GCU’s Multicultural Office opens window to diversity
Editor’s note: Reprinted from the November 2020 issue of GCU Magazine. To read the digital version, click here.
Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by David Kadlubowski
Growing up, Maya Stewart always felt like an outsider. Half Filipina, half Black, she felt like she didn’t belong, like she didn’t have a place.
“I come from a town that is not racially diverse. I experienced a lot of racism when I was younger, being one of the only – if not the only – Black kid in my schools,” said Stewart, a senior elementary and special education major at Grand Canyon University.
She didn’t feel safe, either, and perhaps the worst thing for a child searching for who she is in the world, “I didn’t feel like I was wanted in the classroom.”
It won’t be the same in her classroom when she becomes a teacher. She’s determined to help children with exceptionalities feel like they belong, like they have a place.
“Which brings me to why I love diversity so much and why I’m so passionate about it,” she said.
For her, a diverse space just might save someone from feeling so isolated. She sees it in her work as a Resident Advisor at GCU.
“I know that as an RA … giving students that reassurance that they aren’t alone is super important.”
Neither does the University, which moved the office’s evolution forward over the summer. Glenn was promoted from Multicultural Manager in the Office of Student Engagement, a position he held for just a year, to the director of his department in Student Affairs. He has his own budget, staff and office on the first floor of the Student Life Building.
While diversity programming has been part of the conversation at GCU for years, back-to-back events this fall – the One Love Awareness Walk, Hispanic Heritage Week and Un1ty One Week – put diversity at the front of the conversation.
“I’m really excited how much our office has grown,” said junior health care administration major Shahiba Bhattarai. She is one of the office’s 10 student coordinators, the campus’ most fervent ambassadors for multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion. “I’m really excited for people to know that we exist and to know they have a safe space to talk if they ever have issues.”
Bhattarai grew up in Nepal and emigrated to the United States when she was 9, settling in Alaska with her family.
Bhattarai said that as a child, “I didn’t really see other people like myself,” which is what drove her to become part of the Multicultural Office and do work that matters, particularly at a time of election year tensions and social unrest around the country.
She sees her role as spreading this message: “No matter our difference in views, we’re still children of God. We want to come from a place of love. I think, really, it’s to give the message of unity and be able to have conversations that are difficult and uncomfortable so that people do grow and learn from them.”
Fellow Multicultural Office student coordinator Roman Kim, a mechanical engineering senior, also knows what it feels like to be an outsider. The Kyrgyzstan-born GCU student lived in Ukraine before moving to the United States seven years ago.
“Groups of people tend to stay with each other – ‘I’m from Brazil, you’re from Brazil, let’s be friends,’” Kim said. “But we also want to make them feel that if you’re from Brazil, it’s OK to be friends with somebody from Russia. We want to make this community one unique community made up of all different cultures.”
More importantly, “I want to make other people aware that they’re not alone and that diversity and multiculturalism are important.”
Like Bhattarai, Multicultural Office student coordinator and sports management major Marina Tong grew up in a community that lacked diversity. Tong, whose family emigrated from South Sudan to Boise, Idaho, said she and her sister would hear racial comments, even from friends.
“People thought it was OK when it wasn’t,” she said.
She wants to make sure that doesn’t happen at GCU. She also wants to make sure that no one feels invisible.
“We’re here to say, ‘You’re heard. We see you.’”
Glenn didn’t always feel heard as a college student. Then a life-defining moment put him on a path he never expected to follow.
It was 2008, an election year. Glenn was a freshman at a small Christian university in Ohio. He went home to his dorm, and what he saw floored him. Someone had taped a picture of Barack Obama on his door with a swastika drawn over his face.
After the election, he remembers how angry students turned over tables in the cafeteria.
“People weren’t even speaking to one another,” he said. “It’s funny how all of my friends at that time, we recall the event a lot differently. But I remember it like it was yesterday. It will be a day I’ll never forget for multiple reasons.”
Those events and the dispassionate response he received from the college after the incident at his dorm “was really what set me off and jump-started my moving in this area (of diversity),” he said.
But Glenn, also a pastor, approaches diversity in a manner far different from his experience as a college student.
He approaches it with grace.
“We really draw from Jesus and His life, how He treated people and how He carried Himself,” Glenn said of his – and GCU’s – approach to diversity.
“It’s really that Christian worldview of unifying people,” emphasized Dr. Tim Griffin, Vice President of Student Affairs, Dean of Students and University Pastor.
Creating that sense of unity means celebrating people’s differences without pushing too hard.
“What I think a lot of institutions do when addressing diversity is accentuate our differences. But if it’s not done with aplomb and a sense of wisdom and discretion, you will drive wedges between people,” Griffin said.
That’s not what GCU wants to do.
“As a Christian institution, the goal is to bring people together, to bring people to God the Father,” he said.
One of the Bible passages Griffin is drawn to and that Glenn embraces when it comes to diversity is John 17, in which Jesus speaks of that oneness:
“I have given them the glory that You gave Me, that they may be one as We are one – I in them and You in Me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that You sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me.” (John 17:22-23)
Glenn emphasizes another biblical message:
“Where in the Old Testament we learned we are supposed to hate our enemy, Jesus brings a whole new law of teaching us how to love people even when they mistreat you, even when they disagree with you. Even when there’s a swastika drawn over Obama’s portrait on your dorm room door.
“That is what I believe Jesus has called us to do.”
Nathan Hollis, Assistant Professor in the College of Education and the advisor for the campus’ Black Student Union, thinks the strength of GCU is that it knows its identity and lives out its mission to follow the teachings of Jesus. GCU applies those beliefs to multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion.
Another strength: Everyone contributes to the diversity conversation on campus.
