This is a photo of Luis Olivas Herrera. He is the assistant director of the University of Nebraska at Kearney's office of diversity and inclusion. The office handles diversity initiatives at the university.
Luis Olivas Herrera is the assistant director of the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s office of diversity and inclusion. The department handles diversity initiatives at the university. (Photo courtesy of Luis Olivas Herrera).

In Nebraska, many of the state’s public universities have departments committed specifically to diversity. Such departments exist at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, the University of Nebraska Omaha and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. While Wayne State College does not have a department dedicated to diversity, it does have a council that advises the president on diversity issues.

The council’s primary task is to develop a diversity report, according to council members Becky Zavada and Karl Kolbeck. The report surveys various departments on campus to get a better feel for the school’s diversity levels.

At places like Wayne State, which Zavda said primarily serves rural areas of Nebraska, many students come from small towns. As a result, their college experience is really the first time they’re exposed to different cultures and viewpoints.

“Those are important life experiences,” Zavada said. “It’s good for all of our students to get to know people who aren’t exactly like themselves.”

Often, much of the work in promoting diversity comes from these departments hosting events on campus.

At UNK, around 20% of the student body identifies as a minority group, according to Luis Olivas Herrera, the assistant director of the school’s office of diversity and inclusion. The department deals with diversity initiatives centering on a wide number of minority groups.

“Anything and everything having to do with diversity, we do,” he said. 

Recently, the department hosted a march called “Walk in Her Shoes,” in which male athletes and members of fraternity life walked in heels and other shoes to get a feel for what women on campus face. The event, hosted in partnership with sororities on campus, raised over $500 for S.A.F.E. Center, a nonprofit organization that works with domestic violence victims. 

Olivas Herrera said the office also facilitates various trainings for staff members. It also operates the Loper Pantry, which stocks between 2,700 and 3,000 items each month for students who have difficulty getting enough food to eat. 

On Oct. 28, the school hosted a drag show sponsored by PRISM, a student organization focusing on the LGBTQIA+ community. Over 100 students attended the event.

“Many of those students had never been to a drag show before,” Olivas Herrera said. “I spoke to a group of international students, and they didn’t even know what a drag show was. Now they got to experience that here.”

At UNO, Cecil Hicks Jr. serves as the associate vice chancellor for diversity, equity, access and inclusion.

“We look at inclusion and we’re basically saying how do you create an environment that’s welcoming for all?” he said. “How do you create that environment that’s welcoming to programming, culture through representation throughout the entire UNO community?”

One of the ways the department accomplishes this is by focusing on suggested topics from the central administration of the University of Nebraska system, such as unconscious bias. 

The department partners with different colleges to host events and other programs. Recently, the department hosted a session where members discussed race and how it plays into how society operates as a culture. During the session, students discussed myths surrounding race and how race as a construct is at play in various situations.

Additionally, the school’s multicultural affairs department hosted several sessions this summer discussing topics like policing and public safety on campus. The sessions stemmed from the national and community efforts surrounding race this summer.

At UNL, approximately 20% of the student body consists of people from minority groups. Its most recent freshman class was one of its most diverse, according to Nkenge Friday, who works for the school’s office of diversity and inclusion.

The department is small, consisting of around 20 staff members. Friday serves as the department’s assistant vice chancellor for strategic initiatives. As such, she spends a lot of time working with academic leaders at the university. This time is spent developing strategic plans related to diversity and inclusion.

Often, she’s the first person people contact with questions about how the office operates and functions. She also deals with all communications coming out of the office through places like their website, their newsletter or social media.

The department centers much of its work around various events. For example, the office hosts events and features guest speakers during each of the cultural heritage months. Currently, the office is planning a new experience for Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January.

Student response to diversity initiatives is generally positive across the board at each of the universities.

Olivas Herrera credited much of that positivity at UNK to a strong sense of open-mindedness within the university community.

“We try to get our students, staff and faculty to understand the importance of diversity, especially in a world that is becoming more globalized, more diverse in itself,” he said. “When they graduate and go on to get a job, they have a brief understanding of what diversity looks like, which makes them a lot more marketable.”

According to Friday, student feedback is generally positive. However, there has been some constructive feedback about specific things the office is doing.

“By and large, students want to see more numbers, they want to see demographics,” she said. “We’re trying to create an opportunity on our website for people to retrieve that information.”

Hicks Jr. said UNO students have placed a positive spin on diversity by viewing it as an asset.

“Instead of saying ‘I don’t see color, I don’t see race,’ maybe it’s looking at it as you — whatever you identify as — bring a richness to our community, bring a richness to our culture,” he said. “We want to make sure that systemically, some of those barriers are knocked down.”

In working to eliminate barriers surrounding diversity, universities can teach students about different cultures. They can also provide students an opportunity to learn about each other from each other. That, Kolbeck said, is what he thinks the core of diversity in a college campus is.

“If we want to see positive change in this world, it has to start with education and understanding,” he said.

Universities must promote diversity so campuses can remain safe spaces for conversation to occur, Friday said. It also allows students to learn about various differences and help them better understand the world they live in.

“It talks about the need to broaden our understanding of a global world, our approach, our respect level,” she said. “It’s what the nation is, what the global world is.”

According to Hicks Jr., diversity is a key part of the fabric of how we operate as a society. He pointed to studies that have shown more diversity can lead to more innovation within your environment.

“You’re going to have better solutions, you’re going to have more thought-out solutions because you’re going to have some perspective,” he said. “You’re going to have a number of different experiences that create overall a better work product, better service, better community. If you can embrace the richness of the diversity and really appreciate the inclusion, it will lead to excellence.”