UM Weaves Many Cultural Threads into a Fabric of Belonging

By Meredith Camel

UM Weaves Many Cultural Threads into a Fabric of Belonging

By Meredith Camel
UM is weaving new patterns of engagement to ensure all identities feel connected to its cultural tapestry.

The University of Miami has all the components of a vibrant cultural tapestry—its location in the “Gateway to the Americas,” a diverse student body hailing from 50 states and 124 foreign countries, 25-plus multicultural student groups on campus, and a No. 12 national ranking in The Princeton Review 2017 for “Lots of Race/Class Interaction.”

But metrics don’t measure whether different groups of people feel connected to each other and to the UM community. Like many other schools across the nation, the University is weaving new patterns of engagement among all identities—ensuring that a true sense of belonging is firmly threaded into its fabric.

“Diversity is the whole reason I came to the University of Miami,” said Johann A. Ali, who left his home in Trinidad in 1992 at the age of 16 to enroll at the U. He now serves on the Iron Arrow Honor Society’s Council of Elders and credits the warm welcome he received as a freshman for nurturing his lifelong connection to his alma mater. “The very notion of being able to meet so many people from all over the world was an opportunity I was hard-pressed to not pass up!”

The ways in which different groups engage with each other is a hot topic today, amid a backdrop of identity-based violence in our nation and around the world. UM President Julio Frenk—who received Yale University’s Bouchet Leadership Award Medal in April for his commitment to diversifying higher education—is firm about UM’s responsibility to serve as an “exemplary” model to society at large.

“In our turbulent times, universities must lead the way in intentionally cultivating the free expression of diverse perspectives,” Frenk said in his Bouchet keynote speech. “If we are not deliberate about creating the conditions that will encourage real bridging, we are left with multiplicity rather than real diversity.”

Feeling Valued, Adding Value

In the Roadmap to Our New Century—a proposed plan of aspirations for the University to achieve by the time it reaches its centennial in 2025—is the call for a “culture of belonging,” defined as “a campus where all members of the community feel valued and have an opportunity to add value.”

Gail Cole-Avent, executive director for student life and assessment in the Division of Student Affairs, served on the Culture of Belonging Working Group, which issued recommendations open for feedback from the UM community at A series of town hall meetings this September will encourage further conversation about all eight of the draft Roadmap Initiatives as they become final plans for action.

“We had the task of figuring out how to help each individual feel part of the community based off of their definition, not based off of ours,” said Cole-Avent, describing the challenge of defining “belonging” in a way that resonates with the nearly 30,000 people who are part of the UM community. “Having a common language and having an institutional direction outside of just the term ‘diversity’ really helps.”

While the language of “belonging” may be new to the University, efforts to increase diversity, integrity, responsibility, excellence, compassion, creativity, and teamwork (also known by the acronym DIRECCT) have been accelerating for the past two years as part of the UM Culture Transformation initiative. Workshops have already taught some 6,000 faculty and staff members ways to incorporate the DIRECCT values in everything they do. Beginning in January 2017, all newly hired employees will experience a revamped orientation program designed to send the message that regardless of your identity, your beliefs, your country of origin, or your job title, “We Are One U.”

Overseeing efforts to “build a better U” by changing the culture is Isaac Prilleltensky, dean of the School of Education and Human Development, who was appointed vice provost for institutional culture in February. As a preeminent community psychologist, he has dedicated his life and career to building healthy communities.

“Healthy communities make sure every single individual feels part of the community,” Prilleltensky explained. “All of us need to experience a sense of being appreciated, being recognized. This is a fundamental feeling in the human experience. We need it like oxygen.”

The second essential element of belonging, says Prilleltensky, is the opportunity to add value—“to life, to the University, to the community, to our families. People want to do the best they can. Our job is to create the conditions for excellence to emerge.”

As Prilleltensky has noted, there’s a tendency to dismiss as lip service such a broad, institution-wide call to action: “Just saying words doesn’t change the culture. I can recite the values and the common purpose, but at the end of the day we need skills and tools to help in that process.”

Some of the tools for leaders are available at in the form of “action guides” to prompt discussions between supervisors and their employees. The focus is on three important questions: What does the culture transformation mean for us, how are we doing, and what can we do better?

Leading the culture transformation at the Miller School of Medicine is Stephen Symes, associate dean for diversity and multicultural affairs and faculty in the Division of Infectious Diseases. A renowned HIV/AIDS physician, Symes works with patients who face discrimination, lack of access to care, and other disparities as a result of their illness. Every day, Symes witnesses “the importance of having a workforce that can address health disparities and health equity.”

