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Faculty and staff succeed in inaugural diversity studies courses at UNG

Nearly a dozen faculty and staff of the University of North Georgia (UNG) recently completed a program designed to help them critically examine local, national and global diversity issues and explore how they can be advocates for diversity in their personal and professional surroundings.

Approximately half of the student cohort — which began with the first of three courses this past October — completed the final course of the graduate-level certificate program in early May, and the second half of the cohort is currently enrolled in an alternate section of the final course.

"This innovative certificate program is equipping our faculty and staff to build bridges across our increasingly diverse communities and to support our mission of developing students as leaders for a diverse and global society," said UNG President Bonita C. Jacobs. "We look forward to expanding this program to other education professionals seeking to understand contemporary issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion."

The courses include Introduction to Issues in Diversity, Current Issues and Trends in Diversity and Application of Diverse Topics in Professional Settings, and are offered through UNG's College of Education.

Exercises in the program discussed topics such as cultural identity and preconceptions, internal and external oppression, discrimination, and many others. The courses are open to anyone with a bachelor's degree or higher, including students, faculty and staff from other institutions.

"Some of the concepts we wanted our students to explore when designing this program included understanding privilege, power and oppression and what roles individuals play in these larger social systems," said Dr. Kelly McFaden, assistant professor of education and coordinator of Social Foundations of Education, and who helped design the program and taught one of the sections of the third course. Social Foundations of Education is a field of study focused on issues within modern educational practices and policies. "Learning these concepts involves challenging conversations that are essential for developing critical thinking and assessment of modern diversity issues."

By understanding the hurdles that diverse populations face in the modern world, the participants' work will help make environments more inclusive. For the final project in the third course, students were charged with identifying six areas at UNG that could use improvement in developing or enriching diversity. Ideas from those projects will be shared with the UNG Diversity Council for possible implementation.

"We witnessed good growth and engagement among the students, and their final projects contained a great assortment of multi-level actions that could possibly be implemented in the future," McFaden said. "Our overall goal now is to create a critical mass of UNG constituents who are knowledgeable about and engaged in these issues, and to possibly market this program to other universities and K-12 schools."

Dr. Carly Womack-Wynne, associate professor and associate director of UNG's Center for Global Engagement, taught the first two courses and one of the sections of the third course. She said her overall goal was to enable faculty and staff to take a broader definition of diversity into their classrooms and environments to develop greater understanding and guidance among students.

"I've seen tremendous growth among the students in this program, such as understanding that issues with power, prestige and privilege are not evident if you're among a population that possesses these advantages," Wynne said. "This growth helps our faculty and staff be much more supportive and passionate about ensuring that our marginalized students have equal access to educational opportunities."

Wynne added that this has been one of the most enriching teaching experiences among her 12 years of experience in higher education. She said she wants to eventually see involvement outside of UNG among the community, especially in areas such as healthcare and K-12 schools, because of the professional development opportunities the program offers.

"This course will enable our faculty and staff to make a greater impact in the university's initiative to grow the diversity of its constituents," said Sheila Caldwell, UNG's advisor to the president on diversity. "Having team members who have formally studied diversity issues is a unique strength, and our institution can only bear more fruit as the result of this effort."

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