If you can say anything about UMKC, you can say that it is diverse. Situated in the heart of Kansas City, a range of people from diverse backgrounds call UMKC home. With the final listening session in UMKC’s series of report out, I was curious of what the leaders of the campus think and how they are making UMKC an even more welcoming community.
Jennifer Coldiron is the Director of Diversity Initiatives for the Division of Diversity and Inclusion. She is in charge of trainings, helps plan programming and events, and collaborates with Diversity Advocates, a program that provides knowledge to faculty, staff, and students to lead organizational change on campus. She and the Division of Diversity and Inclusion have created four categories of training programs for faculty, students, and staff since December of 2015.
Sheree Sims: What insights into diversity does your role provide?
Jennifer Coldiron: I have a chance to hear from a lot of different campus members about their challenges and successful attempts to promote diversity. The Diversity Advocate Group gives me an opportunity to hear from faculty, staff, and students what their challenges are and how they are either successfully handling them or how we can brain storm together to address them. I partner with Micah Thompson, the director of Affirmative Action to provide some training in response to grievance cases she’s working on. This role has led me to working with a lot of different committees and student organizations so that I hear directly from individuals.
SS: What is going well at UMKC regarding diversity? What do you think could be improved?
JC: I think that Dr. Wilson and the provost and the chancellor are right in taking an organization development approach, meaning that we have to do initiatives all at different levels and all at the same time to ensure we really transform the university. So that sounds like values clarification, training and development opportunities, events, faculty development, action planning within academic units and diversity advocates all at the same time.
I think that student training and development opportunities are needed, which in my own opinion need to focus first on racial and economic justice, and ways to make that available to students at times that are key such as Convocation Weekend, summer break, Bridge programs, during Welcome Week, and during residential life are some of the areas we are looking at.
SS: Other than training, do you think there are enough resources on campus for faculty and students of diverse backgrounds?
JC: I think there’s always more that could be done. Some of the things in place of training and development are organizations, which I think is key; to be organized with other people to create a critical mass of people with the same concerns so that you could voice them together in solidarity.
SS: Do you think the events at Mizzou could have occurred here?
JC: Yes. Do I think a swastika could have been painted on the wall with human feces? Do I think that a person could yell a racial epithet? Yes. Do I think our chancellor or provost could not respond to a question to describe institutional racism? No. I believe both of them not only have a clear understanding of institutionalized racism but many forms of institutionalized inequity. I think there are opportunities for us to tighten up our response to biased incidents.
Niranjan Nuthalapati is a graduate student from India and has a Masters in Electrical Engineering. He recently took on the role as Senator of the International Student Council, last semester shortly after he made UMKC his new home. His role requires him to act as the bridge between the International Student Council and the Student Government Association. He spoke about his experiences as an international student and the services that the International Student Council provides to its members.
SS: What particular challenges do you think international students face? How do they navigate them?
Niranjan Nuthalapati: International students are challenged with adapting to a new educational and cultural environment and getting used to a different climate. They are able to navigate them by slowly adapting to those changes.
SS: What improvements do you think should be made to improve diversity and the campus community? What is being done well?
NN: There are a lot of activities from different organizations going on. There should be more communication across the organizations and across the community.
SS: What has been your personal experience as an international student at UMKC?
NN: I started appreciating the past 23 year of my life much more. Back in my home country, I never worried about food because my mom always cooked it. [Now] I have to cook my food daily. I see how difficult it is to cook tasty food, which I always complained about to my mom. Now I understand how difficult it is to manage finances. It’s quite challenging to learn how to live individually, which I like about the U.S.
SS:g> What does diversity mean to you?
NN: [It means] becoming more cross-cultural and able to accept the culture of others.
I met with Gayle Levy, a Foreign Languages professor at UMKC who is also involved with the International Student Council. She acts as a faculty advisor for the organization.
SS: How did you begin your role with ISC?
Gayle Levy: Quoc Mai, an international student from Vietnam who graduated last August with a degree in biology, He wanted to start it because he felt like international students, as a whole, didn’t have a unified voice. There was the Muslim Student Association, the Indian Student Association, you know you have all of these separate groups, but not one unified voice or one unified political presence in the way that the different units have different councils. So he asked me if I’d be the faculty advisor and I said ‘yes,’ because the international element on campus is really important to me, and I want there to be a lot of international students. It was started so that students can have a voice in student government and to provide information and resources to international students, especially when they first get here.
SS: What challenges do you think are associated with being an international student?
GL: Students can often feel lost as they get acquainted with a new city or culture. The very first thing ISC tries to do is help students deal with cultural differences, such as how genders might interact differently or interacting differently with a professor. International students might also be subject to racism, sexism, and homophobia. In my case, I always forget that in France banks are closed on Mondays. And so I go out of habit on Monday and in the end I am frustrated when I see the locked door.
SS: What does diversity mean to you?
GL: It is a campus that’s about color and also about gender, sexual orientation, ability and age. UMKC is quite diverse, especially in age and experience, which is one of the things I love about UMKC. There is also a diversity in learning styles – my students learn in different kinds of ways which challenges me to teach in different ways. [Also,] I love that people have different signs of their religions. I want a diverse campus to be about sharing their cultures and beliefs.
Osasere Eke is a junior majoring in Biology. As President of the African Student Cultural Organization she works with the Office of Student Involvement and partners with African organizations on other campuses.
SS: What does the African Student Cultural Organization do to help students?
Osasere Eke: We come together to support each other. We want to get across the idea that Africa is a vast country. One of our goals is to get students from Africa more acclimated to student life. We also make them aware of activities and events that are going on at UMKC and in the city.
SS: As a woman of color, have you ever experienced discrimination at UMKC?
OE: From faculty members? No. But I have experienced microagressions, from students mostly.
SS: Is there anything that you think needs improvement?
OE: There should be more campus events that show diverse backgrounds.
SS: DO you think there are enough resources for faculty, staff, and students of diverse backgrounds?
OE: Yes. I encourage students to take better advantage of the resources available to them.