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Diversity Center aspires to help students succeed, starting first year

Falcon News Service

October 18, 2017

The Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging has been awfully busy upping the ante and providing support to students by creating new programs and adding staff to the office.

Martin Olague, director of DIB, is relatively new to the position, having joined UW-River Falls in 2016. Besides Olague, the office is full of new faces. Nathan Riel-Elness, gender and sexuality outreach coordinator, began his work at UWRF in 2016 as well, and Jannie Gonzales rounds out the staff in her first year as the Aspire Program coordinator.

The Aspire Program is brand new this year and was created for students of color, low-income and first-generation college students to help them navigate their first year of college and ensure their continuing success. An incoming student is paired with an upperclassmen mentor who will help them along. Mentors must apply for the position and are paid.

Gio Hernandez from New Brighton, Minnesota, is a freshman majoring in exercise science. Hernandez is a first-generation college student and decided to join the program. “I joined the group for many reasons but mainly because of the support and mentoring,” he said. “Being a first-generation student, college was very intimidating. I didn’t know what to expect. Not knowing anyone other than a couple buddies from high school made me feel like I was alone. I worried about getting lost or not being able to meet new people. These were few of my many worries, but when I was introduced to Aspire, I knew it wasn’t a mistake.”

Hernandez has only positive things to say about his upperclassmen mentor, Jose Bemeo. “He’s an amazing guy who is very eccentric and eager to meet new people and connect to everyone. He just brings an energy that most people don’t have. He is a very cheerful and upbeat person who is constantly checking on not only my school work but as well as how I am as a person,” he said. Bemeo keeps tabs on Hernandez and the two find time to meet up at university events as well as exercising together at the Falcon Center.

The duo of Hernandez and Bemeo isn’t the only success story. Director Olague is excited about where things are headed. “The response has been pretty good. I am very happily surprised! We have a number of students signed up and if we were to have this many students signed up every year we would definitely reach our goal.”

In terms of the social unrest happening throughout the country, Olague believes UW-River Falls is doing a fine job of being accepting and understanding, but he recognizes the potential for issues. “In my limited time here I think we’re doing well … I don’t want to say it can’t happen because it could, and it could happen over anything,” he said. “I don’t think you could ever do enough because there is always more to be done. We don’t live in a perfect society.”

Focusing on education and understanding the issues at hand are what Olague believes will change things for the better. “I think people get a little bit of knowledge about what goes on and they think they know everything so then they go out there, saying things. They kind of fall on their own sword, saying things they feel passionate about. I think that is what’s going on, people kind of learn a little bit about something … but they haven’t gotten enough education about that topic to truly understand what they’re saying, I think just with a little more education, a little bit more awareness and taking time to truly understand something would help a lot for a lot of students.”

According to the Campus Climate Survey, which was compiled in February of this year, by far the most common reason students said they felt excluded, intimidated or subjected to hostile conduct was because of their political views. Sixty-seven of the 125 students who said they had experienced bias while at UWRF said it was politically motivated.

Olague and his staff will work to correct those types of issues moving forward. The Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging offices are located in the Involvement Center within the University Center on the UWRF campus.

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