The Evolution of a Revolution

“What does belonging mean to you?” That’s the question being embraced by the Nazareth campus community

by Erich Van Dussen

Diversity is an invitation to the party, the saying goes, while inclusion is being asked to dance. But what if you aren’t familiar with the music the band is playing, or are allergic to the flowers on the tables? Maybe you’re a vegan, and there’s no food being served that you can eat….

No matter how passionate or sincere, a commitment to diversity and inclusion, or D&I, can ultimately accomplish only so much. An inclusive gathering of a diverse group of people is successful only when the people truly feel like they belong.

“People can join a community, be welcomed, and still not feel that they belong there,” said Diane Ariza, Ph.D., who joined Nazareth’s executive team last year as the College’s first vice president for Diversity and Inclusion. (That title will have changed by the time you read this article; more on that below.)

“There’s been a lot of study into the nature of belonging,” Ariza said. “We know that feelings of marginalization don’t automatically go away when someone is invited to join a group. And that marginalization isn’t necessarily limited to people of color, or other groups not in the majority. Anyone can lack a sense of belonging.”

While lauding Nazareth’s important ongoing work toward the goals of D&I, Ariza notes that even the words themselves connote an “otherness” that presupposes being different, or not part of the original whole. “We need to be able to build on that work and advance a shared sense of community,” she said. “Students are asked to adjust when they come to college, in large and small ways. A responsive environment must be able to do the same — to provide an optimal environment for every student, and to prepare them for their roles in shaping the world when they leave here.”

From that perspective, a community already committed to D&I might consider the pursuit of a widespread sense of belonging as a natural next step — or given its cultural impact, perhaps even an evolutionary leap.

Earlier this year, Nazareth began the next phase in that evolution.

“… To Be at Home”

The public face of the College’s belonging work made its first appearance in January, when students, faculty, and staff watched a three-and-a-half-minute video in which students were asked an open-ended question: “What does belonging mean to you?” Responses included “equality,” “being heard,” and the empowerment “to bring other people into the circle.”

In the video, Jervon Harrison ’20 packed a lot of meaning into his simple answer: “Belonging means … to be at home.”

Expanding on that idea off-camera, he added, “It’s about being part of a welcoming environment, so you’re not required to be anyone other than who you are.”

For many students, attending college means leaving home for the first time to face the risks of disconnection and isolation, even in a crowd. In Harrison’s case, traveling extensively before coming to Nazareth helped him learn how to feel at home in unfamiliar environments. On campus, he’s affirmed his identity through being a student-athlete mentor; an orientation leader for new students; and a participant in ANCHORS, a club dedicated to helping Nazareth men become “ambassadors of change” for a stronger and more united community.

“Now I feel very connected here, and not just to people who look like I do,” he said, “but I know not everyone feels that way. It’s not easy for everyone to feel like they fit in. And without that, you can miss a lot of opportunities as you move through college.”

Hence the video, and more. Harrison and other student leaders are among the earliest ambassadors for a cultural shift. Most formally, the school’s Diversity and Inclusion Division has been renamed the Division for Community and Belonging — in addition to expanding to include Diversity and Inclusive Excellence initiatives that maintain a commitment to those principles.

“We’re not leaving the goals of diversity behind. We’re just moving that needle in a different direction,” said Olajiwon McCadney, Director for Diversity and Inclusive Excellence Education.

Student programs such as ANCHORS, ongoing faculty and staff trainings, and more have McCadney feeling enthusiastic about collective efforts propelling the community toward a future that advances D&I while helping it evolve toward belonging, one encounter at a time. “I tell people it’s about unlearning as much as learning,” he said. “Making room for other viewpoints and perspectives involves a commitment to being a little bit uncomfortable at first. That discomfort is powerful, and can lead to important growth.”

The video is step one in an outreach program that encourages the campus community to suggest their interpretations of belonging, to be shared in print and online, to broaden the definition of the B word and build enthusiasm and alignment. The campus-wide campaign was developed by a team of students, faculty, and staff, with a distinctive look and feel created by Alice Hallahan-Soltiz ’11, an art lecturer and a designer in the Marketing and Communications Department.

