Diversity remains a vital topic in the United States, especially after a summer filled with social unrest. Private universities in Nebraska recognize its importance, making the shift towards more inclusive models as they begin adapting offices of diversity and inclusion.
To Lawrence Chatters, Midland University’s chief diversity officer and the vice president of student affairs, diversity and inclusion are important in fostering an open-minded campus that allows students to feel like they belong.
“I think it’s important to create a community that’s inclusive because our students don’t only live on campus,” Chatters said. “They’re also in the community. I think that where they live, having a space that is inclusive is important.”
Chatters is also active within the Fremont community. He partners with Fremont Public Schools to promote inclusion because the school system does not have a position devoted specifically to diversity. He is also the chair of the Multicultural Inclusion Committee of Fremont and works toward community-based inclusivity.
His main focus at Midland is ensuring that students and faculty are presented with a space to express their culture and identity on campus and sharing those perspectives with fellow students and staff.
While Midland does not explicitly ask students what their background is, Chatters estimated that 25% of the school’s 1,200 students are from an ethnically diverse background. African American students make up around 14% of the student population, while about 5% come from a Latino or Hispanic background and an estimated 5% are of Asian, Pacific Islander or Native American heritage.
“Representation is important, but the other thing that’s important is creating space for our students to share their perspectives and talk about controversial issues that are happening, such as the election,” Chatters said.
On Nov. 12, Chatters led a workshop on civil discourse that focused on discussing reconciliation and healing after a highly polarized election. Aside from arranging workshops, Chatters’s daily objective is making sure that students, faculty and staff feel like they belong on campus. He does this through leading and participating in inclusion and equity training, making sure that students have specific on-campus groups available to them and “checking the temperature” on campus to make sure any controversial issues are resolved civilly.
“All throughout my education, I was challenged to think differently,” he said. “I was challenged to open my mind to different concepts, and I think that’s the spirit of inclusion — being open to understanding someone else’s culture, their experience and seeing each person as an individual who has a unique experience.”
In the past year, new student organizations aimed at minority groups began on campus, notably the LGBTQIA+ group PRISM and the university’s Black Student Union. These organizations provide a space for students from different backgrounds to come together and share their experiences.
Chatters also said that Midland’s Black Student Union was instrumental during the Black Lives Matter movement over the summer. The group arranged a peaceful protest earlier this summer in the wake of Geogre Floyd’s death, and the protest saw community participation in the majority-white city.
Following the success of the student protest and PRISM’s success in membership numbers and campus support, other student organizations are in the works for this year. These include a women’s empowerment group, a Latinx student group and a group for international students.
“We’re just training the next generation of people to be open, to be accepting, and I’ve seen that in many, many ways with this generation of students,” Chatters said. “They are open, they are accepting and they are willing to hear other people’s perspectives, and I think that’s awesome.”
By utilizing the National Survey of Student Engagement for Midland students’ opinion on diversity and inclusion, Chatters said he is seeing the needle of acceptance moving in a positive direction. Providing a variety of student groups and dialogue-based events allows Chatters to make change on a structural level, while personal change is happening as students from marginalized backgrounds are given opportunities to be heard.
Particularly, Chatters noted that when social unrest occurred across the country over the summer, the transition was smoother because those diversity groups were already in place rather than being formed in response to an incident.
“We didn’t have a lot of unrest on campus as a result of those things because I think our students feel that they have a space on campus where they can talk about those things,” he said. “Being able to oversee that process and being who I am here now, I think they really know that they always have an advocate in me, our president and our administration.”
At Nebraska Wesleyan University, similar opportunities are arising for the students that attend the small Lincoln college. Wendy Hunt, the assistant director for diversity and inclusion, is working to ensure that students’ fears are being heard.
NWU’s office of diversity and inclusion formed in August 2018 with Hunt as the main chair. However, Hunt said that it wasn’t working as well as she and others on the university’s action council would have liked. In response, a new committee of diversity, equity and inclusion is being developed for the campus as a whole. The new structure will be a better fit for NWU’s small campus. Through the work of faculty and student workers, the committee will be able to expand upon the work of its predecessor.
“It’s kind of hard when participation in programming has gone down,” Hunt said. “We’re in COVID-19. We have to limit what we’re doing and it makes it hard. We try to show movies and follow by discussion, but we’re trying to figure out next semester and what we can do to make people more engaged.”
In early November, the school held a discussion on the film “More Than a Word,” an analysis of Washington’s football team and their use of the slur “Redskins.” Hunt said that while attendance was low, the discussion was effective.
One of Hunt’s main focuses has become thinking of new ways to engage and inform students in ways other than holding events on Zoom.
A slideshow display from the university’s recently launched Intersectionality Resource Center is one such method of engagement. Each month, the center plays content highlighting different awareness months on a TV. Human Rights Month is recognized annually in December, so Hunt and others at the center are already trying to think of informative yet pandemic friendly programming.
The most important diversity-related event on campus outside of equity-based discussions is the “Let Love Overwhelm Fear” rally, which Hunt said occurs every February.
“I had about eight students talk,” she said. “One student talked about being raised in Catholicism, but then also being gay and coming to that topic with his family. There were non-binary students and a student from Mexico being told to speak English.”
The inaugural rally occurred in February 2018. According to the event’s webpage, students are asked to wear their Let Love Overwhelm Fear shirt one Friday a month at noon. The goal is to raise awareness for the campaign and invite other students to participate and share their fears.
“We kind of think about what’s holding us back and what we don’t understand,” Hunt said. “If we try to understand what we could breach that by, that’s one of the things we continue to do.”
At a campus where 16% of 1,700 students are students of color, with most of the diversity occurring within the graduate program, Hunt said that these conversations need to take place.
This fall, the campaign has covered such topics as racism and environmental justice. Upcoming events involve transgender bigotry and violence, as well as losing humanity. These events will include panels for students to hear unique and diverse perspectives.
Hunt said the pandemic has become one of the reasons for social change, especially after the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement over the summer.
“People were in a space where nothing else was going on and they realized, ‘Okay, these things are going on, and we really need to make a change,’” Hunt said. “This is, I think, the perfect time where more people are opening their eyes to what’s been going on and see different perspectives and how our country was built and realizing we can’t fix people, but we need to fix the systems in place.”
According to Hunt, the key to creating such a change is by having discussions. She emphasized the need to look at school policies and how they have changed throughout the years as student demographics become more diverse. This is where diversity and inclusion offices and programs come in.
“We are making sure that we understand that everything that happens in our institution, our classrooms, outside of classrooms, in the dining facilities and in housing are affecting not just some people, but everyone,” Hunt said. “I think it’s very important we know these things and move forward.”