Perhaps it was inevitable that simmering racial tensions sparked by a spate of police shootings of black men across the U.S. and fueled by a contentious presidential campaign emerged at Western Carolina University during the 2016 spring semester. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the pro-police counterpart Blue Lives Matter, angry rhetoric directed at Hispanic and Muslim immigrants, the growth of the alt-right faction and a resurgence of student activism on campuses nationwide were a perfect storm, combining to spawn a racially charged atmosphere.

In Cullowhee, the catalyst for heightened tension was a display of student-created posters in the Department of Intercultural Affairs designed to draw attention to the issue of police brutality toward African-Americans. Some students took offense, expressing support for law enforcement via social media posts. Those posts inspired other students to write sidewalk chalk messages showing pride in their various cultures and ethnicities, which in turn led to strong – sometimes racist – posts on a social media platform that allows users to remain anonymous.

As part of ongoing efforts to improve the campus climate on issues of race, diversity and inclusion, the university scheduled several open discussions throughout the 2016 spring semester. Among the suggestions arising from those discussions was the need for training for faculty and staff on how to talk about tough issues with other members of the campus community, which led to summer and fall workshops.

In addition, after studying the campus climate for much of the 2016-17 academic year, a joint task force on racism, chaired by faculty member Kathleen Brennan, made recommendations to WCU’s administration focused on the need to prioritize diversity and inclusion on campus, and the desire for additional educational opportunities related to diversity and inclusion. During a task force forum this past April, Chancellor David O. Belcher reminded the campus community that WCU “…is not alone in grappling with the issue of racism.”

As evidence of what Belcher has characterized as a commitment to “WCU as a vibrant, inclusive and diverse institution,” the university hired its first chief diversity officer, Ricardo Nazario-Colon, last spring. That position, however, had been in the works long before the tensions of 2016; Belcher announced in August 2014 an “an enhanced, in-it-for-the-long-haul commitment to diversity” that would include the budget-neutral creation of a position to lead campus diversity efforts.

For predominantly white WCU, such efforts are becoming critical in the face of dramatic demographic shifts among high school graduates. Nationally, demographers predict that the number of Asian high school graduates will increase by 41.28 percent between 2013 and 2027, while Hispanic graduates will increase by 36.29 percent, American Indian/Alaska native by 12.33 percent and African-American by 4.49 percent. Conversely, the white/non-Hispanic segment will decrease by 11.11 percent.

As the diversity of the campus inevitably increases, the university has an opportunity to expose students to cultural differences that will make them more effective employees and leaders in the global job market, Nazario-Colon said. “It is important to assist all of our community members in navigating not only this institution but also the communities that we are preparing our students to join. In the end, regardless of our differences, we are all part of the same community, both locally and globally,” he said.

“Yes, our campus is not immune from racial, political or ideological discord. But, with an emphasis on ensuring an inclusive living and learning environment, WCU is a welcoming place for all, a place that is leveraging the power of diversity to enhance the productivity and intellectual personality of all members of our campus community,” he said.

In the pages that follow, members of the WCU campus community share their perspectives on race, diversity
and inclusion, in vignettes compiled by Marlon W. Morgan.

Clifton Price ’09

Graduate school: School counseling

Hometown: Hickory

While attending WCU as an undergraduate, Clifton Price ’09 said he never personally encountered any mistreatment as an African-American. He views his experience in Cullowhee as inspiring.

“At WCU, I learned so much valuable information. I gained a sense of hope for humanity,” Price said, recalling a day one of his white friends joined him in Brown Cafeteria. “We were casually eating lunch and my friend looked at me and said, ‘Thank you, Clif.’ I was confused, and asked my friend to explain. He said, ‘Clif, I thank you for changing my views of black people.’” Price was still perplexed.

