The Interview USA
State University of New York at Buffalo
Chief Diversity Officer

Seval Yildirim

As educational institutions strive to cultivate inclusive environments, their efforts extend far beyond the classroom, paving the way for a more just and equitable society. This understanding is central to the work done by Seval Yildirim, Chief Diversity Officer at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, sat down with Seval to discuss topics including the importance of fostering a sense of inclusion and belonging, the challenge of encouraging open dialogue and respectful engagement across divides, and the value of a holistic approach to student support. 

Seval's Journey

Max: Let’s begin with an introduction to yourself and your institution.

I'm originally from Turkey, and I came to the U.S. 32 years ago as a scholarship student for college. I'm a first-generation college student, and also the first to go to graduate school on either side of my family. I was a law professor before joining central administration and getting into DEI work. As a lawyer, I’ve done pro bono cases across the United States, primarily in individual freedom cases or First Amendment cases. That was my background before I joined the University at Buffalo, which is a flagship institution in the state of New York. We are part of the State University of New York system, which is the largest university system in the country. I'm just finishing my sixth month here – it's been a cold winter for me coming from Southern California, but the campus community and the city of Buffalo have really been amazing partners in equity and inclusion work. So I'm really happy to have made the move.

Max: How has your legal background influenced your approach to DEI work?

For me, DEI has always been at the root of why I do what I do. Without my college scholarship, I never would have made it to the United States or had access to the opportunities I ended up accessing. I got into law because I wanted to be able to make a difference in the world. I grew up during times of political turmoil in Turkey, with a military coup underway, and some of my family members being wrongly imprisoned. So I wanted to find a path to be able to undo some of that in society. When I became a law professor, I noticed that we had a lot of students from diverse backgrounds, but there were few people of color on the faculty. I also felt like we weren't addressing the students' needs directly. So I started advocating for increasing faculty diversity and holistically supporting our students from all backgrounds, recognizing that they may have different needs to achieve success.

Max: What’s your approach to ensuring that all students feel a sense of inclusion and belonging?

We need to think about student success holistically. From the classroom to the dorm room, we need to make sure that our students have the tools they need to succeed. In academic terms, that could range from respecting different learning styles to equitable grading. Outside the classroom, we need to think about things like food and shelter, because not all our students have that security. When I was at UNLV, we also did a lot of work around supporting our undocumented student population, because we had a much larger undocumented population in that state. It’s about reaching students where they are and ensuring that their needs are being met.

Max: How can we make sure students understand inclusive behaviors and foster a welcoming learning community for everyone?

That’s an important part of the education process. For example, our current core curriculum for undergraduate students contains elements that teach them about different cultures and different peoples. At UB, 17% of our students are international, which is one of the things that attracted me here, having been an international student myself. Students have the opportunity to learn from others who come from all over the world and bring different perspectives. So not only do we have domestic diversity, but we also have global diversity. I also think additional programming is important; right now, we're working to make sure that our core curriculum contains elements of mutual understanding and that all students will be taking these capstone classes. We believe in continuous improvement, so we are continuously assessing and reassessing how our core curriculum helps our students understand each other to create a mutually respectful and nurturing environment.

Max: How do you approach the challenge of encouraging students to engage across difference, when it comes to politically polarized subjects?

It’s been a learning experience so far, but I’ve developed some plans with colleagues from different colleges and units. Next fall, we're starting a series called Campus Community Conversations – the idea is we come together as a community to have conversations in a moderated environment, where each student, faculty and staff member will have an opportunity to express how they feel in a safe environment without being attacked for their views. These conversations will cover topics such as our electoral system and how it works, and free speech rights. I think it's really important for our students to understand how our political and legal structures work. We have to make room for everybody and their viewpoints.

Max: Students have busy schedules with little free time. How can we make sure to engage students outside the classroom?

I think that challenge exists everywhere, and there are no simple solutions. I think it's an ongoing assessment and reassessment of what works and what doesn't. I think one important thing to be cognizant of is the timing of these events –for example, if they coincide with exam times, we need to be mindful of where the students are in terms of their stress. We also need to find spaces that are easy for students to get to; for example, we need to remember that many students rely on public transportation. And having food always helps get people through the door! In the post-pandemic era, after students have been used to being online, we're still getting used to doing these things in person.

Max: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career? 

Be patient. Take your time, because change is difficult, even for people who want it. When the status quo is challenged, you get a lot of pushback. The very concept of DEI means we look to change the way things are, and that can be difficult for people. So it's really important to be patient, be empathetic and move slowly.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Max Webber
Max works closely with people leaders and change-makers in our professional services markets. If you're looking to feature on The Interview, or simply want to learn more about GoodCourse, then get in touch at

The future of training is here, are you ready for it?

Tired of chasing your learners to complete dull training? Let's speak today👇
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.