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Unsung Diversity Heroes foster a sense of belonging

The Unsung Diversity Hero Awards for 2023, honoring faculty, staff and students for their efforts to create an inclusive environment within the College of Agriculture and across the state of Indiana, were presented on January 20, culminating the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Diversity Awareness Week events. 

With the goal to build and sustain a climate and culture where everyone is included, respected and supported, the College of Agriculture presented this year’s awards to the following individuals. 

Faculty Award- Zhao Ma 

zhao-ma.jpgZhao Ma, professor of natural resource social science, said part of her job has always been to offer support to her students and colleagues anywhere it’s needed, whether it be academic training or professional development.  

After the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Ma said she could see and feel the depths of stress and depression among the students working in her lab. She made time to talk with them about their views and concerns, which inspired Ma and her lab group to conduct group discussions and read about racial injustice and social inequality. Ma said this created a strong bond, one which motivated her lab members to speak up about issues of justice and equity.  

“These are my people, the students and staff I work alongside every day. Of course, I am going to do anything I can to make our relationship fruitful,” Ma said. “Diversity and inclusion became a strong focus for me in the process of building these relationships. I had students come to me to tell me they appreciated how strong of an advocate I had been for them. I explained to them, ‘You’re my student. Your success is my success and I define success as more than academic productivity, so of course I will support you however I can.’”   

Ma helps each of her lab members in obtaining their dream position. To date, she has a 100 percent success rate.  

“Everyone leaves my lab and gets what they want as their next position, whether it is in a PhD program, a post-doc or faculty position in academia, joining a non-profit organization, or becoming a government scientist,” she said. “That’s my ultimate goal as a mentor.” 

Staff Team Award- Purdue Extension’s Diversity Liaison Team 

unsungdiversityheroesextension.jpgIn early 2021, Caroline Everidge, a Purdue Extension Health and Human Sciences Educator in Huntington County, said several Extension members wanted to find ways to educate their fellow colleagues across the state about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Creating a team with Veronica Bullock, an Agriculture and Natural Resources educator and Franklin County Extension director, Allison Keen, a 4-H Youth Development educator in Jay County, and Elisa Worland, a Health and Human Sciences/Community Development educator in Wayne County, Everidge said the goal was to create an intentional opportunity for learning and development. 

“We wanted to create an opportunity for educators to learn from each other in addition to the presenters,” Everidge said. 

The “Day Away for DEI” quarterly workshops’ with attendance between 10 to 15 extension educators each session, looks at topics like civil rights requirements and accessibility in program development. 

Everidge said the group is looking for opportunities this year to host “lunch and learns,” offering field trips to educational facilities for Extension educators that are both fun and engaging. 

“It has been so much fun having the opportunity to get to know people in a different way outside of a typical work environment,” she said. “And this is what Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) should be about. We are learning how to better interact with our colleagues and the people living in our communities.” 

Student Award- Diana Ramirez Gutierrez 

dianaramirezgutierrez.jpgA native of Colombia, Diana Ramirez Gutierrez, a PhD student in Agricultural and Biological Engineering, said she wanted to find ways to get involved in the community upon arriving at Purdue to pursue her master’s degree. She initially joined the Agricultural and Biological Engineering Graduate Student Association, eventually going on to serve as president and vice president, where she focused on creating programs to better welcome international students into the college. 

Today, Ramirez Gutierrez is an ABE ambassador for Latino Leaders in Agriculture, and the DEI graduate representative for the ABE department committee. Through organizing social activities, Ramirez Gutierrez said fellow students have grown more aware of each other’s circumstances and cultural backgrounds and formed better working relationships and friendships. 

“We often don’t recognize how hard it is for others to feel welcome in an unfamiliar environment in academia,” she said. “Everyone’s experience is different from each other’s, and as graduate students we can often be or feel very isolated as we are spending a lot of time in labs and what free time do have is very little.” 

Creating spaces for all students is something Ramirez Gutierrez champions, knowing the key to success for all members of the college is to better understand and work with one another.  

“Purdue is such a diverse community, and I feel so fortunate to be able to work with so many people from all over the world,” she said. “None of this would have been possible had I not challenged myself to step outside of my comfort zone.” 

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