University of North Florida Fosters Students’ Development by Providing Opportunities for Exploration and Growth

Diversity Champions exemplify an unyielding commitment to diversity and inclusion throughout their campus communities, across academic programs, and at the highest administrative levels. INSIGHT Into Diversity selected institutions that rank in the top tier of past Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award recipients.

Beyond academics, the University of North Florida (UNF) in Jacksonville believes its mission as an institution of higher learning also encompasses students’ personal, social, professional, and spiritual development. In addition to facilitating their education, UNF ensures that all students feel included and appreciated by creating opportunities for them to celebrate the many unique aspects of their identities.

[Above: UNF’s campus in Jacksonville, Fla]

“Diversity really is a core value of the university,” says Brandi Winfrey, coordinator in the Department of Diversity Initiatives (DDI). “And we strive daily to create an intentional space where students feel welcomed and valued and to ensure they recognize that they play an important role beyond just [that of] a student here on campus.”

Toward this end, UNF offers a combination of support programs, spaces and activities focused on personal and leadership development, and opportunities for collaboration.

Facilitated by DDI, the QUEST Program helps incoming underrepresented students at UNF “acclimate to the academic and social aspects of college life,” according to the program’s website. It is open to those from any “identity group that’s underrepresented on campus,” says Sheila Spivey, director of DDI.

“Students who are effectively academically and socially acclimated to campus are likely to have a well-rounded, holistic college experience. They are more likely to be retained and persist to graduation, which is the ultimate goal of the program,” she says. “Moreover, choosing to go to college is an investment of many resources; therefore, we want to make sure that students are best positioned to start strong, stay strong, and finish strong at UNF.”

A yearlong experience that offers both academic and professional development to freshmen, QUEST begins before students even set foot on campus. With help from the Office of Admissions, Spivey and Winfrey — who serves as program director for QUEST — reach out to those who have identified as being from an underrepresented group and invite them to apply.

“They submit a letter of recommendation and a statement as to what benefit they perceive they can gain from the program,” says Spivey. “We are looking at the student’s commitment [and ability] to complete the program and his or her ability or willingness to participate in monthly follow-up sessions during the academic year.”

Selected individuals begin by taking part in a weeklong, intensive experience the summer before their first semester. Called Flight School, it is designed to introduce them to UNF’s campus in Jacksonville; help them build the skills necessary to be successful in college, including those related to time management, studying, organization, and critical thinking; improve their knowledge of math and English; and connect them with classmates. Via workshops, participants also learn about campus safety, financial literacy, health and wellness, and ways to get involved on campus, as well as engage in a variety of activities around social integration — which Spivey believes are critical to ensuring their success.

“It leads to a satisfactory collegiate experience. Also, as students are forming connections with each other, they’re building relationships where they can hold each other accountable,” explains Spivey. “I think those relationships are really beneficial in helping students make the transition from being a high school senior to a young adult who has the responsibility of getting up, going to class, and completing homework.”

Throughout their freshman year, QUEST participants gather for monthly group check-ins to build on the information covered in Flight School, address any concerns or questions they may have, and engage in discussions led by faculty members. Spivey says these meetings offer an opportunity for students to gain further knowledge of the resources and services available on campus and connect with faculty members with whom they may not have otherwise.

More than 50 students have participated in QUEST since its inception, and Spivey believes the program plays a critical role in helping them connect with the campus community and build social skills. “Students are introduced to not only people from different identity groups, but also to new experiences, and these … will sometimes challenge who they are, their own beliefs and value systems,” she explains. “They need to be able to voice their concerns and share their opinions and viewpoints with others.”

Words unSAID
A collaborative effort, the Student Alliance for Inclusion and Diversity (SAID) not only helps ensure that students from underrepresented groups have a home on UNF’s campus, but also facilitates opportunities for all students to learn about different cultures and discuss diversity-related topics and issues.