“He went on to explain that, before meeting me, he was extremely prejudiced toward people of color. He also explained that, for his entire life, he was taught it was perfectly fine to judge a person of color before getting to know them. So, he thanked me for changing his views,” Price said. “I felt empowered and saddened at the same time – empowered because I broke through a barrier, but sad because I knew there were millions of other people like my buddy who wouldn’t have that breakthrough.”

While his campus experiences were mostly positive, Price did witness disturbing events, including a dead bear that was found near the Catamount statue with two Barack Obama campaign posters on its head. He also remembers a noose being discovered in Brown Cafeteria. Off campus, Price said he was treated differently by mechanics and at restaurants, grocery stores and elsewhere.

“My experience has been one of difference, injustice and pain,” Price said. “But, it’s also been one of resilience, endearment, triumph and success. My experiences have led me to be courageous, to be empathetic and to be loving, because I’ve seen the alternative. I’ve been down that road. And in order for us to grow as a society, we have to open up our hearts and love a lot more than we already are. We need to look at each other and accept the differences that we see. It’s perfectly fine to be different, but it’s not OK to be treated differently.

“My story has been one of many obstacles I’ve had to overcome, and I’ve overcome them. I want people to know that it doesn’t matter what your circumstance may be. You have the power to overcome. You have to find what makes you go. WCU taught me so much and I’m extremely thankful for having had the experience to be a Catamount. There’s a reason I went back to WCU for graduate school.”

Antonio Corza ’16

Graduate school: Finance and accounting

Hometown: Statesville

As a Latino graduate student in the finance and accounting program at WCU’s Biltmore Park instructional site, Antonio Corza ’16 views himself as a role model to current and future Latino students.

Corza is a first-generation college student. Both of his parents are from Mexico, where they completed only elementary school “because they didn’t have the money to pay for school,” Corza said. After coming to the U.S., Corza’s parents worked hard to ensure that their children would have the opportunity to go to college.

“They always told us that school is important,” he said. “They wouldn’t let us work at all because they wanted us to focus on school and not get distracted by anything else. When I graduated from high school, it was not only my moment, but also theirs because they worked hard for me to stay in line.”

Although diversity is increasing at WCU, Corza said he often is the only one in his classes. Still, he wants to help pave the way for others. “I feel privileged and blessed to be in a classroom. Even though I’m often the only Latino student, I’m going along with the trend, leaving stepping stones for the next students to come,” he said.

“I can talk to Latino students in the undergrad program and be like a role model to them,” he said. “I can be like that point person to talk to and answer any questions they might have. Latinos can relate to each other.”

Corza said he has been treated fairly both by his classmates and his professors throughout his time at WCU. “My professors are motivating me to do bigger and better things,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m treated any less as a Latino student.”

Erica McCurdy

Year: Sophomore

Major: Undecided

Hometown: Raleigh

Erica McCurdy is technically in the majority as a white student at WCU. But because she prides herself on having friends from various ethnicities, McCurdy often finds herself in the minority.

For instance, when she joined WCU’s Inspirational Gospel Choir last year as a freshman, McCurdy was one of just three white members in the mostly African-American choir. Growing up Catholic in Raleigh, McCurdy was definitely out of her comfort zone.

“At first, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to sing gospel music,” she said. “I had been singing in school choirs my whole life. I didn’t know if I was going to fit in. But I loved it. It’s just been so interesting to learn. They’re like, ‘You don’t know this song? I learned this song in church when we were like 4 years old,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m brand new to this.’”

Growing up in schools where white people were in the minority, McCurdy took advantage of opportunities to learn about other cultures. “I feel like I’ve gained the respect of a lot of people through that,” she said. “I’m trusted for that and it’s always been a part of who I am as a leader. I was the student body president at my high school. I feel like I got that role because people trusted me, because I knew where everyone was coming from.”

McCurdy also feels like her relationships with minorities have helped influence other white people. “I don’t hang around that many white people. When I do, they ask me, ‘How do you know those things? Do you just ask them, because I don’t know what to say?’ I say, ‘You just have to keep yourself open and not make it sound accusatory or like you’re just too ignorant to actually understand.’ I think I definitely have opened a lot of eyes,” she said.

