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Strategic diversity: easing the growing pains of a campus in transition

“Everybody has a different story,” said the Latina from Texas.

It’s a warm spring day, and she’s sitting in the shade of an umbrella-covered table outside of the library — a generous breeze the culprit of her slightly-unkempt ebony hair. With no notes and no preparation, she’s just a kid speaking her mind. But she knows exactly what she is trying to say. After all, she didn't choose to be a public relations major for nothing.

Just across the table a reporter hunches over his notepad, scrawling frantically to keep up with the pace of conversation — the European mutt still fair-skinned after the long, Iowa winter.

On the walkway beyond the patio, a blur of pedestrians are making their way through their day. There’s a half-dozen tables lined up, their occupants awkwardly trying to cater to the traffic — advocating this, speaking out about that, needing signatures for something or other. It’s called the “free speech zone” even when Anchorage, Miami, Honolulu and everywhere in between ought to be called a free speech zone.

When she was giving her interview, Alicia Huerta was, in effect, describing the scene around her on that windy day outside Parks Library — a scene analogous to the national mood. A mood that even Iowa State University, nestled in the heart of one of the least-diverse states in the Union (over 90 percent Caucasian according to the 2010 census), isn't immune to.

Diversity, inclusion, acceptance, parity, tolerance. These terms — and how we as Americans ought to deal with them — make up the bouquet of conversation about an issue currently swarming the nation. But societal change rarely comes easy, and might seem like an intimidating leap-of-faith to those who feel they are different.

“There are students who might be in a classroom of 200, and they may be the only person who is like them in terms of race, ethnicity or belonging to an LGBT group, for example,” said Martino Harmon, vice president for student affairs. “They may feel uncomfortable because other people might not seem aware or open to that.”

And for Huerta, opening up the conversation about our differences is the first step. She’s heading up Iowa State’s chapter of Define American — an organization geared toward initiating constructive conversation about how each one of us is different.

“We want to learn about people’s opinions on different topics,” Huerta said. “We don’t want to deny the way people think, because you can’t change people’s beliefs or values. We just want to share our stories, and have other people share theirs.”

According to the National Survey of Student Engagement, that’s exactly what students want: more opportunities to interact and engage with people who are different from them.

“Right now, you can choose to do it. But there really isn’t a structured way across the board to make sure our new students have those experiences,” Harmon said.

Learning in a diverse environment is more reflective of the adversity students will likely face out in the real world, Harmon said, and is one of the reasons ISU is promoting a more diverse and inclusive campus climate.

Every five years, Iowa State revises its “Strategic Plan” — a document created by a collaboration of faculty, staff and administrators to define the big picture goals and initiatives the university will strive for during the subsequent five year period.

Iowa State is currently in the process of finalizing the 2017-2022 plan, and early drafts of the document indicate that diversity and inclusion are in the forefront of administrator’s minds.

“We need to make sure that students who are from diverse groups, well, everybody is from some kind of diverse group, but we need to make sure that if students are having difficulty or feel that they’re not being included that they have a voice, that they have support,” Harmon said. “I think we have some good support programs, and we need to make sure that they reach all of the students that need them.”

The plan is categorized into goals and sub goals, and some of the first items listed are “enhancing a transparent diversity and inclusion ecosystem”, “providing learning opportunities to prepare students for lives and careers in a dynamic, global community” and “continued investment in areas identified by the Student Experience Enhancement Council.”

“None of these [goals] are different or brand new from what the university has valued or emphasized in the past,” said Steve Freeman, chair of the strategic plan steering committee. “Were not starting from scratch, but we see this plan as continuing to move this university in a positive direction.”

Events occurring nationally, in the media and even here on campus will often heighten the discussion around diversity and inclusion issues. Outside of Jack Trice Stadium last September, a woman, after uttering a racist comment, ripped a poster held by a student protesting against presidential candidate Donald Trump's comments on undocumented immigrants.

The incident gained national attention and intensified the concern amongst many students and student groups on campus, as several forums between students and administrators about how to handle these issues were put together in response.

“We’re not reacting, but we’re moving forward with our efforts,” Reg Stewart said, vice president of diversity and inclusion — a new administrative position recently created by the university. “I don't approach issues as problems that need to be solved. I'm much more formulaic. I see it as an opportunity to improve.”

But easing the growing pains of a diverse university, Harmon said, doesn’t end with having a well-written strategic plan and administrators tasked to handle these issues.

“We all need to remain engaged. We all have to work harder,” Harmon said. “Sometimes people think ‘We have a VP for diversity and inclusion, it’s all good now!’ but it doesn’t work that way.

“I’m glad [Stewart] is here, but him being here doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t have to do our work.”

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