When Symes first joined the Miller School’s Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs in 2010, he primarily oversaw pipeline programs that fuel interest in medical careers among minority high school and college students. Beginning in June 2015, the office broadened its focus to include its own faculty and staff and form a contingent of people “who are diversity champions.” Now the office’s activities also include a SafeSpace program that “builds a network of allies” for LGBTQ students, human rights clinics through which medical students provide documentation that helps protect victims of human trafficking, and a 40-member Diversity Council that meets once a month to discuss concerns and policies.

“We’re making sure we have not only visible diversity, but more importantly inclusion,” Symes said. “People will give you more than a day’s work if they feel included—and less than a day’s work if they don’t. Inclusion is challenging to measure, but one day you look around and say, ‘Hey, this is a really great place to work!’”

Power to the Students

Students are very effective advocates for culture shifts at the U and beyond. According to Laura Kohn-Wood, chair of the Department of Educational and Psychological Studies in the School of Education and Human Development, there has been an uptick in student activism over the nearly eight years she has worked at the University.

“From the Haitian students’ demonstrations against policies in the Dominican Republic to the Black Lives Matter protests, I’ve seen a real increase in awareness and willingness to participate and make statements,” said Kohn-Wood, who co-chairs the UM Standing Committee on Diversity and Inclusion. “Maybe it’s due to social media and national events, but there’s a configuration of people who feel it’s not enough to go to college and get your degree and your good job; you have to also think about how you can make the world match your ideal.”

Offensive comments appearing on an anonymous social media platform following a 2014 Black Lives Matter student march sparked the creation of the Presidential Task Force for Addressing Black Students’ Concerns in the spring of 2015. It joined the Veteran Students Task Force, created in 2011, and the LGBTQ Task Force, created in 2013, as the first campus initiatives to improve the experiences of specific student identity groups.

These task forces became the foundation for the Standing Committee for Diversity and Inclusion, created in January 2016 as “a place where students who don’t necessarily have a voice on campus can go,” explained Ivann Anderson, a senior biology major who serves with Kohn-Wood as co-chair of the standing committee. Previously he served on the Black Student Concerns task force, was secretary of United Black Students, and was the Student Government speaker pro tempore.

Gender, country of origin, religion, and socioeconomic status are a few of the other student-led working groups being developed to join the standing committee, which reports to Executive Vice President and Provost Thomas J. LeBlanc. Working groups meet regularly with faculty, deans, and administrators to “push the envelope in terms of what student priorities are,” Kohn-Wood said.

The standing committee also has recommended “intersectionality” as a working group, charged with breaking down silos between identities. According to Van Bailey, inaugural director of the University’s LGBTQ Student Center and a national leader in identity-based student affairs work, pursuing intersectional dialogue not only helps build respect among different groups, but also helps students embrace themselves.

“The Culture of Belonging really highlights that students show up as their full selves, that it’s not fragmented, and that they don’t have to pick and choose when deciding which programs and services best represent who they are,” said Bailey, who was the inaugural director of BGLTQ Student Life at Harvard College. “I would go to black student celebrations, international student events, RAZA (Latino) celebrations—I was always about queering spaces, even if it meant I was just showing up. My agenda was never to infiltrate or take over those spaces but to show that LGBTQ people are everywhere and everything.”

Creating Safe, Inclusive Spaces

“The thing that led us the most,” Cole-Avent said about the Culture of Belonging Working Group, “was communication. True belonging means you’re part of the conversation. It’s validation that your voice is being heard; it’s creating spaces for people to talk.”

Whether it’s giving employees a chance to weigh in on human resources policies or giving students a seat at the campus planning table, engaging all UM voices in respectful discourse is fundamental.

“That’s what a campus is about,” said Cole-Avent. “It’s supposed to be an open environment to say, ‘This is what I think, and you think differently, so let’s have a conversation.’”

All across the University, changes in both physical spaces and day-to-day operations are nurturing meaningful conversations. Multicultural Student Affairs (MSA) is moving from the Rhodes House to the heart of campus in the Whitten University Center (UC) and is now reporting to Student Affairs. The shift will increase visibility on campus and provide more resources for interactive, cross-cultural programming. Renovations in the UC are adding couches and seating configurations conducive to dialogue in the MSA offices as well as in the new LGBTQ Student Center.

While the LGBTQ community has championed the “safe space” concept, feeling safe is a universal need. The creation of an Ablution Room in the UC for Muslim students to perform cleansing rituals before prayers, the newly renovated Braman Miller Center for Jewish Student Life, the designation of gender-neutral and inclusive restrooms on all campuses, and gender-inclusive housing options are all examples of the University’s intentional creation of physical spaces that promote interaction and ensure safety and comfort.

“Feeling undervalued, or feeling ignored, or feeling invisible has dire personal and social consequences,” said Prilleltensky, “because we cause harm to that individual and we lose out on that individual’s opportunity to improve the University.”