All-inclusive education

For academic advisor Suzi Pyawasay, advancing equity and diversity is all in a day's work.

Sasanehsaeh (Suzi) Pyawasay, transfer coordinator/academic advisor with CBS Student Services, recently received the Minnesota College Personnel Association's Voice of Inclusion Award, which recognizes initiative or individuals who work toward inclusion for students and others in higher education. We asked her for her thoughts on how to make the student experience more inclusive and her advice to others interested in advancing equity and diversity.

You began your career in multicultural affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Did you know you wanted to do diversity work as an undergraduate?

As an undergraduate student, I studied both Sociology and American Indian Studies. I was unsure of what I wanted to do but was naturally drawn toward events and programming specific to students of color. Initially it was to find community with other underrepresented students but eventually it sparked a potential career interest. I was fortunate to be able to work as an undergraduate student in two offices that supported underrepresented students of color — the American Indian Student Academic Services office as well as the Multicultural Student Center. Being at a predominately white institution and supporting underrepresented students, you naturally encounter challenges of diversity, equity and social justice. It became a part of my everyday work and I loved it. These experiences definitely shaped my career interests and trajectory in higher education, and influenced my decision to continue my education in organizational leadership and policy analysis.

Can you talk about some of the challenges that students from marginalized groups face at a large research institution like the U of M?

One huge challenge is understanding and navigating the dominant culture of the institution. When it is very different from a student’s own culture, negotiating those different worlds can be challenging and exhausting. Another challenge may be the  burden of educating others. As a member of a historically marginalized group in higher education, a student’s lived experience may be uniquely different from others’ experience. To have to educate others on that experience is an enormous responsibility and can feel burdensome for these students. Also, I think it might also be challenging for some students from traditionally marginalized group to understand what it means to be part of an underrepresented population at an institution like the U of M; the power and privilege you may or may not have as being a part of that population and how it intersects with other identities you may carry — visible or invisible, underrepresented or represented.  

How do you bring equity and diversity into conversations about how best to serve students?

It is important to recognize the intersection of identities that our students bring to our institution. That means not only recognizing their visible identities (race, ethnicity, gender, ability, etc.) but their non-visible identities (sexual orientation, religion, ability, etc.). It means being equitable to the diverse populations of students we serve by incorporating them into our perspective when we create, implement and execute programming for all students. For me, that is incorporating different perspectives to think outside of the box and challenging the status quo to providing insights into how to increase inclusivity to serve all students.

You are part of a committee tasked with helping increase intercultural competence in CBS Student Services. What are some of the ways that we as an institution can be more inclusive?

As a committee, we chose to begin this work with focusing on ourselves to get a better sense of our own perspectives, frames, biases, experiences, and how they have shaped who we are as professionals and how we work with students. The ideas is to take what we learn and try to apply it more broadly to how we as an office work with students. With that being said I think the institution as a whole is fostering greater inclusivity through support for the Office of Equity and Diversity with their robust programming. Additionally,  I would love to see conversations across disciplines on how to increase inclusivity and what different types of approaches are being utilized. I would also love to see a diversity forum for the entire University, where faculty, staff and students can get together to engage in conversations around diversity, equity and social justice.

What advice do you have for others who want to become involved in advancing equity and diversity?

This work is challenging and may be quite difficult at times, but if it is where your heart lies, by all means embrace it. I think there is a misconception that only certain individuals can do this work. In reality, I think it is the responsibility of everyone. No matter the contribution, it all makes a difference. I would also suggest that embracing humility is helpful in doing this work. It is easy to make mistakes in trying to advancing equity and diversity, but it is what we learn from those mistakes which makes it all worth it.

Who do you consider a role model in the work of equity and diversity? Why?

I appreciate each and every person who does this work. It definitely takes courage and a multi-level approach to create change. We all have our own stake in creating a more inclusive environment.  I think that is the beauty of this work, the change that it can create. Whether you are an administrator, student, staff or faculty, we all can work together to create a space that welcomes all individuals to our institution, colleges, units and programs.

– Stephanie Xenos

Check out the CBS Diversity News + Events page for more about what's happening in CBS and the University.