Campus-wide efforts increase diversity

by Erin Brock
Editor-in-Chief

If Transylvania University does, in fact, exist in a “bubble,” then that bubble might soon burst, thanks to a new focus on making the school more diverse.

“While we may not be where we want to be with the diversity of our campus in a whole range of things, or even our awareness of what diversity is on our campus, as a campus we have a commitment to it that has been renewed over the last year or so,” said Dr. Carole Barnsley, co-leader of Sexual Awareness and Gender Education (SAGE), adviser to T-Unity and assistant professor of religion.

A prime example of this commitment was the hiring of Eduardo Nino-Moreno as director of campus diversity and inclusion four months ago. Nino-Moreno’s background includes over 20 years of experience working for the United Nations, which has given him a deep perspective on issues of diversity. He has already become a strong voice for change at Transy. He said real diversity goes beyond the parameters of race and religion.

“Everybody is part of diversity. I am diversity, you are diversity, she is diversity, he is diversity. … All of us bring something different to the table,” Nino-Moreno said.

President R. Owen Williams echoed that belief.

“I think of diversity as touching the lives of as many different kinds of people as we can make happen on our campus, and including the lives and perspectives of as many as is possible,” Williams said. “I think of diversity as being about religious inclusion, racial inclusion, geographic inclusion, international inclusion.”

In fact, international, geographic, religious, racial and cultural diversity are all areas that are being addressed by multiple groups on campus as part of the diversity focus.

Williams noted that less than 1 percent of Transy’s student population is from outside of the country, while other colleges with enrollment similar to Transy range from 2 percent (Centre College) to 10 percent (Grinnell College).

While 70 percent of Transy students study abroad, Williams believes that those experiences don’t bring enough diversity to the campus.

“Obviously it’s great that our students get away and experience the world through their own first-hand travel and education experiences outside of the United States, … but it’s not enough,” Williams said. “I want people to have a daily, ongoing exposure to international perspectives and cultures.”

Currently, students who call Transy home hail from such countries as Germany, China, Korea and Taiwan.

“Some of the best liberal arts colleges in this country have students on their campuses from as many as 50 other countries, and it would be great if we had that … kind of diversity,” Williams said.

Last fall, representatives from Transy visited Panama in efforts to establish a working relationship with the country that could lead to an increase in international students at Transy.

“We stand to receive easily a minimum of half a dozen students from there or more in the future, with the added advantage that there are students from all over the world there because there is a huge expatriate community in Panama,” said Nino-Moreno.

Other countries that could become the focus of recruitment efforts are China, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and perhaps Honduras, once a successful program in Panama has been formed.

“I think with time it would be great if we could get to around 8 percent international students on campus, but that will take five to 10 years to make happen, because we have to create an infrastructure to support that,” Williams said.

Such infrastructure would include establishing host families, providing activities for international students to pursue over extended breaks, and other “safety nets” that might keep international students from feeling isolated, according to Williams.

There is also interest in increasing the number of states from which students hail, which currently stands at 27. Nino-Moreno stated that the office of campus diversity and inclusion supports the efforts of the admissions office, which is actively recruiting students from outside Kentucky who will be representative of other ethnic and cultural origins.

“(The student body is) not as diverse as it needs to be. … Too many people come with a fairly similar background, experience and perspective, and what we need to do is expand that in a way that really opens our eyes to the whole world that you all are going to be operating in,” Williams said.

This focus on diversity also touches religious life at Transy, as this year’s hiring of Interim Associate Dean of Interreligious Life Nancy Jo Kemper demonstrates.

“We have moved toward an interfaith approach to religion on our campus. We have far too few Jewish students, Muslim students, Hindi or Buddhist students on our campus, and we need to have a religious dialogue that reaches out to all of those groups,” Williams said.

“We are … working to articulate what it means to be a church-related institution, rooted in the particularity of a tradition that is itself committed to dialogue, openness and hospitality,” Kemper said in an article in the Sept. 15 issue of The Rambler, “while expanding the capacity of the university to serve students from many religious traditions.”

While 86 percent of Transy students identify themselves as Caucasian, an increase in racial diversity is not the focus of new diversity initiatives. Nino-Moreno noted that though it has been “historically easier” to identify diversity by appearance, “cultural identity” is the factor that expands understanding. Unlike race, factors such as religion, sexual orientation, financial background and cultural beliefs are not physically able to be detected.

“I think that … the whole issue with diversity and inclusion is to try and include the wide range of voices and perspectives, but the fact is that we don’t always get them because we belong to our own. We encounter new things,” Barnsley said.

Some of these new voices and perspectives can be found in the Lexington community.

Nino-Moreno, who is currently talking with several members of the greater Lexington community, including Mayor Jim Gray’s advisers, professors at the University of Kentucky, the Urban League of Lexington and the Community Action League, sees great opportunities in the future for Transy students to extend their experiences outside Transy.

“Since we all believe that Transylvania is not in a bubble, we have to go beyond our former fences and reach out,” Nino-Moreno said.

Numerous groups all over campus, including the Diversity Action Council, T-Unity, SAGE, VOICE and first-year programs all offer students opportunities to both discuss diversity issues and make connections in the surrounding communities.

“I think that VOICE’s definition of diversity pertains to the idea that everyone brings different experiences to the table, and that definition, if applied to Transy, would imply that our campus is diverse. However, I also think that there is potential to become more diverse if people begin to share their experiences with one another,” sophomore Anna Melnykovych, a member of VOICE, said.

Transy’s new connections in Panama, for example, have led to a discussion with Gray’s advisers about the possibility of establishing a sister city in Panama — a connection which would get Lexington in touch with the country’s rich thoroughbred horse industry.

Currently, a group of students and faculty make up the diversity and inclusion advisory board, a group which will report its discussions and concerns to the strategic plan working group. These dialogues will affect the focus and goals of the new strategic plan for diversity and inclusion.

Nino-Moreno’s recently formed office has experienced a significant amount of feedback in many forms. A campus climate survey was sent out shortly before noon on Monday; by 5 p.m. that day, more than 40 responses had been submitted.

Nino-Moreno hopes to instill several programs in the future, including a student-run support network, a rotating gallery of student-contributed work to the Diversity Nook and more involvement from recent alumni.

While Transy’s liberal arts education philosophy encourages an exposure to different schools of thought and ideas, several members of the campus community share the opinion that classroom experiences just aren’t enough.

“If we’re really going to learn about religion, you can’t just study it on a theoretical basis in class; you’ve got to be surrounded by people who represent those different experiences and perspectives,” Williams said.

“If we think of people as coming from different perspectives and thinking in different ways, you have to experience that. You can’t read about it, you can’t hear about it,” Barnsley said. “You have to go to other places. You have to have other people come to you. And that ‘other people’ doesn’t have to be from a different country. It could be from a different orientation of just about anything.”

Despite the new office and the amount of discussion it has fostered, Nino-Moreno believes that the task of increasing campus diversity lies with the students.

“It’s been only four months (since the start of this office), but it’s amazing the number of things that have started happening,” Nino-Moreno said. “Now, things happen because of the students, not because of (administrators).”

Williams agreed.

“I’ve always believed that students learn more from students than anybody else, so the more different kinds of perspective that we can bring to the table, the better. And that’s always been my hope for this place,” he said.

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