to better the community,” he said.

Goldberg said he liked the idea of Engaging Minds because they are trying to make a difference for everybody and ensuring everybody is given the respect they deserve.

“The process that we officially go through is we target different ideas of what people have about each other — see what’s accurate, what’s inaccurate,” he said. “It’s just a case by case basis.”

Goldberg also said he saw a lot of people get bullied and are mistreated when he lived in Tucson.

“So I was thinking, this club is trying to remedy those ideas and help people who have these problems,” he said. “It made me think ‘Oh, I would like to help with that.’”

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