Northern Illinois University has received an award for engaging student-run organizations across campus in cultural awareness workshops.
Representatives from two NIU offices—Academic Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and Student Involvement & Leadership Development—accepted the Joseph H. Benedict Jr. Social Change Award for Racial Justice on behalf of NIU this spring at the Association of College Unions International’s (ACUI) annual conference.
“When we face challenges as a community, difficult dialogues can be hard to have,” said Vernese Edghill-Walden, senior associate vice president for Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion chief diversity officer. “But the institution found a way to move those dialogues forward, even though they might have been uncomfortable.”
The majority of NIU’s 320-plus student organizations—more than 250—took part in Conversations on Diversity+Equity (CODE) workshops in 2017. All told, more than 550 student leaders completed the CODE sessions, supported by 40 employees—staff, faculty and graduate assistants—who served as facilitators.
Part of the impetus for the training was “a racially charged freedom of expression incident” involving a social media recording of a student’s parent on a fraternity’s property, according to Dain Gotto, former senior associate director of Student Involvement and Leadership Development.
“Concerned students, student organization leaders and administrators used this incident as an opportunity to foster meaningful dialogue about differences and understanding,” said Gotto. “Conversations in Diversity + Equity workshops have resulted in candid conversations among student leaders about their identities and ways organizations can partner to accomplish their goals.”
While acknowledging that the video—which involved a racial slur—sparked the discussion, Edghill-Walden asserts the incident was more of a catalyst to reaching an existing timeline.
“We have a three-year strategic plan that recommends that we offer cultural competency training with faculty, staff and student organizations, so to me, it helped us meet a goal that we knew needed to happen, met,” she said. “It’s interesting because, in some institutions, this type of training would be difficult to accomplish. But I got complete support from the administration.”
Jocelyn Santana, social justice education coordinator for Academic Diversity, said the goal of the program was “to engage our student leaders and organizations in a conversation about diversity and inclusion through coalition-building.” She attributes its successful outcome to a partnership between her office and Student Involvement and Leadership Development, as well as the participation of student leaders and CODE facilitators.
“There is so much that can be learned from one another if we find opportunities to work across differences, work toward understanding, open up lines of communication and support one another as fellow Huskies,” she said. “One of the pieces of information that I shared with student organizations during the workshop– there is power and strength in numbers and when we come together as people, we can have a greater understanding of one another and our experiences as well as have a larger impact in social change.”
Santana says the award is both humbling and validating for NIU, as it recognizes an initiative that stimulated conversation and action throughout the ranks of student organizations.
“I believe our community efforts are moving the needle forward to foster an environment that celebrates differences, explores the complexity of identity and culture, and ultimately pushes forward to create inclusive and welcoming spaces on campus,” she said.
Gotto agreed, adding that colleagues across the nation “have expressed an interest in learning more about how they can implement a similar model on their campuses.”
“I believe Northern Illinois University is on the cutting edge in diversity and social justice initiatives,” he said. “Receiving the Joseph H. Benedict Jr. Social Change Award for Racial Justice is one marker of our institution’s success.”
For Edghill-Walden, receiving the award also is a bit of a full-circle moment—ACUI was the first professional organization she joined as a new professional and had the opportunity to work with Joseph H. Benedict.
“As I’ve gone on in higher education, I have joined other professional organizations, but ACUI is still near and dear to my heart as the first professional organization that helped to shape my professional career in student affairs,” she said. “For my team to get an award from the organization that I first started in, and it to be named after someone that I knew in that organization when I was active, I think is pretty exciting.”