My imagining of Northeast Iowa is different in that it does not emphasize what is traditionally associated with Iowa, such as the natural beauty, and rural culture. My experience is different because my experience relates to something that the world outside of Iowa perceives Iowa as lacking, the presence and appreciation for cultural diversity.
My wife and I are new employees at the University of Northern Iowa. We are both education professors and scholars and my areas of expertise are literacy, cultural diversity, and urban education. We moved to Iowa from the East Coast. When I informed colleagues, friends, and family that we were moving to Northern Iowa, I immediately detected tones of pity and regret, implying that my life and work would suffer in a move from the cultural diversity and multiple urban landscapes of the East Coast to the perceived homogeneity, colder weather and rural norms of Northern Iowa. However, while the University of Northern Iowa and the Cedar Valley region may not possess the statistical and demographic diversity of the East Coast, the University of Northern Iowa embodies a “craving for diversity” as a UNI student recently put it, that has resulted in several impressive urban diversity experiences.
First of all, the University of Northern Iowa has etched “Diversity Matters” into its institutional identity. While some may say that “Diversity Matters” is merely a two-word slogan and fails, in and of itself, to reflect genuine commitment, my experiences suggests that such a slogan is tremendously important. I know of only one other University, which has made a similar institutional claim. In fact, integrating “Diversity” into the institutional identity of an organization is one of the most important factors in creating an effective diverse environment. Also, the fact of the matter is that the University of Northern Iowa has engaged in action, which backs up its words, by placing African Americans in two of its top leadership positions. My Dean Dr. Dwight Watson made it very clear that if you have a problem with a school that emphasizes diversity, then the University of Northern Iowa is not for you.
Additionally, the Executive Vice President and Provost, Gloria Gibson has made the enhancement of the diversity of UNI’s campus, by initiating the position of “Diversity Fellows” assigned with the task of holding conversations throughout the school year on a variety of diversity topics. This quality of diversity engagement is truly unheard of in my previous institution. I know of no other University in the East Coast with this level of diversity among its administrative leadership. In addition to the on campus diversity initiatives, I have found an impressive degree of faculty involvement in the Urban Communities in the Cedar Valley. One Saturday morning, scrolling through the FM stations, I happened upon 88.1 and found an African American founded, owned and operated public radio station, which is another almost unheard of phenomenon in the country as a whole. I was delighted to hear the station advertising an event, which featured “Cochran’s” Barbecue. I immediately resolved to go to the station later in the day to get some ribs.
On the way into the station, I met a woman, Dr. Scharron Clayton, “Dr. C” as she is affectionately known in the region, who is a faculty member of UNI with her own KGGB radio program. She informed me of other faculty who do the same. I have since learned that the Provost herself has a program on this same station. Each of these details is nearly unheard of where I come from. There is significant work yet to do, but I am more than convinced that with what has been accomplished already, that there is more than enough, talent, skill, and institutional resolve to make the University of Northern Iowa a national leader in creating a quality diverse, university environment.
*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.