McCurdy encourages other white people to get out of their comfort zones, like she has done by joining WCU’s choir. “One of the biggest things my mom asked me was, ‘Are there any other white kids in there, Erica?’ I said, ‘Actually, there’s a few. I thought I was going to be the only one.’ There’s more people coming in. I think we have a pretty diverse group. It’s interesting that we all come together for this one thing,” she said.

Jacob French

Year: Senior

Major: Business law

Hometown: Reidsville

After attending a marching band symposium for high school students in 2012, Jacob French knew he wanted to attend WCU. Today, as a member of the Pride of the Mountains Marching Band, French is in charge of running that summer symposium.

Prior to enrolling, French told his mom he was going to WCU strictly for an education. But it didn’t take him long to realize he was going to learn far more outside of the classroom than inside.

Growing up in rural Reidsville, French discovered in eighth grade that he was gay, but he kept it to himself. Shortly after arriving at WCU, members of the band made him feel comfortable enough to share who he really was. The first person he told was former drum major Brandon Truitt ’16, who also is gay.

“He kind of knew, and he just made me feel comfortable,” French said. “We hung out, and one day I trusted him enough to actually tell him I’m gay. He helped me come out to other people. It made me feel more comfortable coming out to my brothers in my fraternity. My brothers have been so accepting. That’s why I haven’t been really scared to tell other people.”

French said that Cullowhee is a place where he feels safe and at home. “(Reidsville) is where the more negative reactions come in, which is why I don’t really go home,” French said. “I always stay at Western, even over the summer when I’m not in school. I just love being at Western and the positive vibes this campus puts out.”

French now finds himself in the supportive role Truitt once held. French has been instrumental in helping other gay students at WCU navigate their way. “I’ve helped plenty of people accept who they are,” he said. “That’s why I feel like I was meant to be at Western. I found my help, and I feel like it was my turn to help others. It’s something I definitely enjoy doing, just advocating for equality everywhere.

“I’m not ignorant to the fact that not everybody on campus is going to be accepting. That’s kind of what college is. College is a smaller version of the rest of the world. Everybody has different ideas and opinions. That’s just something you live with and don’t let that bring you down,” French said.

Jenifer Montoya Velasquez

Year: Junior

Major: Criminal justice and biology

Hometown: Hickory

Among the first things Jenifer Montoya Velasquez noticed when she arrived on campus is the lack of fellow Latino students. That’s why Velasquez joined the Latino Appreciation Student Organization, giving her a support group. Joining LASO is just what the first-generation student needed to blossom. Velasquez, a junior, joined other organizations and is now president of LASO.

“As a freshman, I was not the person I am now,” she said. “I’ve grown tremendously with my leadership skills. Being involved in organizations has allowed my leadership skills to flourish. It has really brought me a lot of awareness about the problems we have on campus and around the world.”

Velasquez and her family moved to Hickory when she was 4. Her mother owns a cleaning business while her stepfather owns a lawn-mowing company. A criminal justice and biology major, Velasquez realizes the opportunity she has.

“I have to do this to have a better life, because I’ve seen the struggles,” Velasquez said. “I’ve seen what it looks like in Latin countries where there’s poverty, school is not even an option and you have to go to work. I’m really appreciative I had the opportunity to come here to have an education.”

Velasquez said she has found WCU to be a place where students can express different ideas and beliefs. But her encounters with white students haven’t allowed her to affect awareness of Latinos the way she has seen happen with other minorities.

“With other minorities, we learn that we are much more similar than we are different. At the end of the day, we’re all struggling and we’re all in the same pool. Just because you’re Hispanic and just because you’re black doesn’t mean we’re different. We’re all fighting the same struggles and oppressions that we have today in society,” she said.

