In the Direction of Diverse Student Advocacy

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The University of Utah Office for Equity and Diversity hired Tawanda Carson Owens to become the new Executive Director for Diverse Student Advocacy, a position that will advocate for the students served and the programs offered by the Office for Equity and Diversity. Owens will provide a continuous communication link between students and University leadership by listening to and understanding diverse students’ needs and working at the forefront of social and political campus climate issues.

About Tawanda Carson Owens

Owens is a South Carolina native and a former college student-athlete who earned both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from South Carolina State University. She then went on to receive her Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. For the past three years, Owen’s worked at the University of Colorado, Boulder as an associate director for Training and Programming, director of Cultural Unity and Engagement Center and a Special Projects assistant to the AVP. With a strong passion for student success, especially those of historically marginalized populations, Owens works diligently to ensure students reach their fullest potential. Owens is a devoted advocate and works relentlessly to raise conscious awareness of systemic inequalities for those that have been historically marginalized.

She has worked in secondary education for eight+ years as well as six+ years in higher education encouraging students’ success and enhancing diversity and inclusion. When away from work she loves spending quality time with her loving family as well as participating in community service with her sorority members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Inc.

Owens started at the University of Utah on Monday, August 27th 2018.

The need for the Executive Director Position

In the last two years, the University of Utah has seen an increase in bias related incidents. These incidents have predominantly targeted Black and Brown students, faculty, and staff. Each time a guest lecturer argued that White privilege is a myth or anti-Black racist messages were posted around campus, students of color mobilized to affirm that their voices, lives, and experiences matter.

This position is greatly needed and will remind us to strive for practices that provide space for students of color to thrive at this institution

Portia Saulabiu, advisor and supports queer, undocumented, students of color through her role as a Retention Coordinator for the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs, explains, “The Executive Director position is a result of student advocacy.” Celebrating the hard work and persistence of marginalized students at the University of Utah, Saulabiu exclaims, “It is great to see this position as a realized outcome of student collaboration with faculty and staff across campus. This position is greatly needed and will remind us to strive for practices that provide space for students of color to thrive at this institution.”

It is the transformative power of collaboration and communication between multiple campus partners that inspires the creation of the Executive Director for Diverse Student Advocacy position. Such collaboration and communication in regard to equity and diversity has been lacking at the University of Utah. Ariel Flores Mena, Co-Chair of M.E.ch.A. (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán), explains, “As a student leader on campus, I know there is a gap between students and administrators when it comes to campus climate. It often feels like students are never heard. There is a need for more support for marginalized students on campus. There is also a need for a direct voice to administrators. I am hopeful that this position will help us be more recognized and will lead toward real change on campus.” Flores Mena describes a common student experience, particularly within the Office for Equity and Diversity, wherein students’ voices are seldom heard in institutional decisions (e.g. leadership appointments, budget allocations, etc.).

There is a gap between students and administrators when it comes to campus climate. It often feels like students are never heard.

Alexis Baker, outgoing President of the Black Student Union, echoes similar sentiments, “Even though it has been a long time coming, it is good that students of color are beginning to be heard. A Hiring/Search Committee being put into place means that the University is taking a much-needed step toward improving racial climate,” says Baker. Still, some students, faculty, and staff remain apprehensive about who will fill the Executive Director position and whether they will have the historical knowledge of student activism (nationally and locally) necessary to best support marginalized groups at the University of Utah. “It will be interesting to see how much power this person has, how much change they can make institutionally, how well they communicate with and on behalf of students, and how well they are heard by other administrators.”

Students have demonstrated a need for the Executive Director for Diverse Student Advocacy position and hope the University is ready to support and sustain it.