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Creating a Climate of Diversity and Inclusiveness Within a Small College Setting: by Joseph J. Saggio
DiversityBusiness.com Magazine Article/- American Indian College (AIC) operating in Phoenix, Arizona since 1957 is a small, faith-based institution of higher education serving twenty American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) tribal groups throughout the United States. With a student body of approximately seventy students, AIC holds two unique distinctions: first, it is the only regionally accredited faith-based institution with a specific educational mission targeting Native American students (61% of the student body is self-identified as AI/AN. ) Secondly, it is an unusually small institution with a specifically targeted mission, including the preparation of Native vocational clergy to serve Indian churches in both rural and urban settings. AIC graduates who majored in Christian Ministry now serve throughout the Unites States in a number of different roles including: pastors, chaplains, missionaries, and youth pastors. The College also has a teacher education (K-8) program, which prepares teachers that meet Arizona’s professional education requirements. Since 1995, over 85% of the graduates of the program are professionally employed in the K-12 sector of education. Additionally, AIC offers an Associate of Arts program in Business that successfully prepares entry-level workers to serve in the corporate, public, and tribal service sectors.

Although AIC is an extremely small institution, it has the challenges of creating a climate of diversity and inclusiveness among students from nearly two dozen Native American tribes, as well as other ethnic groups including Hispanic Americans, Filipino Americans, African Americans, and Anglos. Since no one specific tribe or ethnicity has a majority of enrolled students, how is it possible to create an environment that creates a level of unity when there is such diversity? As an institution, we have learned some “hard-fought” lessons that we believe may help both educational institutions and other entities to embrace diversity and benefit from a multi-cultural environment.

Identifying with the College’s Mission
AIC’s mission statement states (in part): American Indian College equips Native American students for Christian service, . . . Identifying with this mission has been an integral part of the school’s success, regardless of whether a student is Navajo, Apache, African-American, or Filipino. The underlying philosophy of the College has been to create an educational environment where Native American students will feel comfortable and know that their cultural background will be acknowledged and respected. Because our fundamental purpose is to serve the Native American community, many of the College’s outreach and service activities take place in reservation communities throughout the United States (including Alaska) as well as Canada. As they visit each other’s communities, students of different tribes recognize that many of the social and spiritual challenges faced in their home community are encountered elsewhere as well. Even non-Native students gain an appreciation for the spiritual, socio-economic, and educational needs of Native Americans when they become involved in these outreach events. For example, in recent years we’ve seen at least four Filipino students become highly involved in activities specifically related to Native youth, while still retaining close cultural ties to their own ethnic communities. Just recently, I visited with one of the four--who has now graduated, and although he could easily have returned to his own “comfort zone” back in southern California, he chose to remain here in Arizona serving as both a public school teacher and pastor on the nearby Tohono O’odham Reservation.

Although we feel that we’ve been relatively successful at creating a unified sense of mission, we still struggle with the question of enlarging our student base by recruiting outside of our specific targeted educational market segment. The campus has had spirited discussion over the years about the merits of expanding the mission statement of the College to include additional ethnic and cultural groups. At present we’ve decided (institutionally) to remain focused on our current mission statement, while still embracing others who decide to attend our institution--with the understanding that they will identify with our stated mission and purpose.

The Importance of Community
Closely related to the issue of identifying with our mission is the importance of developing a cohesive community. As a very small institution of higher education, AIC struggles with comparisons with much larger institutions that include more varied curricular and co-curricular activities, as well as more highly developed educational infrastructure and instructional technology. We recognize that we cannot “compete” in those areas, but what we can offer is a strong sense of community that is capable of being remarkably inclusive. Over the years, we’ve developed a number of strategies that have assisted us in remaining “connected” with each other. These strategies assist us in our ongoing efforts at developing and maintaining a close-knit community at AIC.

One specific strategy that we use to develop community is daily chapel services (Monday-Thursday) where we bring the entire AIC community together for a shared worship experience. Most of the worship is student-led and includes contemporary forms of expression reflecting the spiritual needs and tempo of our student body. We also try to give our students an exposure to more traditional forms as well in order to broaden their historical understanding of Christian worship practices. Moreover, our chapel services sometimes feature individuals or small groups of students singing a special worship song in their native language (i.e., Navajo or Apache). Often the tune is familiar to all of us, but the words expressed in a different language give us a greater shared appreciation of a common shared religious heritage, despite linguistic and tribal differences.

