Mara Cardenas has high hopes. A poised and capable Seattleite, she desires a good college education. She wants that education from a Christian school where her faith is respected. She plans to travel after graduation, then start a work to help young men and women from troubled homes.
Key to her hopes for the future is that Seattle Pacific University will be a springboard to success.
For that to happen, she needs to see herself as a part of the SPU community. It is critical for any freshman like Cardenas to feel valued and supported from the outset if she is to emerge after four years a confident graduate.
But in the case of a student of color, "fitting in" can be especially daunting in a place like SPU. It isn't easy to get your bearings when nine out of 10 of those around you are white. In her residence hall of 435, only a very few others, like Cardenas, are African American. "We hope to build a house that is hospitable and welcoming to all of God's children," says SPU President Philip Eaton. "And we hope to invest new resources to help assure them a successful outcome."
Construction of the house that Eaton envisions began with the University's Comprehensive Plan for the 21st Century, which included strategies to strengthen ethnic and cultural diversity on campus. It continued in earnest this year with a $1 million pledge from Gary and Barbara Ames to fund the Ames Initiative: Equipping Ethnic Minority Students for the 21st Century.
The former president and CEO of US West Communications, Gary Ames says that nurturing a diverse community is consistent with Christian beliefs. "God created an incredibly rich and diverse world. It's the environment of the city of Seattle in which SPU exists. If SPU is to be a factor in the Seattle community, it is important for its leadership to nurture a variety of perspectives through a more diverse student body and faculty."
To do so, says Eaton, is a moral and a biblical imperative. To do any less, says Vice President for Academic Affairs Les Steele, is to rob the Seattle Pacific classroom of the intellectual diversity that comes from many cultures and life experiences.
Discussion about these issues gained momentum this spring in several campus settings: a Presidential Symposium that brought together teams from 13 member institutions of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU); a two-day visit from civil rights leader and champion of racial reconciliation John Perkins; a forum for church leaders from white and ethnic communities on the topic of race and the Church; a luncheon at which President Eaton asked a group of alumni, faculty, staff and students for their advice on the diversity initiative; and a formal check-signing ceremony with the Ameses.
The Ames Initiative includes developing intentional relationships with racially and ethnically diverse churches in the city; hiring and retaining ethnic minority faculty and staff members; and recruiting, mentoring and providing scholarships for ethnic minority students. Steele points to a number of practical ways in which the Initiative has been implemented this year:
Deborah Wilds, another member of the Ames Advisory Council, is helping to increase minority access to Christian colleges. She is the education program officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and oversees the billion-dollar Gates Millennium Scholars Program for high-achieving minority students. She also serves on the CCCU board. Because of her personal faith, Wilds feels called to the work, as sensitive as it can sometimes be.
"The world is changing, and we need to change with it. The Ames Initiative must be part of a broader strategic plan supported by SPU's trustees and alumni," she says. "It sends a strong signal to the community of color that here is a campus that is really interested in attracting students of color. It also sends that signal internally, and in that way helps ensure that these students are supported in an environment that affirms them."
Mara Cardenas hopes to graduate from Seattle Pacific. As Ames Scholars, she and four other SPU students of color this year are sharing thousands of dollars of renewable scholarship assistance earmarked for ethnic minority students. It is the beginning of what Gary and Barbara Ames hope will be a groundswell of support.