Diversity Week celebrated at UCF
Published: Sunday, October 14, 2012
Updated: Sunday, October 14, 2012 16:10
Diversity is a word that gets thrown around a lot. At times it has been debated, overused, undervalued and misunderstood. But UCF’s definition of diversity is very clear: “diversity includes all of us — all of the time.” The university’s vision includes the varying characteristics of people, not just their racial background, according to the Office of Diversity Initiatives.
To celebrate diversity, UCF began its 20th anniversary of Diversity Week Monday. A series of events, lectures, games, presentations and workshops are scheduled throughout the week, culminating with the Recreation and Wellness Center field day on Friday. Some of the events this year include a volunteer night at the Coalition for the Homeless, a screening of the movie The Help, a martial arts presentation and a lecture on women, Islam and gender politics.
UCF has grown tremendously in the past 50 years since it was established. In fall of 1968, the first classes were held at the then Florida Technological University, and just 1,948 students were enrolled. Now UCF is home to more than 60,000 students, making it the largest university in Florida and the second largest in the nation.
As the number of students has grown, naturally so has diversity. According to UCF’s Office of Institutional Research, nearly 40 percent of the student body is made up of minority groups and there are students from all 50 states and 141 countries.
Women have also surpassed men, constituting 55 percent of the student population. In addition, the number of colleges has grown from five in 1968, to 13, creating a broader variety of student interests, skills and knowledge.
How did this happen?
Since President John C. Hitt became the university’s fourth president in 1992, he has made diversification a priority. In his inaugural address, Hitt called for the university to become more inclusive and diverse.
Shortly after taking office, Hitt created the Office of Diversity Initiatives. Its purpose was to make recommendations, educate and promote diversity and inclusiveness on campus. The new initiative needed a director, and the job was given to campus counseling psychologist Valerie Greene King.
Diversity at UCF has changed in every way imaginable since she joined the staff in 1989, King said.
“The president came in and gave us a goal, there was a task force that was actually doing studies to show us how to focus on diversity, and then we started Diversity Week,” King said. “That was the beginning of the focus on diversity.”
Diversity Week was the first recurring program not focused on one specific group of people and was dedicated to giving every department and organization the opportunity to sponsor whichever diversity program it wanted.
The idea did not catch on right away. In the beginning, the efforts made people more aware of the goal, but not more accepting, said King.
“At the very beginning there was a lot of confusion and misinformation about the differences in diversity and inclusion and affirmative action,” King said. “Whereas now, people are much more — faculty members in particular — are much more accepting of diversity and inclusion, and if you look at our curriculum, in most of our colleges you will find a fairly wide array of courses that focus on diversity and inclusion, whereas back in 1992 that just did not exist.”
Hitt brought diversity to the forefront, but before his time at UCF, steps were already being taken. On Feb. 6, 1970, former UCF President Charles Millican formed the Equal Opportunity Advisory Council, which openly supported Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination of employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Seven years later, the Division of Student Affairs established the Office of Minority Student Services to “recruit, retain and service” minority students.
Diversity at UCF includes characteristics other than race and gender as well.
“It’s not just about race and gender and those kinds of things,” King said. “It’s also about all of those other things that make people who they are.”
Several groups and offices have been started on campus because of the diverse characteristics of students. For example, the Multicultural Student Center opened in 2002. Rather than focus on initiatives to diversify UCF further, MSC focuses on minority students who are already here, and making them feel welcomed and included. It reaches out to all types of minority students, such as those with disabilities, veterans and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students.
The diversification of UCF during the past 50 years is undeniable, but there is still room to grow during the next 50.
Nelson Santiago, coordinator of MSC, said “It is great for our campus to have more students in wheelchairs, but if there aren’t access door[s] to our buildings, classrooms and offices, do these students really feel welcomed and thought of?”
Santiago has been part of UCF’s community for 10 years, first as a student and now as an employee. There is still room for improvement, but the university has made intentional efforts to grow and support a diverse student body, he said.
“One student who was blind shared that he would love if there was a voice-automated crosswalk at the cross section on Gemini [Boulevard] in front of Garage B, from his dorm in Academic Village to main campus, and that class got together and made this happen,” Santiago said of a LEAD scholars class.
“That’s when I knew that our students were truly willing to be advocates of inclusion.”