UNK’s Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion

Luis Olivas, diversity recruitment and leadership coordinator in UNK’s Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion, left, and UNK student Derek Elton of Columbus are pictured inside the Nebraskan Student Union on campus. Elton is one of 13 students selected for the new Student Diversity Leadership Program led by Olivas.

KEARNEY — Conversations about race, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status can be uncomfortable.

But they’re necessary to create an inclusive environment where diversity is valued.

At the University of Nebraska at Kearney, a new program encourages students to tackle these topics head-on so they can learn more about each other and the world around them.

UNK’s Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion launched the Student Diversity Leadership Program last semester as part of its ongoing commitment to fostering inclusion on campus.

“Sometimes when you talk about diversity and inclusion it’s a little scary or a little intimidating. This program allows students to engage in those conversations in a collaborative and respectful manner,” said Luis Olivas, diversity recruitment and leadership coordinator in the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion.

Olivas and Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion Director Juan Guzman developed the program with a goal of reaching students who aren’t involved with the office through its scholarships and organizations.

“We often see a lot of the same faces, which is great, but at the same time we sometimes feel like we’re preaching to the choir,” Olivas said.

To ensure this program covered the entire campus, Olivas requested nominations from any administrator, faculty or staff member. He was looking for student leaders who can make a difference at UNK and in their hometowns.

After receiving nearly 50 names, 13 students were selected to participate in the program, which started in late January.

“We have a really good mix of students from every college and a wide range of academic disciplines, many of whom had little to no contact with our office previously,” Olivas said.

The inaugural cohort includes students from each grade level and encompasses a wide range of backgrounds.

Columbus native Derek Elton, an exercise science major in the athletic training program, was nominated by College of Arts and Sciences Dean Ryan Teten.

“It’s amazing to be around such a diverse group of people,” said Elton, who just completed his first year at UNK. “Everyone has a unique background and it’s so much fun to get to know them, learn about their background and better understand what they’ve gone through to get to this point in their life.”

The program is designed so students learn from each other through conversation and interactive activities, according to Olivas, who serves as a facilitator during the meetings.

Participants meet for one hour each week throughout the 10-week program. Each session focuses on a different topic, such as immigration, inclusive language, privilege and social equality, safe zone training and the LGBTQIA+ community.

Olivas views each participant as a “diversity diplomat,” someone who can use the knowledge they gain through the program to enact social change.

“This knowledge is going to help them while they’re here at UNK and when they move on to a career,” he said.

Elton said the program is a “great experience,” especially for students from rural Nebraska with limited exposure to diversity.

“That change in discourse can have a huge ripple effect,” he said. “Students can go back home and be leaders in their communities. This ongoing effect could really change our towns, state and, in really broad terms, our nation and world.”

The Student Diversity Leadership Program was expected to culminate with a recognition ceremony in late spring. However, that plan was altered by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. This year’s class will complete the program during the fall semester, when nominations for the next cohort will be accepted.

Program participants are also partnering with UNK’s College of Business and Technology Career Center to establish “career closets” on campus.

Supported by funding from the Principal Foundation, the project will add locations in West Center and the Nebraskan Student Union where UNK students can acquire professional attire for career fairs and job interviews at no cost.

Olivas said additional fundraising and donation drives will occur this summer, with hopes of opening the career closets during the fall semester.

For more information on the Student Diversity Leadership Program, contact Olivas at olivasherrlr@unk.edu.