“What I can take away from being at Western is to stand up for who I am and for my culture, to not be afraid to speak up for who you are and what you believe in. Honestly, coming here has allowed me to step out of that comfort zone and develop those skills,” Velasquez said.

Keiara Isom

Year: Junior

Major: Biology

Hometown: Charlotte

Growing up in Michigan and Charlotte, Keiara Isom was accustomed to being in diverse environments. When she graduated from high school, it would have been easy to follow her friends to colleges with diverse populations. But Isom wanted a different experience. So, she left the city for the mountains of WCU.

Isom has found predominantly white WCU to be very accepting of minorities overall. She has noticed the curiosity of some white counterparts, particularly when it comes to her different hairstyles. “It seems weird, but it’s also funny that they’re interested in why my hair is straight one day and super curly the next day,” Isom said. “It’s something I think is normal, but others think it’s fascinating.”

While she has enjoyed many positive experiences as a minority at WCU, there have been negative occurrences, such as racially charged chalk writings during the 2015-16 academic year.

Discussing that situation with white peers often left her feeling uncomfortable. “It was kind of awkward,” Isom said. “I’m a biology major so, in most of my classes, I may be the only African-American student, or the only African-American female, so everybody was kind of asking me my opinion and how I felt. I had no problem expressing it, but I just kind of felt like the odd person sometimes.”

Isom said those incidents brought African-Americans at WCU closer together. It also was a learning experience for her. “It wasn’t like we were trying to be violent, or anything like that. We were just supporting each other. A lot of the chalkings were harsh, and they did hurt some people’s feelings. For me and some of my African-American friends, it was more about being there for each other more than we were in the beginning,” Isom said.

“For the people who were asking how I felt about it, they wanted information. They wanted to be educated. I guess it made me feel important. If they didn’t care, they would have never asked.”

Kiara Hines

Year: Senior

Major: Social work

Hometown: Rutherfordton

For Kiara Hines, coming to WCU was no different than attending a predominantly white high school in Rutherfordton. It wasn’t until the campus discord surrounding the 2016 presidential election that Hines felt discomfort.

“Last year, there were a lot of chalkings around the middle of campus,” Hines said. “I worked as a tour guide, so I had to try to explain that everyone has a right to freedom of expression, but obviously there was a lot of concern about the things they saw. It made me question the character of some of the students.”

Hines said a lot of the opportunities she’s had at WCU have come while being one of a few minorities. Last spring, she went to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Memphis. Hines said she was one of about three African-American students selected to attend from WCU.

“We’re not always well-represented on campus,” Hines said. “But I feel like the (minority students) who are here do a lot. If we weren’t here, I feel like the campus would be a lot different.”

There is one thing Hines would like to see change on campus. “I would like white people to be more understanding and not be so quick to judge people,” she said. “We adapt because we’re used to adapting, but it would be nice if white people would try to change instead of always wanting things to be modified for them.”

As president of the Inspirational Gospel Choir, it’s one of the few times on campus when Hines gets to be in the majority. The choir has three white members, but Hines said she would like to see it become more diverse.

“I think it’s saying we’re trying,” Hines said of the white members. “I think we’re trying to be more cognizant. It’s going to take some time. I think because of where we are geographically, not everybody is accepting right away. But I think we’re addressing it and we’re taking some steps in the right direction.”

Aaron Alexander

Year: Senior

Major: Marketing and entrepreneurship

Hometown: Shelby

Whether he agrees with them or not, Aaron Alexander doesn’t have a problem with people speaking their minds, as long as they abide by one simple rule. “I feel like everyone should be able to express their views, whether it’s the College Republicans or the Black Student Union, as long as they stay respectful of everyone,” Alexander said.

There were several incidents on the WCU campus during the 2015-16 academic year when that didn’t happen. One that stands out most to Alexander occurred during a Black Lives Matter silent protest that he attended.