Secondly, several years ago we realigned the College’s schedule so that the entire campus would share a common lunch hour. We are also quite fortunate to have a beautiful, spacious cafeteria facility, so that the entire College community is encouraged to share the noon meal together. Over the years a number of students have commented that they appreciate having that time of informal interaction with the complete AIC community--including faculty, staff, and administrators. Strategically scheduled to immediately follow chapel, these two events bring the entire campus community together for a couple of hours. The College even subsidizes the cost of the meals so that off-campus students and other personnel pay a discounted price to join residential students at lunchtime. During that two hour block of time, tribal and cultural differences seem to “melt away” as the entire college community find a common experience that accentuates our similarities instead of our differences.

Developing a Global Perspective
Although we pride ourselves as an institution in being able to identify ourselves through a shared commitment to our institutional mission statement and sense of community, we recognize that we must still develop a global perspective in order to remain culturally relevant in any increasingly pluralistic and global economy. The Assemblies of God, with which this institution is affiliated, has had since its inception in 1914, a historic commitment to missionary evangelism and church planting worldwide. Twice a year the College hosts a weeklong missions emphasis week held during the chapel services. The fall activity focuses on missionary activities within the United States, whereas the spring convention spotlights needs outside the United States and around the world. Students are exposed to speakers serving in countries around the world; consequently their global perspective is broadened. This is pivotal because many of our students are from remote reservation communities and have had limited opportunities to travel. They receive important exposure to spiritual, economic, health-related, and educational needs around the world through special speakers, displays, banquets, and music--adding richly to their global understanding.

A second way that our students gain international exposure is to travel on school-sponsored ministry trips abroad. In the past few years, students from AIC have had the opportunity to travel to Outer Mongolia, the Philippines, Turkey, Belize, and Honduras. In some cases other agencies underwrote the trip costs for our students. As an institution we greatly appreciated this since many of our students are from a low social-economic status (SES) and would be otherwise unable to participate. When they traveled to Outer Mongolia in the late 1990’s, the students had the opportunity to teach English to Mongolians. Since some of our students bore a striking physical resemblance to the Mongolian people, there was an immediate camaraderie. The students gained a greater appreciation for the Mongolian culture while seeing striking similarities to their own. For example, Navajo students who come from a reservation background are often very familiar with sheep herding since it is an integral part of their cultural heritage. Imagine their surprise and delight to travel thousands of miles and find that the Mongolians shared that common experience.

Finally, a third way that students gain an appreciation and respect for diverse people groups is through taking part in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program pioneered by Peggy Gray, chair of the Learning Resource Department along with her husband, Dr. Glen Gray who chairs the Christian Ministry Department. Before coming to AIC, the Gray’s had served for a number of years as missionaries in Africa and Europe--including the Ukraine. AIC students who have an interest in other cultures and a desire to assist immigrants in learning the English language have participated in this activity for the past couple of years. Students will sometimes develop friendships with the people they are teaching, and have even assisted them with visits to doctor’s offices and other activities. One couple attending the College feels that this type of work will be part of their vocational ministry and has invested large blocks of time into learning how to better serve non-Native English speakers.

Unity within a Diverse Context
American Indian and Alaska Native students face some tremendous challenges in their educational formation and AIC seeks to create a culturally inclusive educational environment to help them navigate an increasingly global society. We have worked hard to help students feel a part of our community, trying to lead the way in demonstrating how they can serve both their own people, as well as work cross-culturally. In spite of all of our challenges, we’ve somehow managed to gain a measure of success in bringing a diverse community together.

Recently, I saw one of the most striking examples of unity within a diverse context that I have seen during thirteen years of serving at AIC. As always, our commencement exercises showcase the broad cultural mosaic our graduates represent. However, what made our most recent graduation so special was when Marco Burnette, our student speaker, and an enrolled member of the White Mountain Apache Nation, spoke of the lifelong challenges he encountered throughout his educational formation. Physically challenged in both his speaking and hearing, Marco was mislabeled as “mentally retarded” when he was a child. Fortunately, his family refused to believe that, and Marco’s accomplishments clearly vindicated him from that stigma. A superlative achiever, Marco already has a teaching job waiting for him back on his reservation community in northern Arizona. As he finished his remarks, Marco announced that he had also been accepted into a special summer studies program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland on a full scholarship! Rising as one to their feet, the entire audience thunderously cheered and applauded this young man--who in many ways represented all of his classmates who had also overcome numerous obstacles in their own educational journeys. Proudly wearing emblems of his Apache heritage underneath his graduation robe, I was immediately struck by the fact that although Marco bore his tribal heritage, more importantly he identified with American Indian College as part of a diverse extended family that he will always remain connected to.

Joseph J. Saggio is Dean of Institutional Assessment at the American Indian College of the Assemblies of God in Phoenix, Arizona. He is also the Phoenix Branch Campus Director and an adjunct professor for the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary based in Springfield, Missouri. A regular contributor to a number of educational and religious publications, Dr. Saggio holds a doctorate in higher education from Arizona State University and also completed the Management Development Program (post-doctoral studies) at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

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