On the Cover

Diversity Matters: Creating a Welcoming and Inclusive Niagara Campus

In his best-selling book "The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century," Thomas L. Friedman analyzed globalization and the shift required for countries, companies and individuals to remain competitive in a global market. In this global society, people, organizations and corporations will increasingly find themselves working across countries, nationalities and cultures.

This means that today's college students must be better prepared to take their places in a workforce that will come from a much wider geographic region and a much more diverse ethnic and cultural background than previous generations.

"The simple reality for NU is that if we are to prepare our graduates for success in a global economy, they must learn to work with people from many backgrounds," says Dr. Bonnie Rose, executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs. "If we are to achieve our goals for modest growth in the future, we also must attract and retain a more diverse student body. In order to accomplish this, we must be a campus that not only welcomes, but celebrates, diversity among our employees, faculty and staff."

This global shift can often take on two different perspectives. First, it focuses on educating and informing people about different backgrounds and cultures. Second, it welcomes people of different backgrounds into the community. For some organizations, this can be a major change in their vision for the future. For Niagara University however, it is really a reemphasis on its heritage and mission.

"One imperative of a Vincentian university is to reach out and provide educational opportunities to those who may be marginalized and who might not otherwise be able to afford the privilege of a Catholic private education," Rose adds. "The reality is that large numbers of people in these groups are from very diverse backgrounds."

Diversity in the Classroom
Because preparing students for success in an increasingly global marketplace is vital to Niagara's educational mission, the university's four colleges are taking steps to expand their curriculums and to meet these needs.

"We have an obligation to construct opportunities for our students to learn and engage with people who have backgrounds that are not similar to their own," Rose says. "This is important from the perspective of the values we wish to teach, but also from the pragmatic perspective of preparing our students to succeed in a global economy."

In the College of Arts and Sciences, for example, a minor in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies was launched last spring, and its women's studies program annually hosts events to commemorate Susan B. Anthony Day in February and Women's History Month in March. This year's events focused on women who made significant contributions to history but had been, in effect, written out, says Dr. Abigail Levin, assistant professor of philosophy.

The college's nursing department hosted a conference that discussed a variety of faith traditions and their implications for health care. Breakout sessions featured representatives from Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Christianity, and Buddhism.

The college also offers a long-distance international course in Latin American studies that is taught by a Colombian professor from the Universidad Javeriana.

The College of Business Administration's curriculum places special emphasis on the world marketplace and provides opportunities for students and faculty to engage in practical interaction with the business community on a regional, national and global scale. Its recently launched MBA health care administration concentration includes an opportunity for students to travel to Jamaica on medical missions. The college also participates in the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education Mobility Project, a joint endeavor with five other institutions in the United States, Canada and Mexico. This study-abroad/faculty-exchange program is designed to develop an integrated, tri-national course in comparative accounting systems.

A global perspective is an intrinsic part of the courses offered by the College of Hospitality and Tourism Management, and students meet a diverse group of international industry leaders each year at the college's annual convocation, in classrooms as speakers, and in their varied international options, including a newly launched dual degree program with the International University of Applied Sciences in Bad Honnef, Germany. The college's students also annually participate in the Thanksgiving celebration hosted by Journey's End Refugee Services, an organization that assists refugees resettling in Western New York.

Perhaps the most comprehensive model for successfully integrating diversity-related initiatives throughout the curriculum is the College of Education. In accordance with the college's strategic plan, diversity is incorporated into all areas of the program, including faculty development, curriculum, assessment of candidate performance, partnerships with high-needs schools, work with high-needs students on campus, and field and clinical experiences. The college's committee on diversity is charged with ensuring that the curriculum, field experiences, and assessments in all programs meet diversity outcome standards; that faculty and staff are knowledgeable about diversity with access to current theory and practice; and that faculty and candidates represent a balance of diversity.

Sylvia Valentin, associate professor of education, was involved in this effort. "We are aware of its importance and why we need to add issues pertaining to diversity," she says. "We're preparing our students to work with diversity, differing abilities, different belief systems. That's what's going to make them successful in their careers. We want them to have the skills, knowledge, and dispositions to be able to function in a world that is diverse."

All teacher candidates in the initial program are required to successfully complete three courses related to the education of students from different backgrounds and varying needs, and complete field experiences, teaching assistantships, and student teaching in schools that educate those student populations. Clinical faculty ensures that candidates work with students from a wide array of backgrounds, including ethnic/racial background, linguistic differences, gender, socioeconomic status, and disabilities.

The college's faculty has been involved in numerous scholarly and service activities related to the education of students from different cultural backgrounds and nearly half have been involved in international study and research on diversity topics. Their work is directly applied to the classes they teach, offering students cutting-edge pedagogy in these issues.

The college's graduate programs, which are offered both on campus and in Ontario, Canada, enroll international students with considerable linguistic and cultural diversity, providing additional opportunities for candidates to learn about ethnic heritages different from their own.

