Dimensions of Diversity
In 1896, Idaho’s only and still young university, where instruction had begun just four years before, sent its first graduating class across the stage in the dusty, unfinished Administration Building auditorium. The degree recipients that June day included two men and two women, an equal distribution of diplomas that, while not always the norm through the years, rang consistent with the land-grant charge to provide education and uplift to all the state’s citizens—a mission that remains central to the work of the university today.
“The University of Idaho has in many ways had diversity as part of its core mission from the beginning,” said President Chuck Staben. “We’re proud of that history, and realize that diversity is an essential part of becoming a 21st century leader, not just in teaching and learning, but in providing a transformative experience that prepares students for lifelong success.”
Since those early days on the Palouse, to its growth statewide and its evolution as a national research university, UI both addressed and grew alongside society’s changes in areas such as equal opportunity, integration and access. In many ways, UI has been a leader in practicing diversity, as a guiding idea to enrich the entire university community, and as a deeply integrated component of institutional life and learning.
UI’s dedication to diversity occurs at two levels, in the promotion of representational diversity among students, faculty and staff, and in the commitment of the university to inclusive diverse perspectives in policies, practices and curricula. More than just a philosophy, the work is an essential part of how the university prepares students.
“We know that for problem-solving in today’s world, you’ve got to bring people from many different perspectives together,” said Carmen Suarez, chief diversity officer and associate vice provost for student affairs. “If we want to produce people who have critical thinking skills, who can go out there and take their place as leaders in their chosen fields and walks of life, the ability to interact successfully and meaningfully with different types of people is one of the most fundamental contributions we provide.”
An Environment that Supports All People
Since that June day in 1896, the meaning and practice of diversity at UI has continually evolved—shaped by national trends, by thoughtful policy and planning, and by committed activism by UI leadership, students, faculty and staff.
In 2012, the University of Idaho unified its office of Human Rights, Access and Inclusion with five student services offices to create the Division of Diversity and Human Rights. Programs for students supported by this division include the Women’s Center; the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Asexual and Ally (LGBTQA) Office; the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP); the Native American Student Center; and the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
Created in 1972 during a rising tide of activism for gender equality, the Women’s Center has empowered generations of student leadership at UI. On a given weekday during the academic year, the center is a vibrant place where students—men and women both—meet inside the brightly colored walls to study, discuss issues and plan events and programs, everything from a staging of “The Vagina Monologues,” a groundbreaking play with a strong empowerment message, to a “Take Back the Night” violence-against-women awareness demonstration. Workshops, seminars, readings and guest speakers are an essential component of the center’s outreach to all students. It’s a place where students, especially female students, work, grow and find an empowered voice.
“You’re doing something with a purpose,” said Veronica Smith, a work-study student who helps plan programs and provide other services at the Women’s Center. “My biggest aspiration in life is simply making a difference. If you can give someone a chance at happiness that they couldn’t have, if you help them work through their problems, that’s something really valuable.”
The Women’s Center helped pave the way for other campus resource centers, such as the LGBTQA Office, which aims to promote an inclusive environment for students, faculty and staff of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions. The office offers a safe, welcoming gathering place for students and sponsors a variety of programs, guest speakers and events to support LGBQTA students and to raise awareness.
“We provide community and support for a student population that oftentimes isn’t visible,” said Julia Keleher, director of the office. “Unlike other forms of personal identity, sexual orientation and gender identity span all student populations on campus. Through the LGBTQA Office, students have a place to be themselves, from the time they begin until the time they leave the university. It’s a very exciting and electric time for our office, because the work continues to grow.”
On land that is the ancestral homeland of the Nez Perce tribe, the Native American Student Center flourishes as a hub of campus life for students such as Israel Hernandez. Originally from the Duck Valley Reservation in southern Idaho, Hernandez has found common interests and student support at the center. He’s joined the Vandal Nation drum group and participates in events and programs sponsored by the center, including the annual Tutxinmepu Powwow in Moscow.
“I come here every day,” Hernandez said of the center, “and I feel welcomed. You get your studying done, and it’s a place to learn. But you also gain the guidance that makes the college experience that much better. It’s like a second home.”
Student organizations provide another avenue for developing leadership, fostering friendships and realizing academic success. The Office of Multicultural Affairs, among other projects, supports UNITY, an umbrella organization for the UI’s 15 multicultural student organizations, run by and for students from many different backgrounds.
In 2014, Chelsea Butler, a senior studying psychology, brought new life to the Black Student Union as the organization's president. The rapidly expanding group meets every week, and has put together Black History Month panel discussions and other programming that benefit all students.
“I just thought it was important for students who identify as African-American to know that there is an organization where they can come and feel comfortable and talk about issues,” Butler said. “We’re here to support those students during the academic year.”
UI also strives to reach every student by weaving diversity into the general education curriculum, which was revamped in 2010 to include an American diversity course, as well as an international requirement, completed through coursework or study abroad experience. In addition, integrated studies seminars, taken in each student’s freshman, junior and senior years, demand critical thinking, open discussion and an exploration of diversity.
“The general education curriculum as we have it now is unique to the state of Idaho,” said Rodney Frey, director of general education, professor of ethnography and member of the task force that helped design the new general education curriculum.
The overhaul was made in light of the importance of diversity for success in today’s world.
“We know that employers want students to be able to critically think,” Frey said. “And in order to critically think they need to be able to understand different perspectives and different ways of knowing the world. We want our students to have the best toolkit possible as they go forth either into graduate school or into employment.”
Growing our International Footprint
As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, the University of Idaho is a destination for talented students, faculty and staff from outside our nation’s borders. Drawn by the singular opportunities at the state’s only national research university, international students from 72 foreign countries find an environment here that welcomes their talents and viewpoints. Students from abroad also enhance the experience for students from the states.
“Each of us needs to have a sound, multicultural education to be successful in navigating today’s world,” Suarez said. “International students, along with U.S. students with diverse backgrounds and experiences, teach us much about other cultures, how to interact as partners and how to learn from each other. That’s what college is about.”
International students comprise about 6 percent of the UI student population. As the university sets its sights on the future, President Staben has marked a goal of reaching 10 percent total student-body representation from international students.
“Increasing our representation among international students is a tremendous opportunity for UI,” President Staben said. “These students bring talent, new ideas and chances for all students to better connect to and learn from the global community. Growth in this area will help us continue realizing our leadership position among other national research universities.”
For more than a century since those early diplomas were earned, the no-longer dusty auditorium stage gleams in the Administration Building—the iconic anchor of the university’s statewide presence. The UI’s emphasis on diversity, both in people and perspectives, similarly centers UI as it moves into the next era of Vandal leadership—in the 21st century, a truly global stage.
Article by Brian Keenan, University Communications & Marketing