Virginia State University is introducing its first university-wide diversity and inclusion program in order to create a “more inclusive campus culture.”
During the 2017 fall semester, VSU President Dr. Makola M. Abdullah put together an Advisory Board for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer/Questioning Intersex Ally+ (LGBTQIA+) Inclusion.
Dr. Makola Abdullah
Its purpose is to help create more positive opportunities and learning environments for students and faculty within the university community.
Abdullah said his key focus area is embracing the university’s role as a strong supporter of diversity.
“[VSU] strongly believes in fostering a community that identifies, values and respects differences of all people by creating a positive experience for students, faculty, staff and the community,” Abdullah said. “Therefore, as a university, we recognized that the Trojan campus community should be a safe, affirming environment for each and every student.”
This is not the first program VSU has initiated that has focused on diversity. In August 2016, the university hosted the first HBCU Sports Inclusion Summit series. The series focused on creating HBCU campuses that promote inclusive policies and programs for its LGBTQ athletes.
“We wanted to be as inclusive as we could during the rollout process,” said Pamela Turner, a spokeswoman for the university. “We are receiving good feedback from our university community [on the new initiative].”
VSU has a campus “pride index” rating of 1.5, a star-scale rating system used to determine a university’s or college’s ability to provide an LGBTQ-friendly environment.
The university said it hopes to double the index by fall 2019, while completing the full initiative by June 2019.
As it stands, Virginia Commonwealth University holds the highest index rating of Virginia colleges and universities with a rating of 4.5, according to Campus Pride, a nonprofit organization that helps students and campus leaders create safer and more inclusive environments for the LGBTQ community.
Campus Pride reports that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) typically have had low index ratings.
“[We] understand the importance of generating a diverse and inclusive campus…for all students,” said Dr. Letizia Gambrell-Boone, vice president of Student Success and Engagement at VSU. “Our mission is to foster a campus where [everyone] is granted a quality of education in a safe learning environment.”
Turner said the university will implement a four-tier learning model that will “assist students with understanding and affirming interconnecting identities of students who identify within the LGBTQIA+ community.”
According to Chevelle Moss-Savage, program administrator for diversity and inclusion, the model will include installing gender-inclusive restrooms; creating a diversity and inclusion map of those bathrooms and all safe zone areas; LGBTQIA+ 101 and safe zone training for all faculty and staff; creating a review of all university documents to ensure LGBTQIA+ culturally competent language and improving the university’s campus pride index rating.
Turner said the university plans to have a safe zone in each campus department.
“Currently, there are 40 individuals who have attended a Safe Zone Ally workshop and, in addition, 29 individuals have identified themselves as allies,” Turner said. “More than 100 faculty, staff and students have attended the LGBTQ 101 Awareness training, which is the first step in becoming a Safe Zone ally.”
Abdullah has established a LGBTQIA+ Diversity and Inclusion Working Group made up of students, faculty, staff and community leaders. The group is responsible for carrying out the initiatives and cultural competency established by the president’s Advisory Board for LGBTQIA+ Inclusion, which includes sexual orientation language and gender identity and expression language in the anti-discrimination policy. Also included are areas relative to LGBTQ recruitment and retention, counseling and health, campus life and safety, housing and residence life and institutional commitment, policy inclusion and support.
Dr. Renee A. Hill, an associate professor of philosophy, has been working with VSU’s LGBTQ+ student organization for over a decade.
“This is a wonderful time to be the adviser!” she said. “I am excited and inspired by the surge of support and commitment to making our LGBTQ+ students feel welcome on our campus. From the president, through senior administration, to the faculty and staff who have attended the Safe Zone trainings and signed up to be allies, [VSU] has a renewed dedication to inclusiveness.”