Welcoming a Diverse Campus Life
For Niagara students, the college experience expands well beyond the classroom. While Niagara's focus on learning and diversity is woven throughout the campus, the center for diversity may be the office of Multicultural International Students Affairs.

MISA seeks to help each student maximize their college experience through learning more about themselves as well as others. It creates programs that make Niagara an even more enjoyable place to be, and provides the information necessary for students to reach their goals.

The MISA department is charged with three tasks. First, MISA looks to educate the entire campus community on a variety of cultures and cultural issues. In addition, it serves the needs of Niagara's underrepresented students, and assists Niagara's international student population.

"Niagara is a great place for diversity to flourish because of our mission statement and what St. Vincent was about," says David Blackburn, director of MISA. "We inherently value people regardless of some of the superficial things that separate us."

MISA is designed to "keep the pulse of what the students want to experience culturally," Blackburn says, so that appropriate events can be hosted that meet their interests while providing an educational experience. Blackburn notes that often, the students his office serves don't participate in other extracurricular activities, so these events give them the opportunity to have a full campus life. Blackburn says these activities have helped "students of color become more empowered, become more excited about getting involved and getting to know people who are different from themselves. They are more ambitious to be part of groups that may not have people that look like them."

Some of the ongoing activities that the office sponsors include the MISA ball, a formal dinner dance; a "Just Dance" social that features the music, food, and dance from a particular ethnic heritage; and an international supper club that brings students to a variety of restaurants to sample foods from different cultures. There are also one-time events, like the recent "Bollywood Meets Nollywood" night, which focused on the food and culture of India and Nigeria. MISA's student board is instrumental in developing and carrying out these events, Blackburn says.

In addition to providing extracurricular activities, the MISA office also assists students who may be having a difficult time transitioning to the campus. Blackburn explains that he often helps students find things like calling cards to phone home or restaurants that serve foods familiar to them.

In addition to offices and initiatives that are operated by the university, student-run organizations and activities, like the Diversity Advocates, help to bring both awareness and change to the Niagara campus. The group, which is an officially recognized student organization, holds regular meetings each week and plans a variety of events including "Become a Match: Spark the Flame of Diversity and Inclusion," an interactive workshop that encouraged participants to confront their own belief systems about themselves and others.

Recognizing that campuswide changes will require the support and involvement of the entire university community, the group has held several dinners with faculty and administrators to update them about their progress, goals, and lingering concerns.

"It can't just come from the students," says Crystal Brea, the group's president. "It has to come from faculty and administrators as well because they ultimately create the environment in the classroom."

About the same time that the students were forming their group, a Faculty/Student Engagement Group was established. This group, co-moderated by Dr. Christopher Lee, assistant professor of political science, and Dr. James McCutcheon, assistant professor of Spanish, holds events and forums to help educate the university community on diversity issues and has worked with the Diversity Advocates on a number of projects.

"This group lets students and faculty and staff know that there are people who are concerned about these issues and it's not just words," Lee says. "There are people working to make Niagara a comfortable and a more welcoming place."

The group partnered with the Diversity Advocates to host "A Celebration of Unity and Hope," an event held on Inauguration Day 2009. The celebration provided an opportunity for the more than 1,000 in attendance to view the inauguration and for the university to use the historic day as an educational experience. Various classes prepared poster presentations on civil rights and the historic, political and other aspects of the inauguration, and remarks from across the political spectrum were offered.

"That's one of the standards of what we do," Rose says. "We have to have all views or it just disintegrates into political correctness."

The efforts of these organizations have been successful on the campus and serve as a complement to the university's committee on diversity, a committee that was established in 2007 to provide leadership and to develop, recommend and assess the campuswide activities related to diversity.

Chaired by Blackburn, and co-chaired by Valentin and Carlos Tejada, associate dean for graduate recruitment, the committee is charged to engage groups and individuals from throughout the campus community in making the university more diverse and inclusive.

The committee has several working groups and standing committees that focus on particular issues, such as curriculum, enrollment, research, persons with disabilities, and mission/respect. Many were in existence before the larger university diversity committee was established, an indication of the range of activities and program areas that have already begun to take steps to diversify the campus.

Niagara's Diverse Future
Through its continued efforts to diversify the campus, Niagara is creating opportunities for honest discourse on the underlying issues that are inherent in a diverse community.

This has helped the university recognize that, while there have been many positive changes in promoting diversity and understanding among the university community, there are still challenges to be met.

"There is a fine balance between clearly advancing our Catholic identity and promoting a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for all on campus," Rose admits. "As a small campus that traditionally draws its student population from a very homogeneous population, Niagara University has much more to learn, to do, and to accomplish if it is to become a more diverse institution. As we strive to do so, we must be guided by the ideals that stem from our Catholic identity, and motivated by the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul to translate those ideals into action."