Five students spoke about diversity strengths and weaknesses at APU

On Feb. 5, the Center for Diversity, Equity and Inclusive Excellence (CDEIE) hosted a student panel entitled “How Is Our Campus Climate, Really?” The panel was directed towards APU’s Diversity Ambassadors — a group of administrators and staff who seek to reach “inclusive excellence” through diversity on campus — and was presented by six students in leadership roles on campus.

Though the CDEIE hosts a diversity ambassador luncheon every year, this was the first time a student panel was involved. Cecelia Kerr, an undergraduate research intern for CDEIE, hoped staff and faculty present at the event would take the time to hear different perspectives.

“They don’t always get to hear from students who are from diverse backgrounds, whether that be race, gender, ethnicity [or] sexual identity,” Kerr said. “So I think it’s going to be an important event to get the chance to hear that articulated from students who may have had issues on campus.”

The students came from a variety of leadership backgrounds, particularly within the Student Government Association (SGA) and ethnic organizations on campus. However, despite wanting to hear from diverse backgrounds, no one from APU’s LGBTQ+ care and connection group was contacted to participate in the event. Organizers said this was an unfortunate side effect of not knowing who to contact and needing to compose the event in a timely manner.

Prompted by questions from the proctor, the five panelists presented their experiences on campus. This included topics that primarily focused on ethnic organizations and whether students felt comfortable and respected at APU.

Several students said APU had become a more welcoming and respectful place to its students on campus in the past few years. Ethnic organization leaders also expressed their gratitude for such organizations, which they said helped them through their time at APU.

“Ethnic organizations have definitely been a safe space for identity and … becoming culturally conscious,” said Tajianna Okechukwu, president of the Black Student Association (BSA). “I’ve heard many stories specifically with black students that say they wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Black Student Association.”

Okechukwu explained that for many black students, BSA is like a home away from home.

Although students from ethnic organizations said they felt respected on campus, two panelists who identified as queer didn’t share the same sentiment. These students said they experienced discrimination and hatefulness on campus, which they said “really hurt” them.

Alexis Diaz, SGA speaker of the house, said that she was disappointed in the way APU as an institution has handled its relationship with LGBTQ+ students on campus.

“I don’t want to speak on behalf of all of the LGBTQ community on this campus,” Diaz said. “But … to me, it almost feels like the LGBTQ community and the history that they’ve had at APU is trying to be erased … I think we’ve tried very hard to get people to listen and to understand where we’re coming from, and that hasn’t always been received well, or it’s been ignored and we just get silenced.”

The Diversity Ambassadors and the CDEIE said events like these are what help APU grow and become better.

“I wanted to gear this panel selection towards students who I knew were affected by any issues regarding LGBTQ+, their ethnic backgrounds, gender, etc. a chance to use this platform to share their story so that faculty and staff could hear from students who are not always given a chance to do something like this,” Kerr said.

Richard S. Martinez, Ed.D., the Executive Director of the CDEIE, said the department exists to facilitate conversations that lead to actions that support students, staff and faculty in the area of diversity.

“The leadership I’m seeing are coming to the front and saying, ‘What can we do to support our students?’ At the panel, they internalized and absorbed what the students communicated and appreciated their transparency,” he said.

Martinez said that representatives from different areas of leadership — Campus Pastors, Chief Diversity Officer, Student Center for Reconciliation and Diversity (SCRD) and University Relations — all want to ensure that students are supported.

“I think it’s important for students to know the CDEIE and the [SCRD] are actively involved in nurturing a supportive, inclusive environment at APU in order for our students to excel,” Martinez said. “To paraphrase distinctives that our Chief Diversity Officer, Dr. Keith Hall, shares often, we seek to fully acknowledge the being and God-given capacity of each person, emphasize the value of becoming interculturally competent, and cultivate a climate that fosters belonging for students, faculty, and staff at APU. We hope to further develop a supportive environment [Hall] is leading and seeking to model at APU.”

According to Rachel White, APU’s associate director of public relations, the university held a town hall type meeting in the fall where university leadership and board members engaged with students, including SGA and LGBTQ+ students.

“Plans are underway for university leadership including board members to meet with student leaders and LGBT students this spring,” White said.