The Interview USA
Western Carolina University
Chief Diversity Officer and Inclusive Executive

Ricardo Nazario y Colon

Over the years, great strides have been made in the expansion of Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion (DEI) on university campuses. Arguably, it’s the ideal place for that to happen, as by its very nature, education is about expanding students’ worldviews. At the same time, there’s been a great deal of pushback as well against that, as society continues to become more polarized. 

GoodCourse spoke to Ricardo Nazario y Colon, Chief Diversity Officer and Inclusive Executive at Western Carolina University about the benefits of a university education and the societal forces at play that provide the greatest challenges to engaging students with DEI today.

Ricardo’s Journey

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

Who I am and how I was raised, the challenges my family faced as I was growing up… All of that instilled in me a desire to know more about why society is constructed the way it is. Why it’s so competitive in nature and willing to allow people to fall by the wayside while others thrive. When I was a young man, opportunities and support presented themselves. The next thing I knew, I was going through college as a first-generation college student, trying to navigate this space and understand what race and class are and how they manifest themselves and the way I fit into that whole binary. Throughout my socialization in college and meeting people who supported and educated me, I guess my predisposition focused on wanting to help others understand the process before going into the process. That’s different from how I came up, where I had to figure it all out myself. As an organized society, we have to be better than that. It shouldn’t be survival of the fittest. That philosophy is what I took out of my Higher Education (HE) experience. 

HE changed my life radically in a positive way. And I firmly believe that by expanding your knowledge, you become a better human being. And while I came to college seeking an opportunity to find a job, that is not what college did for me. It expanded my worldview and demonstrated to me that there was so much out there to learn. And I’m thankful for everyone who participated in my journey.

GoodCourse: Can you talk to us about your approach to promoting cultural competency amongst students and any initiatives you’ve been working on to that end?

When you sit in a classroom with someone that came from a different state, county, socioeconomic background, gender identity, different racial category to you, just being in that space is creating a learning opportunity. I don’t need to force it. That happens naturally. Now we also develop some intentional ways to encourage people to connect because we know sometimes young people don’t want to connect, but the building blocks are already there. To bolster that, we bring speakers to campus. We support student groups’ various ideas and allow those ideas to take on a life of their own. We help students with leadership development, organizational growth, and mentoring. This becomes very personal for students and allows them to learn, grow, and be successful.

GoodCourse: The topic of freedom of speech has come up a great deal on The Interview, particularly as the world is getting more polarized. What challenges have you faced in getting students comfortable with the idea?

First and foremost I believe in freedom of speech. I am a pluralist at heart. But I think we must pay attention to what is happening in our society and why our young people are less equipped to engage in freedom of speech conversations. When the Conservative movement engages in the Board of Education infrastructure in grades K-12 and moves to eliminate ideas they disagree with, students spend their formative years not learning how to engage in contemporary issues or debate. They then arrive on college campuses with the notion that there’s only one way to look at things. It isn’t the students that are the problem. 

In programming, we welcome debate, students engaging in all topics, and even dissent amongst students. That’s critical to growth and learning and to being engaged citizens. If you’re not willing to debate issues on campus — a safe environment — how will you do that in your local community? The challenge in our current society is we’ve been so polarized that we don’t see the value in having others express their thoughts and ideas. We discount other points of view because they don’t align with ours. There is room for contrary points of view, as long as they aren’t predicated on your or my existence or lack thereof. 

There is room for contrary points of view, as long as they aren’t predicated on your or my existence or lack thereof. 
GoodCourse: How has DEI evolved over time and what new challenges do you face today? 

I have to go back to when HE was desegregated in the USA. The same people in administration against desegregation continued to work in HE for 20-30 years after that! That’s important because we have to consider when the generation of people where the majority were in support of desegregation really began to work — the 1980s and 90s, just 30 to 40 years ago. We have not stopped fighting desegregation on college campuses. And it’s important for us to understand that. As far removed as we are from the 50s and 60s, the issue of who should have access to HE is still today's debate. All of that is part of the conversation about how this field has evolved and continues to grow. 

I think that those of us who are in HE are always focused on how to further educate young people and provide them with the skills they need and the ability and knowledge they’re seeking. This current moment where you see states banning faculty tenure, the stripping of titles, and restriction of budget to engage in activities around DEI is just another iteration of the battle of who should have access to HE. And we will get through it the way we’ve always gotten through it. We find ways to ensure citizens have access to HE so they can be contributors to our nation. That’s the goal. We want to make better citizens. People who are going to support the nation and help it live up to its potential.

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