The Interview USA
Miami University
Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion

Cristina Alcalde

To make change that lasts when it comes to diversity and inclusion, universities need to start with a simple idea: putting students first in everything they do. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by Cristina Alcalde, Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, met with Cristina to discuss her career journey, the need for student-centered diversity and inclusion efforts, and the importance of staying open to new ideas and approaches.

Cristina's Journey

Max: Let’s start with a brief introduction to yourself and your institution.

I'm Cristina Alcalde, Vice President, Office of Transformational and Inclusive Excellence, at Miami University – that’s in Oxford, Ohio, not Florida! Miami University is a student-centered public university with a strong focus on the teacher-scholar model. We have about 20,000 students, who are predominantly undergraduates. My professional background is in anthropology, and more specifically, I spent much of my career as a feminist scholar in Gender and Women's Studies. I'm also an immigrant, as well as lots of other things. All of those identities, experiences, and areas of expertise also inform my work. 

Max: What drove you to pursue a career in this field of work? How do you stay energized and inspired?

So much of what I focus on has to do with inclusive excellence. For me, several different things brought me to this specific line of work, but I would say one of the main ones was my research. So aside from being Vice President, I also have an appointment as a professor in Global and Intercultural Studies here at Miami. Before arriving here, I was at the University of Kentucky. My field of expertise and my research focus on exclusion, inclusion, racialization, gender violence, and migration. All those topics have so much to do with the work of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in higher education. So it was really my research that drew me to focus specifically on full-time administrative work because I wanted to have a bigger impact on the systems and the approach of higher education, to make an  impact by focusing on driving systemic change. 

Max: What are the key things to keep in mind when trying to create a sense of inclusion and belonging for all students at the institution?

That’s a great question. I think one of the things is we have to remember that students, like everyone else, come from a variety of backgrounds, and their perceptions of climate can be very different. Whilst for some, our campus might seem very welcoming, it could be the opposite for others. So we need to keep students at the center of our approach, and understand that we all have different experiences. We need to remember that diversity can mean different things to different people. We need to meet people where they are and meet their needs.

Max: We live in an increasingly polarized political landscape. How can we encourage students to speak across difference and engage in respectful dialogue?

Speaking across difference has always been a challenge, but I think it's now more important than ever. Right now, one of our areas of focus is finding ways to help not only students, but also faculty, staff, and everyone in our community to be able to engage productively in difficult conversations and build those important life skills. So we are partnering with the Constructive Dialogue Institute to equip students with the tools they need to engage productively in these difficult conversations, whether it's across differences that are political, racial, religious, or cultural differences. We've started a pilot for students, and we're launching one for faculty and staff as well. We're hoping that that not only helps us develop more resources but also assists us in addressing polarization to build that sense of belonging. It’s so fundamentally important for students to be able to actually navigate these sorts of tricky conversations appropriately. 

Max: Recent guests have discussed the difficulty of engaging time-poor students with these kinds of critical topics. How do you make sure you reach everybody?

The critical thing is to be able to engage across a variety of platforms in a variety of ways. So in our office, we've developed more of a social media presence so we can provide information and resources, whether it's about religious holidays, events, or educational programming. Part of it is being able to interact in different ways, and not only in the classroom. We’re really focused on collaborating with everyone across the university, so that we can come together and be stronger. 

Max: Universities can be slow to change. How do you ensure that your teams stay open to new ideas and approaches?

It’s critical because so much of what we do is about systemic change. It’s all about building trust and making sure everyone understands the direction we're going in. It’s not just about engaging with colleagues internally, which we always do, but also externally, so we know what other folks are doing. We're building coalitions and we can bring ideas from other spaces to discuss how best to support our students and our community. Because so many of us are doing this work, I think we're stronger when we actually talk to one another. And it makes it easier to bring about sustainable change when we provide the resources for people to understand why we're doing what we're doing.

Max: What’s the best piece of advice that you've received over the course of your career?

There are three things. First, really identify and know your allies, because everybody needs them. Second, always do your research, especially before beginning something new. Finally, remember to take care of yourself and your loved ones. To make sure you’re able to do this work, you need to look after yourself.

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Max Webber
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