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Building Bridges

Understanding inclusion with new UVU vice president Kyle Reyes

By Layton Shumway | Photography by Savannah Cutler

Since its inception as a vocational school in the World War II era, Utah Valley University strives to provide educational opportunities for everyone. Inclusion isn’t just one of the university’s core themes — it’s part of the institution’s legacy. UVU vice president for student affairs Kyle Reyes, who developed and implemented the university’s strategic inclusion plan, explains how UVU is keeping that legacy active and responsive to students’ needs. 

Q: What does it mean to be inclusive, and why is that important? 

A: When UVU President Matthew S. Holland first came on board, he introduced a set of core themes, and inclusive was one of them. At the time, I was hired as his assistant, and I challenged him on it. I asked why he chose the word inclusive, rather than the more common word diversity. He told me he saw being inclusive as being more bridge-building, less divisive, focusing on taking action. Diversity by itself acknowledges that there’s this big, beautiful, diverse world. But inclusion starts to ask the question, “What do we do with that diversity?” Diversity is the mix; inclusion is the actions we take with that mixture.

To see why inclusion is so important in the world today, we just have to look at any newspaper. Now, more than ever, we need graduates of higher education who can build bridges of understanding, who can talk in a civil manner across differences, and who can recognize their own biases, assumptions, and privileges, so that we can support all individuals and especially those who have been underserved, underrepresented, or historically disenfranchised. 

Q: How do you educate people on the need for inclusion?  

A: I invite people to consider the benefits of developing intercultural competencies or greater awareness, understanding, and skills about difference.   People need to understand that their lenses, or the ways they view the world, come from somewhere.  In other words, in order to develop a more inclusive approach to life, one has to analyze their own perspectives in relation to diverse individuals around them.  I try not to attack anyone’s specific identity. I try to simply ask the question, “Have you considered? Have you considered unpacking, thinking about, critically reflecting on the opportunities you’ve been afforded?”

I think far too often people assume, when we talk about inclusion and diversity, that we’re only talking about race, or maybe gender. But at UVU, we talk about anybody who’s historically underrepresented in terms of race, ethnicity, national origin, language, socioeconomic status, parental education level, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, religion and spirituality, worldview — the list goes on and on. I believe that UVU’s strategic inclusion plan is one of the most comprehensive in the entire nation, because I’ve looked at other plans, and they limit their focus to racial representation. But it’s so much broader than that. 

Q: What are some significant actions UVU has taken in its inclusion efforts? 

A: We introduced our Strategic Inclusion Plan in 2014, and we’ve made progress on 34 of the 36 action steps in that plan. For any university, that’s a huge step, just to have a structure in place, because that means there’s actual commitment to these issues.

We’ve done a tremendous job in terms of our physical spaces.  UVU has created the Barbara Barrington Jones Wee Care Center, a new Veteran Success Center, the Women’s Success Center, an LGBT Center, the Center for Global and Intercultural Engagement, an ecumenical Reflection Center, the Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism, a food pantry, and more. All of these are deliberate steps toward creating a supportive and safe campus environment.

Just this past year, we launched a Foundations of Inclusion workshop series for faculty, staff, and administrators.  This is a series of workshops on various topics and at different levels to help our employees develop greater intercultural competencies.  The response has been tremendous with most workshop sessions filling within the first few weeks.   

I also think we’ve done an amazing job in our multicultural student outreach. We have a nationally recognized Latino Initiative. We have a regionally recognized Native American Initiative. We have a growing People of the Pacific Initiative. We’ve launched an African-American mentorship program. In terms of our programs that serve communities of color, we have had some of the most robust programs in the region. And it’s actually showing in our results and our enrollment.

When it comes to organizations, cultural change takes time. And a lot of times, we don’t see cultural changes when we’re in the middle of them. But I think we’re going to look back and be surprised at how much these programs have helped. And I will say it started with President Holland. He could have chosen any number of keywords. People weren’t expecting him to focus on inclusion. But he has been relentless. When I go to speak at other conferences or other universities, people always ask me, “How do you do this work when your president hasn’t bought in?” And I just tell them, “You can’t.” You cannot be effective in this work until your president and the rest of the leadership has bought in. I just feel grateful that we’ve been able to do what we have, because of that leadership.  At the end of the day, all of our inclusion efforts are meant to help our students and employees feel a sense of safety, support, and belonging at UVU.