The objective at this stage, Ariza said, is simple: “We want people — students, faculty, staff — to provide narratives, to share their stories. Together, those stories tell us, ‘This is my community. I have something to say.’ And we hear you. We see you.”

An Inevitable Progression

Before he became director and Catholic chaplain in the Center for Spirituality — another department within the Division for Community and Belonging — Jamie Fazio, M.Div., was a member of Nazareth’s undergraduate class of 1997. Now he can look back at the iterative nature of the College’s decades-long commitment to diversity and equality, beginning with the Office of Multicultural Affairs in the 1990s, which became the Office of Pluralism and later the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

From that perspective, he said, the launch of this new division was inevitable — and greatly welcome. “It says a lot that Diane’s role has been created as part of the President’s Cabinet,” Fazio said. “It’s the first time this type of work has been directly recognized at that level here, and it’s a big step. Building this division and increasing our reach shows a deep commitment to responding to genuine, crucial needs—here on our campus, and more broadly in the city and the country as a whole.”

Madeline Mitchell ’20 shares Fazio’s assessment of the need. The leader of the College’s Lambda LGBTQ+ club said she feels accepted on campus, but she also recognizes the difference between acceptance and a true sense of belonging. She’s encouraged by these new efforts.

“Belonging has to be about more than ‘here’s your club’ — there has to be greater visibility for minority students, and a sense of empowerment that right now isn’t always there,” Mitchell said. “In some ways it’s probably even overdue; but I think the people involved with this movement have the best interests of all Nazareth students at heart.”

Nazareth is 2,700 miles from Mitchell’s hometown of Eugene, Oregon, and for her, choosing the College’s highly regarded music therapy program meant first overcoming her concerns about relocating. “As a queer person coming from a very liberal place, I wasn't sure what it would be like here,” she said. “I’ve found my place, but what we really need — what I hope we can achieve — is for everyone to do their part.”

The urgency of this evolution has roots extending back to 1924 and Nazareth’s founding by the Sisters of St. Joseph. “Those women weren’t just scholars — they were feminists, and progressive thinkers,” Fazio noted, with a reminder that Nazareth’s colors of purple and gold were selected back then for their association with women’s suffrage. “The Sisters started this college not only with a goal of providing access to higher education — they wanted Nazareth students to become socially engaged citizens. All of this work is authentic to that vision.”

The gradual process of realizing that vision fits seamlessly with the classroom work of Marie Watkins, professor and director of the College’s community youth development program. “We have discussions about this in class all the time,” she said. “Belonging is about going deeper into a process whereby students, and all of us, really understand the importance of humility and responsiveness — being with people, as opposed to working for or at them. This is what rigorous learning looks like.”

As a licensed social worker and a Nazareth alumna herself, Watkins both identifies with the goals of the burgeoning movement and welcomes its arrival in the campus community that means so much to her. “How does it feel for me? I feel like I'm at home.”

Modeling Change

The belonging work is “incredibly important,” according to Nazareth President Daan Braveman, in its aim to help students thrive in an eclectic college environment, and to model those lessons in life.

“We live in a time when difference can seem to threaten people, and we need to change that narrative so people can see the strength in difference,” Braveman said. “One of the most important things colleges can do is prepare students to live and work across lines of difference — whether religious, racial, ethnic, cultural, gender-based, political, you name it. That requires adaptation, and it should be reciprocal. Students, faculty, and staff all need to adapt. The institution as a whole must adapt.”

Ariza and Fazio point out that the effort will remain a work in progress. “I wish we could press a fast-forward button to create a community of belonging tomorrow,” Fazio said, “but we didn't get to this place in a short period as a country, and it’s going to take time for it to turn around.

“As an alumnus, and as a member of the campus community, I'm proud of how far we’ve come,” he added. “And I’m proud of where we’re going.”

Erich Van Dussen is a freelance writer in Rochester, NY. Photos by Denver Miller.


    "We can respect each other...and talk to each other like human beings." - Dwight Young


      "Being recognized means they care about you." - Madeline Mitchell


        "College students need acceptance." - Sophia Qureshi