The Interview USA
Marquette University
Vice President for Inclusive Excellence

Christine Navia

In recent years, it’s become increasingly apparent on university campuses that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and cultural competency aren’t issues that can be taught or handled in isolation. They need to be woven through every class, program, and policy. Students have to be able to share and understand their differing experiences to form campus communities for support and understanding. First-generation and other disadvantaged students need support as well in order to grow from their experiences.

Christine Navia, Vice President (VP) for Inclusive Excellence at Marquette University, spoke to GoodCourse about taking a holistic approach to DEI so that students can learn and evolve together in order to ensure the university climate is equitable and safe for all.

Christine’s Journey

GoodCourse: What brought you to your current role and the wider field of DEI and Student Experience?

It started as basic intellectual curiosity as an undergraduate of color. I worked several summers with a professor named John Ramsey, looking at what at the time we called the “pipeline” for young people of color to Higher Education (HE). When you’re looking at pipelines, you’re thinking about resources, inequities in structure, and all those things that hold those inequities up. Then when I got to graduate school, I worked on the Campus Racial Climate, an extension of what I’d been curious about as an undergraduate and was now able to take a much deeper, more intellectual dive into. 

When I graduated, my first job was at the University of Wisconsin (UW) System as an Institutional Planner in the Office of DEI. The charge was to think about pathways for young students preparing for college, and then to work with all of the institutions in the system. 

So that’s how I made my way into the DEI world. Later on in my career in the UW system, I had a great mentor, Jim Henderson, who asked me to help him create an Office of Student Success. Then this job opened at Marquette. It’s an DEI position but it also has a very deep vein of student success work so I’m allowed to use all of my skills and experiences, which I love, because the whole point of DEI is to create a campus climate where everyone thrives—intellectually, socially, spiritually. 

GoodCourse: What initiatives have you been working on to advance cultural competency on campus?

I’ve only been in the position for eleven months, but one of the things we’ve started to talk about is establishing inter-group dialogue programs to develop cultural competency not in a class or separate training but in relationship to each other. As a Jesuit Catholic institution, Marquette really wants this to be a part of the spiritual formation, so it’s cultural competency delivered in the context of being in community with one another. We are increasingly diverse. This year we’re at the point where almost 34% of our freshmen population are students of color. We made a concerted effort to do that. My job now is to say, “Ok, we’ve got these students but what do they know of each other? And how do we make sure that they’re not replicating the little bubbles that they came from before they got to Marquette?”

The campus and Student Affairs also have a number of programs. We have a Center for Engagement and Inclusion. Our students have started their own program intended for everyone but with a focus on engaging and learning from the Latinx and Black communities, the two biggest minority populations here in Milwaukee. It’s called the Black Brown Getdowns. Students sat down to talk about major issues in their communities. The idea is, if our voices are together, they’re stronger.  

We also do work with faculty and staff. We have a program called Making Marquette Inclusive, developing the capacity of faculty and staff to facilitate DEI conversations. 

GoodCourse: I understand that you are a first-generation HE student. How has your experience informed your work?

Sometimes it’s subconscious, sometimes it’s very conscious. I remember going onto campus as an undergrad and being around students who were infinitely more well-resourced than I was. That sense of feeling easily lost, coming upon a first failure and rather than seeing it as a temporary state of things, feeling like this was it, I wasn’t supposed to be here. It really helps me recognize that students who are first generation aren’t deficient. It’s just that they don’t have the experience. It becomes a question of, how do we make this place more transparent? How do we make it easier for students to ask for help? How do we not wait for them to tell us they’re in trouble but rather lean in on a more conscious basis, making sure they’re on track and progressing as we need them to. How do we make sure they’re taking full advantage of everything Marquette has to offer? My dad would say it’s only failure if you don’t learn from it. Falling down is a very typical part of college life. I share my experiences a lot. They give me the opportunity to connect with students. It’s constantly with me.

GoodCourse: What is your approach when it comes to creating a safe environment on campus?

When I think about safety, I think about our LGBTQ+ students. I want you to bring your whole self to Marquette. I want you to be out and fine with who you are and who you love. Our superior general says, “God did not create us to judge. He created us to love.” Part of that physical and emotional safety is getting our other students to understand that. We have an opportunity to practice radical empathy and acceptance. That’s a little bit of a challenge as a Catholic institution. There’s often some tension there. But we’re working through it really well. 

The other piece is that physically we’re transforming the campus. We put up a really fantastic mural for young women of Marquette. The name is “Our Roots Say We’re Sisters”. We’ve established a sculpture that has all of the words of our land and water acknowledgement emblazoned upon it. Next year, we’re launching a Student Success Center to tell students, if you need help, that’s ok. We want you to come to this hub and we’re going to connect you to all the sources of support we have. We want to leverage the physical space we have to engender greater emotional and social safety.

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