“I like the fact that faculty has a stake in this, and staff. Every single stakeholder has a say,” said Hollis, who also is part of the Diversity Task Force for the University and for his college.
Glenn sees diversity in this poetic way: “We need to start seeing the world like a stained-glass window, where there are different shapes and sizes and different colors and different textures that are coming together to create a beautiful image. When the sun shines through, it creates this beautiful effect we see in these cathedrals and other places.
“It’s the same way when we, as the body of Christ, come together – different shapes, different colors, different textures, different sizes. When we come together and allow the Son, Jesus, to shine through us, it can have the same effect.”
With the University’s growth, and the many different shapes, sizes and colors of its diverse population mirroring that growth, GCU knew it was time to expand its Multicultural Office to serve those diverse students.
“But there’s another aspect to that,” Griffin said. “I think this summer, for me and for others around the University … because of the social unrest that there’s been across the country, it has really raised the bar on understanding how important it is that those in the majority population will learn and develop better skills on how to listen – to understand.
“There may have been times in our past where we’ve listened, but those that we were listening to may not have felt as heard as they should have been. That was a concern for me personally.”
GCU estimates that, as of 2019, 46% of the student body on its Phoenix campus are students of color. The largest minority group is Hispanic (28.3%), followed by Blacks (6.3%)
About 90 cultures and countries are represented at the University, which touts a rich international student population. And outreach efforts add to the campus’ diversity, such as Students Inspiring Students, which in the last 41/2 years has offered full-tuition scholarships to 361 neighborhood students.
“In many ways, the world has come to the GCU neighborhood,” University President Brian Mueller said. “We live in a community that, within a 5-mile radius, is filled with immigrants and asylum seekers who speak over 40 different languages. We are making a very deliberate attempt through our Five-Point Plan and other activities to be very involved in that neighborhood.”
The number of multicultural clubs on campus has grown, too. Many of those clubs are active participants on the Diversity Alliance, which meets once a month to discuss diversity issues and events and to share camaraderie – yet one more way the Multicultural Office is unifying the campus.
“Every year I’ve been at GCU, it’s progressed to be a lot more diverse and a lot more open to every single culture,” said junior communications major Mikaela Bega, the Hui Aloha Club president. “There are a lot more events that are happening and that are showing the diversity in our school.”
For students like sophomore government major Edgar Moreno, President of the Latino Student Union, the multicultural clubs make sure students don’t navigate college alone.
“With the Latino Student Union, it’s all about giving you a second family,” he said.
Junior film major Kayla Alonzo, social media chairwoman for the Philippine American Student Association, said, “The multicultural clubs definitely helped me find my way to my roots.”
College of Education Professor Rebekah Dyer, who teaches special education, has seen the strides GCU has made with racial diversity and issues involving faith, socioeconomic status, disabilities and other categories.
“One thing I always refer to, that I’ve spoken to my church about, is why it is so important to make sure people with disabilities come to church,” said Dyer, a campus advisor for Best Buddies and Canyon Inclusive, organizations that advocate for people with disabilities.
“It’s because everyone’s invited to the table. If anyone is left out of that, then we’re not doing our job as Christians. We need to always be thinking about who’s not included – who’s not being invited right now.”
The University embraces a similar approach, both on and off campus.
“We’re very clear about who we are as a Christian university and we teach from a Christian worldview perspective,” Mueller said. “We understand that some people may have a different worldview. They are welcome on our campus and are free to express that view through thoughtful discussion and respectful dialogue.”
Mueller said the University encourages students, staff and faculty to put their faith in action through transforming the surrounding community and creating equal opportunities for disadvantaged populations in its diverse inner-city neighborhood.
That is the basis for GCU’s Five-Point Plan (see below), which has had a dramatic effect since it was developed in 2015.
“We continue to be committed to addressing the inequities that exist in our diverse neighborhood, and these initiatives are producing significant results,” Mueller said. “But as much as it has benefited the community, it also benefits our students, who embrace the opportunity to interact with a lot of different races, ethnicities and cultures.”
For Maya Stewart, the diversity landscape still isn’t perfect, but “I feel like my hometown is moving in the right direction, which is how I feel about this University,” she said.
And she’s moving in the right direction, too. The young woman who used to feel as if she didn’t belong has learned to be strong and wants to lend that strength to the students she will teach.
“Being somebody’s strength is super important,” said Stewart, who has worked with her hometown to bring awareness to diversity issues. “A part of me thought that I was never going to find that place, that I was always going to be discriminated against. But then I put myself out there. I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to show them that being unique and being different is important.’”
Not that she feels she always has to be strong. She has since found her family of GCU friends who have supported her.
“We’re a pretty diverse group,” she said. “My RA staff from last year, we’re all very diverse, not only in our cultures but in how we are as people.
I was in a darker place, but I finally found people who accepted me and made me feel good about myself. I think it was finding the right group of people to help me.
“I just feel like I’m finally myself.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
GCU’s Five-Point Plan
1. Created more than 12,000 jobs at GCU and GCE, solidifying the University as an anchor institution in the revitalization of the surrounding community.
2. Placed 10 new business enterprises in the community that provide nearly 500 jobs for GCU graduates, students and residents of the neighborhood.
3. Increased safety in the neighborhood through an 11-year, $2.2 million partnership with the City of Phoenix.
4. Revitalized homes in the neighborhood through a partnership with Habitat for Humanity in which $3.3 million has been raised and 25,000 GCU volunteer hours have contributed to renovate more than
300 homes in the community (home values have increased 302% in the 85017 zip code since 2011).
5. Provided free academic assistance to more than 4,500 K-12 students at 150 neighboring schools in the last six years (with nearly 140,000 extra hours of study) in addition to a Students Inspiring Students program that has provided 361 full-tuition scholarships to low-income students who otherwise may not have been able to afford college.