Bringing a better understanding of diversity to UND

Sandra Mitchell is the Associate Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion.

Alley Stroh/ The Dakota Student

Sandra Mitchell is the Associate Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion.

Matt Eidson, News Editor

Associate vice president for Diversity and Inclusion speaks up

Years ago, at Drake University in Des Monies, Iowa, Sandra Mitchell was a frequenter of the Black Cultural Center on the university’s campus.

A building that had once been used as a fraternity house, Mitchell found herself escaping to the safe haven for every reason imaginable. Whether she wanted to study, listen to music or discuss issues with other students, she always felt welcome.

“I could always go there, and if I wanted to have conversation with people, I could do that,” Mitchell said. “It’s about having a sense of a belonging.”

Coming from a high school in St. Louis that was 85 percent black, Mitchell found herself to be the minority in Des Moines, where the campus was largely white.

“I never really thought about the fact that I wasn’t a minority,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t a minority until I went to Drake. And so there’s an adjustment that has to be made there.”

Turning to student and staff role models, Mitchell remembers the advice given to her: “This is tough, but you’re going to get through it.”

Mitchell became inspired to pass down her knowledge: to other students. With her mission in mind — to foster a better understanding of diversity as educationally valuable — Mitchell strives to bring the same support to UND that she once received at Drake University.

“I can relate to them,” Mitchell said. “But I also have the benefit of understanding how the university operates. I’m sort of a facilitator.”

It’s that understanding that eventually led Mitchell to the University of North Dakota.

As the associate vice president for Diversity and Inclusion at UND, Mitchell understands the struggles of multicultural students. Mitchell agrees that the incidents currently making their way around the Internet are not isolated. She says similar things happen everyday that never get reported.

“We don’t always get to hear about the other incidents,” Mitchell said. “We can’t do anything about what we don’t know.”

As the U.S. experiences cases of discrimination and racial tension, Mitchell says those cases can be felt by everyone, not just those directly involved.

“Diversity is not just about race, and it’s not just about what happens on our campus,” Mitchell said. “There are a lot of things happening our world right now and many of our students are feeling the effects of that.”

Mitchell is no stranger to how students are feeling across the campus. Whether it’s racially charged pictures being shared on the Internet or demonstrations in Charlotte, North Carolina, she wants the students to know that she understands.

Following the two racially insensitive photos involving UND students, Mitchell sent an email to multicultural students across the campus. Partly to ensure the students that their safety was her highest concern, but also to let them know she was there if they needed her.

In her email, Mitchell wrote, “Please know that the safety of all of our students is our priority. We are taking this matter very seriously. Racist, homophobic, sexist and other acts threaten the civility of our community and cannot be tolerated. All students have the right to an education free from discrimination and harassment.”

“Regardless of the intent, discriminatory acts hurt us to our very core and are inconsistent with the values of our university even if they are meant to be a joke. We strive to be an inclusive community that welcomes and values diversity.”

Mitchell states that part of the university’s responsibility as an institution dedicated to higher education is to prepare students of all races to live in a multicultural world. Though she does agree that UND can be a difficult place for some students, given the university is not exposed to much diversity.

“This is a difficult place to be as a person of color,” Mitchell said. “Where ever you have different people, there are going to be different ideas and different ways of looking at things.”

Speaking to those students affected either directly or indirectly by the photos, Mitchell offers words of comfort in a time that calls for such.

“I would encourage them to understand that there are people who support them,” Mitchell said. “By saying that we support one group of students is not to say we don’t support other groups of students, we can do both.”

Mitchell points out the importance for all students, regardless of race, class or gender identity, to understand that there is a place for them here at UND, and the frustration they may feel in trying times does not fall on deaf ears.

“This is a process that takes sometime,” Mitchell said. “We can’t change things overnight. It’s taken us over 100 years to get here, it wont change in a week. I know that that’s not easy for folks to understand, especially when you’re hurting.”

Referring to the recent incidents involving the racially charged photos being shared on the Internet, Mitchell expresses her understanding for the students affected by the photos; more specifically, the hurt they might be feeling.

“I hurt with them,” Mitchell said. “It’s the difficulty of having work that is both a blessing and a curse. I’m committed to this work because I think it’s a part of who I am, but it’s also my professional commitment.”

While commentary stating the photos shared online were “just a joke,” Mitchell points out that no everybody shares the same sense of humor.

Just as you can stand up, crack a joke and have everybody around you not laugh, the same effect can be seen on social media. Mitchell encourages everyone to think about what could happen; think about your audience, intended and unintended.

“I would say that this is a learning opportunity, for anybody, that this is the power of social media,” Mitchell said.

Despite the negativity surrounding the photos, Mitchell asserts that pushing blame on anybody, regardless of who they are, is not the answer.

“I don’t want us to vilify anybody,” Mitchell said. “I don’t want us to vilify the students who did the post, nor to vilify the people who may have been offended by this, or who in fact can be seen as victims through this, but instead to say that there is something that we can all learn from it.”

Matt Eidson is the news editor for The Dakota Student. He can be reached at [email protected]