Zach Thomas, director of diversity and inclusion, has made it his focus to ensure that all students feel connected. He wants to to make the university a whole by working with faculty, staff, students, curriculum, community partners and other academic areas, he said in an interview with The Queens Chronicle. He targets students who feel their needs are not met by Student Life or other offices.
Thomas says he sees firsthand students feeling like an outcast, thinking they are alone or not wanted around campus.
His job is to make sure every student feels connected to everyone in his or her community – even if they are of a different race, religion, ethnicity or sexuality. His passion is to help students become more culturally competent through originations and programs that demonstrate unity.
Q: What do you think are the biggest diversity and inclusion problems at Queens?
“Satisfaction of our minority students and underrepresentation of population. Recently, in the student satisfaction surveys, minority students such as African Americans aren’t satisfied with their connection to Queens University.”
In a perfect world, a diverse and inclusive campus environment would be one in which “the faculty and staff are able to represent the student population. These resources would not only support students of diverse backgrounds of race and ethnicity, but religion, disabilities and sexual orientation.
Q: Do stereotypes play a role with minority student satisfaction at Queens?
“Yes, they play a huge role. We need to break down stereotypes and use every moment as a teachable moment by teaching and educating the campus community about different cultures, ethnicities, race and religions…”
Q: What are the main groups affected by the stereotypes on campus?
This year, Thomas focus has mainly been black students as well as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTQ) community because he feels it has been neglected. His office has encouraged SafeZone trainings with faculty and staff.
SafeZone training allows for individuals to come and learn about the LGBTQ community. The training teaches the the use of preferred terms, how students can come out and different types of gender identities. In essence, this program teaches how to support and be an ally for these students. The targeted audience for this training is anyone interested in being an ally for that community.
Ultimately, he would like to see student leaders be SafeZone trained.
“The LGBT community has definitely been over looked in the past, however, this year I want to negate and stop that from happening.”
Q: How do you decide which groups of students aren’t being included as much?
Thomas hasn’t received direct complaints about diversity on campus, but he is actively engaged with students by being a common face around campus. He talks to students and students approach him with ideas they want to see start happening around campus.
“Since the Queens population is constantly growing, there is always a need to educate students on diversity and the different populations.”
Q: How do you feel about inclusion as it relates to the majority population?
He combines the majority and minority populations by the Elite program. This is a mentoring program that pairs an upperclassmen student to a freshman student based on their socioeconomic status, minority status, race or status as a first-generation college student. The pairs come from various different backgrounds. They work together, attend educational programs and social events. Recently, the program has increased from 40 students to 100 students.
He recognized the Black Student Association as doing a good job of promoting that it’s not just an organization for one specific ethnic group. The organization states in its mission that everyone is invited to join and the members who join aren’t just black.
Thomas thinks all organizations can do a better job at promoting themselves as inclusive to all students by “stating at the beginning that their organization is for everyone, no matter what diverse group you may associate yourself with.”
Q: How are the least-known minority groups gaining attention?
Salam is Queens’ Muslim student group that works to create an open space for Muslim students to come together, resolve issues and celebrate Islam’s special holidays and events. This student group has received less attention than other minority groups around campus, Thomas believes, because he is a staff of one and can only do so much with limited resources and people. However, he stresses that he is available as a resource for people to share ideas that will help grow the Salam Club.
The Latino community are also a group that needs more attention around campus, Thomas said.
Q: Has there been a push for a student committee, who will actively participate for change?
“Yes, the University has a diversity council comprised of faculty, staff and even students. There have been ideas of revamping this council by doing a university audit on diversity in the next couple years. This will allow the University to understand the needs as it pertains to diversity. Recently, Queens was ranked as one of the top diverse private universities in North Carolina.”
Q: How does the greek life community contribute to diversity?
Thomas says there are misrepresentations of greek life that assumes it forms cliques and contributes to seclusion.
“Cliques can be formed through greek life, athletics or different class schedules since there are numerous majors and minors offered at Queens.”
But ultimately, the main question is how can we integrate all these groups, he says. He plans on reaching out to each diverse group to find ways to better collaborate these groups through different types of programs.
Alpha Kappa Alpha, a historically black greek organization, and a predominately white sorority paired up to do a program together this year. These organizations won an award for collaboration, which was created a few years ago by Thomas in his role as director of greek life. He says this is a way to learn about each other and educate each other on the history, culture, and customs of their different groups.
Q: What do you think a diverse and inclusive university looks like?
“Having a faculty and staff that represents the student population and having resources and support mechanisms for students of diverse populations. We need to understand that diversity is not just race and ethnicity but also religion, disability, and sexual orientation. Guest speakers that are brought in to speak on campus to students, who are only directed towards the affluent and majority or are they crossing that barrier to educate all.”
Mr. Thomas believes during his three years at Queens, “we have created a well diverse and inclusive atmosphere however, there is always room for improvement.”
As a final thought to lead you as you go about your daily routine and activities, Thomas says, “We might not look like them, might not worship like them or love like them, but we have to be open-minded because the world is ever changing. We need to understand that we are all different but we all bleed the same blood as humans. We need to understand that we are all human beings first and we all need love and we all need respect. Just because we are different in some areas doesn’t mean we aren’t the same in other areas. We all have a common goal to be good and to be successful.”
“I am here for support and to be a resource for students who want to work with me, so if there’s an program Queens students want to see, feel free to talk to me. I will do everything I can to make it happen,” he added.