EMORY, Va. (AP) — Nearly two years ago, about 30 students staged a walkout at Emory & Henry College to call attention to what they said was poor treatment of minority students and demand more inclusion.

The private liberal arts college in Washington County responded by hiring a dean of inclusion and establishing the Inclusion & Dialogue Center, for which a director, Patricia Gonzalez, was hired in November.

But are the changes making a difference?

"There is an improvement in campus culture when it comes to diversity and hearing the voices of all our students on campus, but there is always more to be done," E&H President Jake Schrum said.

Schrum said "everything is on the right track" and that there will be positive returns on the investment in the new center.

"It doesn't make any difference if it's Emory & Henry College or any other college or university in America, we can always do better in terms of helping any of our students or anyone who works at an institution to feel more welcomed," Schrum said.

2016 INCITES protest

In February 2016, the student group INCITES, along with other students and faculty, staged a peaceful protest that focused on how they saw the college contributing to an oppressive environment for minorities on campus.

"It's not just a singular incident or a string of focused incidents," said Essence Smith, a recent graduate of the college and a member of INCITES. "The incidents of oppression had been going on at Emory & Henry since the school's founding. Our movement was rooted in that. We all came together based on our individual experiences."

The campus climate had taken its toll on minority students, claimed INCITES. One former member, Ginger Capps, who is of mixed race, decided to leave E&H after her negative experiences there.

"I didn't think that I could do it. I knew they were trying to change, but I didn't think the change would happen in the manner that I could handle for the next three years," said Capps, who continues her studies at a school near her home in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Capps met Tatiana Boelen, who is also of mixed race, in their freshman transitions class. Toward the end of the semester, Boelen said their professor — who she described as a "white, middle-aged man" — changed the syllabus to include a class discussion about the N-word.

"This can't be good," Boelen thought at the time.

Of the approximately 24 students in the class, five were students of color, she said.

The class was reading the play "Clybourne Park," about a black family readying to move into a predominantly white neighborhood. The story then jumps 50 years where the situation is reversed, Capps said.

During the class discussion on the N-word, the professor chimed in after hearing from multiple students, according to Boelen.

"That is enough from the colored students," he said. "Let's talk to the white kids."

His words had an immediate effect on Boelen. "It was like going through the seven stages of grief," she said.

Boelen, Capps and another student went to a professor they trusted to discuss what happened, and a meeting was set up with the students, an administrator and the professor.

The professor no longer teaches at the college, having left to take another job, according to Boelen.

Other students in INCITES felt that the school wasn't doing enough to address racism on campus. Essence Smith, who is African-American, said she graduated from the school "on a very negative note."

During the fall of 2013, Smith's freshman year, she said she was returning from dinner with friends when they found a racial slur written on one of their doors.

Smith and her friends went through the proper channels, but in the end, the culprit was not found, she said.

"My friends and I figured out who did it," Smith said, "and we knocked on the door of the student's room, and she went to campus security and said that we were harassing and bullying her."

INCITES wasn't established for another two years, but Smith carried that experience with her.

When the group formed, other students said they experienced similar issues in social situations and in the classroom, said Smith, who graduated with a degree in sociology and geography and now works in Washington, D.C.

Boelen, a junior who studies civic innovation and sustainable agriculture, is currently the only member of INCITES still on campus. She took a semester off from E&H but returned, in part, because the inclusion center was established.

"It's going to be hard to recover for me, as the INCITES group and alumni having gone through these experiences (have left), but I think this is a step in the right direction," she said.

Establishing the center

For 2017, the undergraduate population at E&H includes 1,000 students. More than 15 percent of undergraduate and graduate students are students of color, according to college spokesman Brent Treash.

In 2015, several concerned students formed INCITES, which stands for Integrity, Nonviolence, Courage, Innovation, Transformation action, the Empowerment of others and Selflessness.

The purpose of INCITES' 2016 walkout was to "benefit campus culture as a whole," said Smith.

Boelen said, "We kind of decided to almost put it in campus' hand and really challenge the campus to say 'OK, this is very real, and what are we going to do about it — as the family that everyone says is Emory & Henry?'"

President Schrum said there were a variety of responses to the walkout.

"Some people were surprised, some people thought it wasn't warranted, others who were surprised thought, 'I'm glad these students are speaking up,' and some wondered that, since we have a fairly large number of African-American students on campus, why was it just a group of eight to 12 students speaking up, and why not more?" Schrum said.

The protest ended at Wiley Hall, where a list of demands was delivered to Schrum in his office. The requests included hiring a dean of inclusion and establishing what is now the Inclusion & Dialogue Center, Boelen said.

Schrum said the center was a result of a list of recommendations made by a committee that he put together after INCITES made their concerns known to him and the campus.

