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UW-River Falls takes steps to become an inclusive campus

October 5, 2016

UW-River Falls is putting its title as an “inclusive campus” into action by creating an office focused on students who are underrepresented at the university through programming and education.

The creation of an office that focuses on campus inclusivity was a year-long effort by the Student Senate during the 2015-2016 school year to make UWRF a safe and inclusive campus for everybody.

In the late fall semester, resolution was passed by the Senate to show support for a diversity and inclusivity position within the university, which was then approved by Chancellor Dean Van Galen. Through meetings between university officials, Senate and identity-based student organizations, the diversity and inclusivity position was split into two positions, director and coordinator, and the Inclusive Campus Engagement Office was created.

JJ Knapp, current Senate student affairs director who was part of the effort to create such a position said that the university’s lack of resources and facilities for the LGBTQIA community made the creation of such an office crucial. Many times, Knapp said, the identity-based student organizations on campus held the sole responsibility of offering guidance to students who did not feel welcomed at the university and hold educational programs focused on making the campus more inclusive.

“The university is here to nourish and educate all of us, but it’s also to help us grow as individuals and become more inclusive in our thinking and also just to help take care of each other,” said Knapp. “That was my biggest issue, was the fact that the university didn’t support it as a priority for so many years.”

When it comes to inclusivity efforts around Wisconsin, every university within the UW System either has an office or active programs focused on diversity and inclusivity. UW-Stout, for example, has had an LGBTQIA Program Office since 2008 that offers resources such as a peer mentor program, safe space training and open discussion events.

The Inclusive Campus Engagement Office will be working with students who are underrepresented on campus, such as students of color, to promote advocacy, programming and education around issues that such students are facing within the university. This will be done through outreach to faculty, staff and major student populations with education and partnering with the identity-based student organizations on campus.

Within the office will be a position that will focus specifically on LGBTQIA issues on campus.

Nathan Elness, UWRF’s new gender and sexuality outreach coordinator, said that his responsibilities will include educational programming and advocacy that is focused on issues that have occurred or can occur on campus.

“For example, there has been incidents in that past where students have been mis-gendered in class, so we would want to talk about gender pronouns or gender identity so all of our students feel welcome on campus,” said Elness.

One program that is currently being developed is “Check Yourself…”, an educational campaign to teach students about hurtful language and being aware of how what you say can be interpreted by other students. “Check Yourself…” posters are now visible throughout campus.

There will also be several training and speaking events planned for this fall semester through the new office, including Ally Training events in October to learn about gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and ally (GLBTA) communities and issues within a safe space. There will also be a speaker in November about understanding the difference between sex and gender and the impact of gender roles.

Elness said the goal of having educational programs and events is not only to make UWRF a more inclusive campus, but to create understanding and informed adults that are ready to go out into the world.

“We really are living in a world that is getting smaller because of the ability to connect through social media and understanding that our workforce and population is ever-changing,” said Elness. “So the goal is making sure our students are aware of that and understanding between races and identities and helping them prepare to be better global citizens.”

Elness said that the Inclusive Campus Engagement Office is still a fairly new office on campus, and therefore is still developing a sense of purpose and what should be done to make UWRF inclusive. Elness encourages all students to email the office at inclusion@uwrf.edu with feedback, concerns and ideas.

“A lot of what I want to do on campus this year is get a pulse of where our students are when it comes to feeling comfortable with these conversations or understanding them,” said Elness. “I think we’re at a good starting point, but we really need to progress much more quickly because we’ve been so behind for the past couple years.”