As a student from Jamaica, Chantele Nelson had a rough time when she first attended the University of Wisconsin-Superior and even considered transfering to a more diverse school.
"I did not find many students that shared my background. Along with standing out as a woman of color, I felt like I was an outlier socioeconomically and I soon began to feel inferior about my life and background," she said. "Instead of transfering to another institution that had more diversity students, I made the Office of Multicultural Affairs my home away from home."
Since becoming a outreach specialist at OMA, Nelson became more and more involved on campus. She was a founding member of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning Student Advisory Board, serving as vice president of the Black Student Union, Student Support Services and World Student Association.
"Did I ever think that I wanted to be as involved as I am today? My answer to this is no," Nelson said. "I believe that my life experiences have molded me for this path."
OMA is part of the newer Department of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at UWS. EDI was created about a year ago, and on Friday the department held its first graduation ceremony to honor the students that have been served by or who have been involved in one of the four centers within the department.
Along with the OMA, the department also includes the Veteran and Nontraditional Student Center, Gender Equity Resource Center and the First Nation Center. Nelson was one of about 50 seniors honored Friday who will be graduating from UWS this semester.
"We do this graduation to honor students that those offices have served because traditionally these students have challenges or barriers - whether it's being a wife or husband or having kids or systemic barriers with being a person of color on a predominantly white campus," said Jerel Benton, director of EDI.
According to Benton, before the department of EDI was created, each of the centers within the department operated "in silos or isolation."
"Now we are seeing so much collaboration between all the different centers and the intersection identities that exist," Benton said. "We see so much synergy and collaboration now that we are starting to see it in the programing as well."
Many students don't just fall under one category such as a veteran or an African-American. They have diverse identities.
"Instead of looking at a veteran student as an isolated veteran student or an African-American student as an isolated African-American student, we want to meet that student's needs with their multiple identities. So how do we start to think critically, not only about our programing, but our direct services to students so all of the staff is equipped to handle the various identities and not just that siloed identity," Benton said.
The graduation ceremony Friday celebrated each student's diverse identity by honoring them within each center, and as they crossed the stage to receive their stoles, they were able to say thanks to those who helped them along the way.
"For me this is the most exciting time because we get to see the fruits of our labor. Sometimes in this work it can sometimes seem invisible," Benton said. "But to see students walk across the stage and hear the impact you have on students by them mentioning you in their testimonies, it let's us know that our labor is not in vain.
"I think it gives us that natural boost to continue on in our roles when sometimes the bureaucracy of higher education weighs us down. This is the bright spot that reminds us this is why we do what we do."
Nelson is graduating with a bachelor's degree in biology with a minor in chemistry, but she'll leave UWS with much more than a diploma.
"Being from Jamaica and going to school here in northern Wisconsin I'm faced with questions like, 'Why are you all the way up here?'" she said. "I love and welcome these questions because they remind me that I can do anything that I put my mind to."