Niya Blair remembers when she first arrived on the University of Houston campus. She was interviewing for the position of director at the newly created Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI). Blair was instantly — and pleasantly —surprised when she stepped foot into Cougar Country.
“I looked around and felt like I was in New York,” she said. “It was amazing to see students from so many different backgrounds on one campus.”
Blair is no stranger to diversity as she previously worked with multicultural centers at other major universities. UH, however, provided her with a much different landscape.
“I had to change how I viewed diversity,” she said. “I couldn’t use the same lens I used at other institutions. This would be a positive challenge for me.”
Blair was certainly up for that challenge when she became CDI’s director. Since taking the reins of the fledgling center, she and the CDI staff have tirelessly worked to develop programming aimed at engaging, empowering and educating the campus community.
The center was established through the efforts of UH’s Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment Services. In 2012, the division launched a five-year strategic plan. Included in this plan was the initiative to build a learning community that embraces inclusion. From this initiative, a task force recommended the creation of a campus center that supported UH’s multicultural student community.
“We did not want to create just any center,” said Richard Walker, vice president of student affairs and enrollment services. “We needed a center that would take into consideration our already diverse campus community and move us into greater engagement on matters of inclusion and equity. The goal of this center is to create interactive experiences where students can learn, grow and expand their knowledge with one another through a multicultural lens.”
The center opened its doors in fall 2014. During its first year on campus, CDI launched its fall and spring speaker series. Its first guest was award-winning journalist, Soledad O’Brien, who brought her acclaimed “Black in America” tour to the University’s Cullen Performance Hall. This event offered insights on the African-American experience from O’Brien and a panel of distinguished guests — UH Law Center Dean Leonard M. Baynes, author Julianne Malveaux, St. Louis Alderman Antonio French and activist and rapper Chuck D (appearing via Skype).
Other CDI initiatives include Cultural Conversations, roundtable discussions on timely topics; Cultural Connect Week, a weeklong celebration of diversity with events and lectures; and Diversity Institute, a symposium (presented in partnership with UH Counseling and Psychological Services) exploring issues in diversity.
The center also delivers diversity workshops that are open to all members of the campus community. Workshop topics include microagressions (subtle signs of bias), inclusive language and barriers.
Such programming is more than welcome at UH, the second most diverse major research university in the country.
“We want to make diversity an experience,” Blair said. “We don’t want this to be an experience that only happens in our office. We want diversity to be an experience that the entire community contributes to.”
CDI is located on the ground floor in the UH Student Center South building. With worktables, computers and a lounge area, it offers students a versatile space for studying and socializing. Students can host meetings there or engage with CDI staff members. They also can simply retreat to its cozy confines and catch up on homework.
Students not only can use the center as a resource, they also contribute to the center’s mission by volunteering as CDI Ambassadors. In this role, they can help promote the center and volunteer at its events.
Support roles aren’t limited to students. Faculty, staff and students contribute their time and energies to the center in a variety of ways. Supporters have included the Jack. J. Valenti School of Communication (providing student volunteers at the “Black in America” event), C.T. Bauer College of Business, Center for Mexican American Studies, and the Asian American Studies and African American Studies programs.
“We’re still new and have a long way to go in reaching the community,” Blair said. “But when we have sought assistance, everyone has been very helpful and receptive.”
Anyone who works or studies at UH knows that no two Coogs are alike. Faculty, staff and students regularly engage with peers of different ethnicities, spiritual beliefs and cultural backgrounds. According to Blair, conversations on diversity need to continue. CDI is a perfect catalyst for these dialogues, she said.
“We can always learn more from each other,” she said. “We’re on one of the most diverse campuses in America and in one of the country’s most diverse cities. It’s the perfect setting for everyone to step out of their comfort zones and learn from each other.”
The CDI is a place where various cultures on campus can come together. In its efforts
to showcase the University’s diversity and social inclusiveness, the center collaborates with several UH centers and groups that are doing their part to engage and educate the campus community.
Women & Gender Resource Center
The Women and Gender Resource Center (WGRC) at UH is open to all students, staff and faculty. Located on the second floor of the Student Center-North, both men and women can find information and seek private referrals on issues such as healthy relationships, unexpected pregnancy and other women and gender related issues.
In addition to free supplies, such as hygiene and sexual health products, the WGRC provides a number of internal services, such as lactation space, Dress for Success Houston referrals, salary negotiation workshops, and a host of other programs and involvement opportunities.
“Our services are very beneficial, because a lot of time students don’t know where to go—especially when they are in crisis or are dealing with a difficult situation,” said Devan Ford, the center’s director. “It’s helpful to come here and know there is a safe place.”
A.D. Bruce Religion Center
For more than 50 years, the A.D. Bruce Religion Center has been the focal point of on-campus religious and spiritual activities. It is home to 11 charter campus ministries, three student organizations and two chapels—the University Chapel and the Meditation chapel.
The A.D. Bruce Religion Center offers space for worship, study and discussion. It has also been the place where Cougars have celebrated weddings and baptisms, cheered at recitals, been enlightened by lectures, prayed for those in need, and remembered friends and loved ones who have passed away.
“While the building is a bustling center of many ongoing educational programs, activities and services, it is also a place for both quiet meditation and spiritual discovery and growth,” said Bruce Twenhafel, the Center’s manager. “We are at the intersection of faith and spirituality.”
LGBT Resource Center
The LGBT Resource center, which opened at UH in 2010, empowers LGBTQ students to develop their authentic identity to become proud, successful members of the UH community. The LGBT Resource center is located in the Student Center North and offers a variety of programs, including peer mentoring and a speaker’s bureau, which is comprised of a trained panel of volunteers who speak to classes, student organizations and assist with presentations to the campus. One of the resource center’s cornerstone programs is Cougar Ally Training (CAT), which trains faculty, staff and students to increase awareness of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. Allies are given a placard to display in their workspace, creating a safe and open environment for anyone to discuss issues of sexual orientation.
“Not only is the LGBT Resource Center a great place for students to socialize, do homework and make connections with other LGBTQ students, the fact that the center is here sends a strong message about inclusion being an important value at UH,” says its director, Lorraine Schroeder.
Urban Experience Program
The Urban Experience Program (UEP) at UH is a place where students can find the tools needed to achieve their dreams. Participants in the program are given the guidance to ensure minor obstacles don’t become major setbacks in their college careers. UEP is open to all students who want to experience everything that UH offers.
UEP offers help finding scholarships, professional networking and real world internships, financial literacy education, career counseling, post-graduate preparation and more. From mentoring to a referral network of on- and off-campus services, UEP provides social support and civic leadership opportunities to students.
“The Urban Experience Program helps students successfully navigate the University. For example, we can help eliminate confusion and offer assistance with academics, housing and financial aid,” said UEP Director Raven Jones. “We empower students with academic, professional and social tools needed to really reach their goals while they are in school and beyond.”