The center "was one of the recommendations made by that group, and we did the best we could given budget constraints . to implement as many of those recommendations as possible," Schrum said.

The name of the center was chosen by a group of students, he said.

"It is a specific place on campus where people are talking on a regular basis about how important it is to build an inclusive society rather than an exclusive society," Schrum said. "It is important, specifically at a liberal arts college, to keep that dialogue going."

For the first year, Josh von Castle served as interim director of the center. Now, he is the area coordinator and director of student activities.

John Holloway, vice president of student life and student success and dean of inclusion, said the work of the center deserves a full-time faculty member.

"I saw the opportunity for all students of different communities to build a sense of comfort and home on campus, as well as an opportunity for all of these groups to discover each other and build bridges to go beyond their differences," Holloway said.

That led to E&H hiring Patricia Gonzalez as the center's permanent director.

Gonzalez says her vision for the center is to not only provide a safe space for students but to focus on the retention rate of the student body.

"When I say 'safe space,' we are truly tapping into the bigger issues on campus; we are tapping into finding solutions," she said.

Over the past year, limited programming has been offered at the center. The college also has expanded the number of graduation ceremonies, including graduation events for African-Americans, LGBTQ, Latino and first-generation students, Holloway said.

When the center was established, it was more a pacifier, Smith said.

Administration "did not have a clear (message) or evidence of the way that the center was going to operate," she said. "I'm glad to hear that now they are doing things, and Patricia is there and is going to do amazing. I really hope that the spirit of Emory and the spirit of this center is genuine."

Holloway said he expects Gonzalez to expand on the work that has already begun. Her work is not limited to the center, he added.

"I'm excited that Patricia is here. . I think she is going to be a wonderful asset to our campus, and I can't wait to see her in action and work closely with our students," he said.

Boelen was part of the task force that hired Gonzalez.

"She was the first person we interviewed, and right away, I thought, 'The other two are really going to have to impress me,' because she was so personable," Boelen said.

Gonzalez wants students' voices to be heard, and programs have already been established in the month since she was hired that "have been very successful, more successful than in the past," Boelen said.

New director is "student-driven"

Gonzalez wants students to be involved in taking on initiatives and leadership roles and being part of programming.

A calendar of diverse events has already been planned for 2018, and many stemmed from students, she said. A lot of the events will happen for the first time on campus.

One initiative is Transgender Day of Remembrance, which will take place next November.

A first-generation student who struggled to decide if she fit in at college, Gonzalez wants students to feel more comfortable on campus.

"A safe space is saying, 'I am Mexican, I am Latina . I'm queer, I identify as African-American,'" she said. "It is a space for students to voice their concerns, be a place where they can be heard. It is a space where students not only can come and complain but rather have someone say, 'I hear you, I hear you, and we are going to look into it.'"

Gonzalez joined E&H after serving as program coordinator at the New York Institute of Technology's Office of Student Development and Leadership Involvement. There, she developed and managed programming centered on establishing inclusive and safer spaces for all students.

She was born and grew up in Los Angeles, California, where her community was African-American and Latino. One of 11 children, she was raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, until the age of 7.

A recent graduate from the Teachers College at Columbia University, Gonzalez said she was "looking for a new home." She received a master's degree in higher and postsecondary education from Columbia and spent her undergraduate years at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she obtained a bachelor's degree in government and philosophy.

"Then I went to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where my college was predominantly white, so the culture shock aspect really hit me," she said.

When Gonzalez visited the E&H campus, she said she knew immediately that it was the right fit.

"When I was looking for jobs, I wanted to be geared towards something bold," she said. "You can do whatever in student life, but if you don't have a direct impact, it's more difficult to connect to students."

In her short time as director, Gonzalez said she's already learned a lot from students.

"When a student comes in here, I quickly know their stories," she said.

On her first day, she met Emaly Allison, a junior civic innovation and history double major who has a work study job at the inclusion center. She works two nights a week after faculty members leave so the building can stay open for students.

Allison said that she can see the center serving in a variety of ways, including as a multicultural union where students from all backgrounds can come together. This union is in the works.

"I'm super excited that Patricia is here," Allison said. "I think she is going to do a lot of great, amazing and wonderful things."

Diana Lopez, a sophomore whose major is currently undecided, met Gonzalez and discovered they have a lot in common.

"I'm a first-generation student, I am of Mexican background, and both of my parents are from Mexico. . We have similar upbringings, and we have gone through so many challenges throughout life," Lopez said.

She said the center will be part of the rest of her college experience.

"I feel comfortable here. I like what we talked about with my history and background," she said. "I like how she (Gonzalez) was able to communicate with me."

___

Information from: Bristol Herald Courier, http://www.bristolnews.com