Unity in Diversity

by Caitlin Gipson

When APU revamped its multi-ethnic leadership program, it looked to a corporate giant for inspiration.

“In the early 1990s, IBM’s leaders realized that a lack of diversity caused the company to miss product opportunities. Their perspective was too narrow,” said Edgar Barron, executive director of Multi-Ethnic Programs (MEP) at Azusa Pacific University. “The company stopped viewing diversity as a legal and moral requirement, began envisioning it as an untapped competitive advantage, and made huge strides in the marketplace as a result.”

When Barron read a Harvard Business Review article highlighting IBM’s success, he considered how this concept could transfer to a Christian university. “Most of the research and discussion in the higher education community focuses on diversity as a virtue—a goal. But what happens when we start considering diversity as a value? What if it becomes a strategy for spiritual success?” These questions resulted in a drastic retooling of the Multi-Ethnic Leader (MEL) Scholarship program and a new approach to diversity at APU.

Barron asserts that the shift from virtue to value has a biblical foundation. “Psalm 133 reads, ‘How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!... For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.’ A diverse and unified community reaps God’s blessings. Diversity can become the method we use to usher in the Spirit and will of God into our APU community.”

Annie Tsai, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Psychology and expert in social and cultural psychology, helped Barron think through the transition’s social dynamics. “The Christian response to the balance of diversity and unity should differ from the world’s because we have the commonality of Christ. As a Christian community, we need to lead the way in defining what unity in diversity looks like.”

“The Christian response to the balance of diversity and unity should differ from the world’s because we have the commonality of Christ."

When unity becomes the goal, it changes how APU works with students of color. “The focus becomes less on differentness, and more on wholeness,” said Barron. “We start to ask, ‘How can we make sure our ministry context works for everyone? How can we ensure that everyone in our community is academically prepared?’ We have many first-generation college students coming from inner-city schools. What can we do as a university to support students that come from a different path?” The key, according to Barron, lies in the MEL scholars. The merit-based scholarship program seeds the APU campus with young leaders with a heart for diversity and social justice. “These students are pioneers. They can help us understand how to prepare support systems for their brothers and sisters.”

With that in mind, Barron revamped the scholarship program to provide better and more comprehensive support for these students. He also reduced the number of MEL scholars admitted from 12 to 6 each year, and upped the scholarship amount from $4,500 to $9,000. MEP staff now work with students individually to establish learning plans for their four years at APU, and retreats and other development opportunities help them ask and answer tough questions like, “Who am I? Where does God want me to go? How am I going to get there?”

The revamped program requires MEL scholars to keep a high grade-point average, serve in a leadership position every year, attend monthly meetings, and help with community service projects. “They encourage us to integrate our beliefs and our life,” said communication studies major Omari McNeil ’12, who has served in New Student Orientation, admissions, and student government. “I’m passionate about racial reconciliation. I’ve learned that I need to find a way to represent that, and be ready and willing to share that perspective as part of my leadership roles.”

Also, in order to expand the program’s academic preparation, Barron added an emphasis on mentoring relationships with faculty, enabling MEL students to assist with diversity- and social justice-related faculty research. “The addition of faculty mentorship is a critical improvement to the MEL program,” said Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, Ph.D., faculty diversity coordinator and associate professor of church history and Latino church studies. “Multiple studies have found that students of color do better in terms of recruitment, retention, and graduation when they establish a relationship with someone who mirrors their experiences.”

Social work major Lauren McNair ’14, president of APU’s Black Women United organization, agrees that the focus on faculty mentoring has made a difference. “On my own, I never would have thought to ask my professor to be my mentor. MEL pushed me to connect with a faculty mentor, and as a result, I’ve gained a bond with someone who can provide insight and speak into my life.”

“This new take on diversity enables APU to more effectively fulfill our Four Cornerstones,” Barron explained. “When we focus on pairing diversity and unity, we treat each other with the compassion of Christ, provide opportunities for transformational Scholarship, begin to experience real Community, and can truly Serve each other and the world.”

“We tend to gravitate to others like ourselves, but that leaves us incomplete,” said McNair. “Contact with those who are different from ourselves changes us, challenges us, and allows us to see a broader world. God made us to need one another. It’s time to start the conversation.”

Caitlin Gipson ’01 is a freelance writer, search engine optimizer, and marketing consultant living in Reedley, California. apucaitlin@gmail.com

Originally published in the Summer '12 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.