Oct. 18, 2021
CWU Diversity Advocates Celebrate 25 Years of Influence on Campus
Twenty-five years ago, few could have predicted the success of Central Washington University’s campus-wide effort to promote a more diverse, inclusive environment for students of every race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.
There is still much work to be done, but the faculty and staff who have been at the forefront of Central’s progress are overjoyed to see how far the university has come since the Diversity Education Center — later known as the Center for Diversity and Social Justice (CDSJ) and today as the Diversity and Equity Center (DEC) — was introduced 1996.
Katrina Whitney has been advocating for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives since arriving on campus in 1995-96, and she couldn’t be more proud to have worked alongside so many dedicated individuals at Central who are passionate about this work.
“We’ve been making a difference at CWU for a very long time, and it all started because our students decided that they needed a place like this to come together,” said Whitney, the DEC’s longtime assistant director. “They wanted a place where they could find community and gather together to talk about shared experiences. We have been able to give many different groups on campus a voice, and that has helped so many of our students be successful.”
Whitney was one of several guest speakers at the DEC 25th anniversary celebration in the SURC Ballroom on Friday, October 8. Approximately 150 people attended the event, which highlighted the enduring success of the organization over the past two-and-a-half decades.
President Jim Wohlpart, Provost Michelle DenBeste, and 1979 alumnus Robert Delgardo also spoke during the hour-and-a-half presentation, hosted by DEC Student Initiatives Coordinators Nate McMillion and Jaeda Nelson. Banquet guests also were treated to a special video presentation by student Joey Packer, who interviewed his classmates and mentors about the impact the DEC has had in the lives of countless young people.
“To me, the DEC is a home away from home,” said McMillion, a senior who is pursuing a degree in public relations, with a minor in Africana and Black Studies. “It’s the one place on campus I can go and completely let down my guard. There’s no code-switching or being ashamed about things that you don’t know. It’s the most welcoming environment on campus, and it’s been as integral to my growth as my CWU education.”
Nelson, a senior business major, says working at the DEC has allowed her to make a difference in the lives of her fellow students while also helping her develop a better understanding about who she is as a woman of color.
“I want to do work that I’m passionate about — something that I have agency over — and the DEC gives me place where I can truly express myself,” she said. “Before I found the DEC, there weren’t many spaces on campus that I could identify with. But getting to meet so many people who are interested in the same kind of work as me has been very motivating.”
Both students also pointed to the unwavering support they have received from DEC staff members like Whitney, Elizabeth Vidaurri, Justin Santoli, Michele Cook, former director Abby Chien, and the center’s new director Janette Chien (no relation).
McMillion believes President Wohlpart has already been “walking the walk” by supporting DEI initiatives since his arrival in June.
“I feel like CWU is going in the right direction, and having a new president and vice president of advancement (Paul Elstone) could serve as a launching pad for what the university will look like for the next 30 years,” McMillion said. “Dr. Wohlpart has talked a lot about that, and it always feels like he’s on the side of the students. Having a leader like that makes me optimistic.”
Nelson also noted the contributions of Kandee Cleary, vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion; and John Vasquez, the recently hired dean of access and equity. She said it’s difficult to predict what Central’s future will look like in terms of DEI advancement, but she is encouraged by what she has seen during her two years at the DEC.
“There are a lot of people in leadership who are dedicated to this work, and I think future CWU students will continue to find opportunities to be authentically themselves,” Nelson said. “Having a place like the DEC will be inspiring for them in their experiences at Central because it opens so many doors.”
The new director, Janette Chien, just arrived on campus last month, and she has already begun to develop a forward-looking vision for the DEC and the university as a whole. She noted that living through the pandemic has been “traumatizing” for students and employees alike, and it’s going to take time to figure out what the future holds.
“We’re recalibrating what it’s like to be in person, and we have to decide how we want to move forward and build this space together,” said Chien, who moved here from Philadelphia. “We want to do everything we can to support our students’ passion, and that’s going to require a lot of imagination.”
Those efforts don’t begin and end at the DEC, however. CWU is known as the most diverse higher education institution in the state due to its ongoing efforts to recruit, retain, and welcome everyone — especially traditionally underserved populations. Central has earned the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine in seven of the past eight years — more than any other Washington state institution.
“The DEC is just a small team, and we’re going to need more people and more thought around what these objectives look like for the broader institution,” Chien said.
If the past 25 years are any indication, Central will continue to advance its DEI initiatives as the student body and administration evolve in the years to come. One thing that will not change is the university’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The CWU student body has come to expect it, and they have no intentions of going backward. Whitney and her colleagues plan to be there every step of the way.
“Working with students to promote the importance of diversity on campus has been a truly wonderful, humbling experience,” she said. “I’ve gone through a lot of personal growth, but most importantly, I’ve had a chance to support our students in their journeys. It’s hard to express how much this work has meant to me.”
Learn more about the Diversity and Equity Center at cwu.edu/diversity.
Media Contact: David Leder, Department of Public Affairs, firstname.lastname@example.org
About Central Washington University: Central Washington University is located in Ellensburg, Washington, and is the most diverse higher education institution in the state. CWU has been honored with the prestigious Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) award in seven of the last eight years.