Officially established in July 2016, SAID represents three student groups: the Latin American Student Organization (LASO), the Black Student Union, and UNF Asian Students in Alliance. Based on a recommendation from Spivey, the groups decided to form the partnership in order to “impact greater positive change at the university with regards to diversity and inclusion,” says Winfrey, who serves as staff coordinator for SAID.

“SAID aims to be that voice for people who are unheard and underrepresented,” says Laura Sanchez, president of LASO, adding that the group’s motto is “We represent the words unSAID.”

“All of the things that SAID stands for and supports help students grow and develop with a sense of community and a greater understanding of different cultures, beliefs, backgrounds, and perspectives,” Sanchez adds.

While the three student organizations that comprise SAID are considered separate entities, SAID — through its relationship with DDI — is a university-recognized department. This means it has office spaces, a budget, and a staff adviser. In this role, Winfrey provides support to help the organization host events and programming as well as connect its mission to that of the overall university.

“One of my primary functions is to provide some checks and balances to make sure that they are … thinking of ways to utilize the money to really highlight or showcase what diversity and inclusion mean to the university as a whole, from a student perspective,” explains Winfrey. “I help them work through the process of … determining how that ties in with their greater mission as a part of DDI.”

SAID plans and executes a variety of activities to fulfill its four-pronged mission, which includes promoting the understanding and appreciation of racial, cultural, and ethnic diversity; offering an environment that fosters personal relationships; providing a platform for their voices to be heard; and creating opportunities for others to participate in culturally engaging experiences. “One of our goals is to be welcoming and bring forth inclusion and diversity through different discussions, programs, and events [across] campus,” says Sanchez.

Last year, SAID hosted its inaugural Diversity Week to unify and engage the campus community in the celebration of diversity. Events included a dialogue and panel discussion, a diversity peace walk to promote unity, a cultural fair to highlight student organizations on campus, a diversity gala with awards recognizing students who have contributed to an inclusive environment at UNF, and a comedy show.

“[They] tried to think of events that would be impactful but also fun and engaging as a means to really talk about some of the broader concepts of diversity and inclusion — because the students recognized that there was a lack of understanding among their peers regarding what those terms really mean and [their importance for] creating a campus community where everyone can feel included and valued,” Winfrey says. “SAID did a lot of programming around not just the three identities that it represents, but also an overall understanding of the intersectionality of identities.”

Students, faculty, and community members engage in interfaith dialogue during a Coffee and Conversation event at UNF’s Interfaith Center.
Students, faculty, and community members engage in interfaith dialogue during a Coffee and Conversation event at UNF’s Interfaith Center.

Winfrey says turnout for, as well as students’ response to, the activities was exceptional. SAID is currently in the process of planning the 2018 event, which will occur the week of Martin Luther King Jr. Day — January 15 through 19. SAID members say they are planning another panel discussion in addition to a music fest and a day of service.

“They’re planning to continue on with it this year, but calling it ‘YouNF’ Week to emphasize the importance of the role that we as individuals play in celebrating diversity and making this a diverse student body here at UNF,” says Winfrey.

Furthermore, SAID partners with DDI to host diversity-related programming, and its member organizations support one another by promoting and attending each other’s events.

Sanchez believes SAID represents a mutually beneficial arrangement for students and the university because it provides leadership development opportunities for participants and helps UNF deliver on its commitment to inclusion. “Not only are students reaping ongoing benefits, but so is the university by having students who feel more safe and welcome and have an opportunity to expand their knowledge of other cultures as well as share their own,” Sanchez says.

Religious Pluralism
Although it has a large Christian community, UNF makes a point of recognizing and celebrating other religious traditions and beliefs represented on campus through its Interfaith Center. The center’s mission, according to its website, is to “promote interfaith cooperation,” which it does by supporting both the religious and non-religious identities of students and providing programs and services.