“There was a student, I think he was a freshman, and you could tell he was totally against it the whole time,” Alexander said. “He said, ‘Gorilla Lives Matter,’ instead of ‘Black Lives Matter.’ I just really couldn’t believe he said that. I felt like it was important to let everyone know that it did happen and stuff like that continues to happen every day. As white people on a predominantly white campus, we shouldn’t pretend that doesn’t happen.”

It was a rude awakening for Alexander, who attended a predominantly white high school in Shelby, but had never witnessed racial tensions like he did that year at WCU. “I grew up around African-Americans playing sports,” Alexander said. “For the most part, we got along and treated each other the same. I feel like with the political race, it just kept building and building and building.”

Fortunately, Alexander said, the campus has returned to normalcy since the election. But the racial tensions definitely served as a learning experience for everyone, he said.

Channa De Silva 

Associate professor, bioinorganic chemistry

After completing postdoctoral research at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Channa De Silva was looking for a position where he could teach and conduct research at the undergraduate and graduate levels. De Silva found the balance he was seeking at WCU, joining the faculty in 2010.

A native of Sri Lanka, he had concerns about the small number of international faculty members at WCU and low percentage of Asians in the area. “At that time, there were probably 10 to 20 (international faculty members) out of 200,” he said. “My daughter started going to kindergarten. She was the only Asian student in the whole class. Even nowadays, even though it’s growing a little bit, I went to her sixth-grade honors reception and I was the only one with this (skin) color.”

But overriding factors led De Silva to WCU – the weather, mountains and friendliness of the faculty. Not only was his interview process smooth, but he was touched that people remembered him when he returned to start working.

“I also like that I have support from the faculty members,” he said. “If I have to use an instrument, if I don’t know anything about it, everybody will jump in and show me how to use it. And when they find research opportunities, they will forward them to me. They helped me to get students in the beginning.”

He attended college in Sri Lanka before heading to the University of Arizona to earn his doctorate. Although the landscape at Arizona is more diverse than at WCU, De Silva said being a minority faculty member at WCU has its positives.

“Students are curious about my culture,” he said. “I can start a conversation with a student. If I don’t have a topic, we can talk about food or things like that. I have played music at the International Festival. Every year, they invite me to play Sri Lankan or Indian music. I really enjoy that. I consider that a service to the university.”

De Silva also answers questions and gives advice to international students. “Even though I’m not an international specialist, I can advise and talk to them like a faculty member and give them options on what to do and what not to do,” he said.

Enrique Gomez

Associate professor, astronomy and physics

One of the appealing things about teaching at WCU for Enrique Gomez was the ability to reach a large population of first-generation students. Gomez was looking for a university where he could teach introductory physics and astronomy while utilizing some of his innovative techniques.

Although WCU is a predominantly white campus, Gomez, who is biracial (white mother, Mexican father), looked forward to teaching African-Americans and a growing Latino population. “I grew up navigating between two cultures,” Gomez said. “At times in my life, I felt I thrived more when I helped people from another culture. I lived at the intersection of many identities.”

Although conversations about diversity don’t naturally occur in physics and astronomy, Gomez tries to integrate elements from non-Western and non-European teachers into his classes. “I believe minorities have something to say about physics, mainly because of particular concerns with the environment, as well as making science accessible to a large audience,” Gomez said.

Gomez said when he earned his doctorate, he was the only Latino with an astrophysics degree graduating that year in the U.S. Those numbers are increasing, and Gomez would like to see more Latino faculty members at WCU. “It is isolating,” he said. “Sometimes I wish I had another person that I could speak Spanish with more often.”

In addition to his activities at WCU, Gomez works with K-12 students in local communities where Latino and Asian populations are growing. “I had a Latino student that I encourage at Fairview Middle School in preparing her for the astronomy event in the Science Olympiad. She did very well. I was very proud of that. Little things like that can have quite an impact,” Gomez said.

