The Center for Academic Innovation held an event Tuesday afternoon recognizing academic teams for their spring projects centered around diversity, equity and inclusion. This was the first in a series of six events, featuring eight teams giving a brief overview of their DEI project and how their project will serve specific groups on campus, ranging from undocumented students to the LGBTQ community.

The event began with Rachel Niemer, director for outreach and access at the Center for Academic Innovation, who echoed sentiments made at the 2019 DEI Summit by Van Jones, CEO of REFORM Alliance, political commentator and host of “The Redemption Project” and “The Van Jones Show” on CNN.

“Those of us working in higher education are in a very unique position,” Niemer said. “We not only get to shape the experience of the learners on campus, but as they move out into the broader world, we get to shape the broader social structures that they will impact.”

Niemer explained how the mission of these DEI projects is to understand and assist individuals from various minority communities, which is necessary for our society to succeed.

“Understanding individuals from communities that you haven’t been exposed to is critical,” Niemer said. “And most importantly, it’s not just about understanding them, but about developing the skills to learn how to understand them. These skills are critical for our own individual successes and also to the successes of our society.”

One of the featured projects presented at the event was introduced by Public Health senior Eryka Swank, whose team has partnered with the Spectrum Center to create an oral history project in celebration of the Spectrum Center’s upcoming 50th anniversary. The two-year project will consist of a collection of interviews from past and current LGBTQ faculty and staff and alumni who will share their personal stories as members of the LGBTQ community.

“Our big hope is that we can highlight stories that are not typically heard,” Swank said. “We know that LGBTQ people are oppressed, and that our stories and experiences are stigmatized so being able to give them platform and allow our stories to be preserved for generations to come and for years to come is a really awesome thing.”

Swank said she hopes the project will give a voice to those who are oppressed even within the LGBTQ community.

“We’re trying to get a kind of equity of whose stories are known. I think it’s important to me because the visibility and representation on our campus I think is really important and a lot of times, even within the LGBTQ community, there’s still privilege and oppression,” she said. “Sometimes the stories of the most privileged LGBTQ people are the ones that we know, and so being able to try to get at all of them and know all the stories, good and bad, all the experiences, good and bad, and somewhere in between, is really important to me.”

Kim Lijana, director of Center for Educational Outreach and part of the Undocumented Students Knowledge Community, introduced another project. Her team’s project intends to create a course to help educators understand and support undocumented students in their pursuit of higher education, both on campus and before they arrive on campus. The course will consist of three modules, titled “What does it mean to be undocumented?”, “How can we improve college access for undocumented students?” and “How can we support undocumented students to succeed in college?” 

“The first module … is really giving additional information for people to better understand because it’s very complex, and for many educators, it’s like this is their first step into better understanding that there are even undocumented students in their school,” Lijana said. “So, we’re sort of thinking about this trajectory to make sure that we’re providing educators the information that they need to support student; that we’re really empowering them to understand that there is something you can do, as well as inspiring them to take action.” 

Lijana said there are several things to be aware of when supporting undocumented students and encouraged reaching out to specific resources on campus for assistance.

“I would say on campus it’s very important to know that this is often an invisible community, and the only way you’re going to know is if the student discloses to you, and if that happens, you should be prepared to be supportive, and know that you don’t need to know everything,” Lijana said. “The whole idea is just to be there for the student, and then you can reach out to Undocumented Students Knowledge Community, and we can make sure that you have the resources and support that you need.”

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