UNF students participate in the Interfaith Center’s Color Run to celebrate the Hindu festival of Holi.
UNF students participate in the Interfaith Center’s Color Run to celebrate the Hindu festival of Holi.

Perhaps its most important purpose, however, is fostering religious pluralism on campus. Broadly defined, religious pluralism is acceptance of the diversity of religious beliefs and practices that co-exist in society.  But more than just diversity, it is “the engagement that creates a common society from all that plurality,” according to Diana L. Eck, PhD, a professor at Harvard University and director of the Pluralism Project.

“Religious pluralism is an active engagement with diversity; it’s not just having diversity for diversity’s own sake,” explains Interfaith Center Coordinator Dori Schaffield. “It really is about the skills that are involved in developing relationships and learning from each other.”

Schaffield believes that although religion — like politics — can be a controversial topic, it is an important subject to discuss to increase understanding and create an inclusive campus.

“Politics and religion are two things that we’re told we shouldn’t talk about, and in some ways, I think that’s almost detrimental to personal growth and relationship- building because religion is very important to a lot of people,” says Schaffield. “So building on that and fostering a place where we can talk about [religion] in a way that is safe but also challenges people to step outside of their comfort zones is essential to building a diverse and safe community at any university.”

To reinforce the idea of religious pluralism, the Interfaith Center hosts a range of programming and events, facilitating opportunities for members of the campus and local community to engage in discussion and learn about other faiths and their traditions. Several times throughout the year, the center hosts what it calls i-Dinners, where it invites members of the community to come to campus to educate students on their religious beliefs while enjoying a complimentary family-style meal and games.

Chew on This, another regular event hosted by the center, brings different religious leaders from Jacksonville to campus to discuss “what their sacred text or tradition has to say about a common topic,” Schaffield says. “Earlier this semester we did one about spiritual health,” she says, “and we had someone who is Christian, someone who is Hare Krishna, and someone who is atheist talk about what spiritual health means to them based on the text [from which] they draw meaning.”

A more robust initiative, the center’s annual Interfaith Week seeks to raise awareness of the diversity of ideological and religious beliefs in the U.S. and offer opportunities for UNF students to engage in dialogue with individuals from different religious and cultural backgrounds. Now in its 11th year, the event’s theme for 2018 will be “Finding Yourself.”

“We’re going to have a variety of programs about personal self-exploration, telling your own story,” Schaffield says. These will likely include a movie night, dinners and dialogue, a storytelling workshop in which participants will draw a map of their personal faith journey, and an activity called speed-faithing — similar to speed-dating, but where participants listen to others’ religious or spiritual stories. “We’re also going to have a spiritual practices fair with the chaplains who are affiliated with our department, [with] stations where students can try a variety of spiritual expressions like art, music, meditation, and things of that nature,” Schaffield adds.

In addition to facilitating opportunities for the entire community to come together, UNF’s Interfaith Center helps individual students connect with their own faith. The Reflection Room provides a space for individuals of all religious backgrounds to come to pray and reflect; it features a variety of items, including a Native American prayer shawl, Muslim prayer rugs, sacred texts, prayer beads, yoga mats, and more. Outside of the room is a wash station where students are able to wash their hands and feet.

According to Schaffield, students use the room frequently, and she and her staff are always soliciting feedback on how it can be improved. “We have a comment sheet so that students can continue to provide feedback about things they think would help [the Reflection Room] become something that serves them even better going forward,” Schaffield says.

She believes that the Interfaith Center — like the university’s other services and supports — not only helps students feel at home on UNF’s campus, but also facilitates their personal and professional development.

“That’s really what we strive for, to help students feel welcome and accepted and not marginalized because of their religious or non-religious identities. I hope that is how all students feel — that there’s a place for them, a home for them [at UNF],” says Schaffield. “I think that interfaith cooperation prepares students [to enter the real world] and makes them better, more rounded citizens of that world.”

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. The University of North Florida is a 2014, 2016, and 2017 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.