As president of the Jackson County NAACP, Gomez is believed to be the first Latino to lead a North Carolina branch. In that role, he looks to support a broad movement. “I believe we are still trying to integrate into our notion of ‘country’ the sons and daughters of slaves and native people, and recent immigrants,” Gomez said. “We have a lot of unfinished business, which I thought by this time and my age would have been superseded.”

Jane Adams-Dunford

Assistant vice chancellor, student affairs

It didn’t take Jane Adams-Dunford long to be sold on moving from Oklahoma to WCU. Her husband also was open to the idea. It was her oldest son, a football and basketball player, who needed convincing.

At family meetings as they discussed pros and cons of moving to the mountains, Adams-Dunford showed her son Cullowhee’s location on the map. “When I pulled it up on the map, he said, `The pro scouts aren’t going to be able to find me. It’s not on the map, mom,’” she said. “I said, ‘It’s that dot right there.’ We laugh about that to this day.”

That was in 1998. Her children are now adults and Adams-Dunford loves the area. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t issues and concerns along the way. “There were the regular concerns – where do we get our hair cut, will the kids have teachers that look like them,” she said. “There were the rebel flags. My boys hadn’t been exposed to that. But they had a really firm and grounded knowledge of who they were as far as their black history and what it meant to be a black male. They were confident and knowledgeable from that perspective, and being a part of a campus community with amazing students was so helpful in their transition to the Whee.”

One of the things Adams-Dunford appreciated during her interview process was the time set aside for her to speak with other African-American faculty and staff so they could address her concerns. In time, she assimilated into the community through serving on the Cullowhee Valley PTA, Smoky Mountain High School athletics booster clubs and youth sports organizations.

During her time at WCU, Adams-Dunford, a native of Shelby, has seen WCU’s number of African-American faculty members shrink, something she believes could negatively affect the student experience. “It is my hope that we continue to be more intentional in our efforts to recruit and retain faculty and staff of color,” she said.

“Students of color have shared that they miss not having an African-American faculty member. I truly believe that it promotes your self-esteem, your ability to engage and be comfortable in your learning environment when you see someone who looks like you,” she said. “There are commonalities for sure, but our experiences make us different. After all, it is the people that make Western such a special place.”

Kofi Lomotey

Bardo Distinguished Professor

Kofi Lomotey arrived at WCU in 2013 as the John and Deborah Bardo Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership. During the interview process, he was impressed by the people he met and excited about WCU’s doctoral program in educational leadership. But Lomotey, an African-American, couldn’t help but notice the limited diversity of WCU’s faculty and student body.

“There was one other African-American faculty member who was full-time, and she had been denied tenure, so that was her last year,” Lomotey said. “There was a similar concern with regard to the student population. I know it’s difficult in that part of the country, that part of the state, to attract both a diverse faculty and a diverse student body.”

WCU does face challenges in attracting faculty of color, said Lomotey, who commutes to campus from Atlanta because he prefers to live in a major metropolitan area. Last fall, the university had seven black faculty members, 10 Hispanic faculty and 23 Asian.

“A prospective faculty member of color does research on Western Carolina, or comes in and interviews at Western Carolina, and they don’t see very many people that look like them. That’s a red flag. Just a simple thing like an African-American woman being concerned about where she can get her hair done, or being concerned about African-American churches.”

Lomotey is proud that his program has one of the most diverse faculty groups on campus, with two African-Americans and one Asian, as well as gender orientation diversity. “The program has three African-American students in its most recent cohort in the doctoral program. That’s the most we’ve ever had,” he said.

Nevertheless, Lomotey said a more diverse faculty is beneficial, not just for African-American students, but all students. “For many of our students, this is their first experience on a college campus. For African-American students, if they don’t see anybody that looks like them, they might not envision the possibility of becoming a professor,” he said. “When you have a diverse faculty, you have diversities of opinions and views and perspectives on the curriculum, and on life in general. That’s important for all students.”