Insights Into Diversity

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Make Us

Mason believes that a diversity of opinions, cultures, and perspectives represented among all individuals is what provides vibrancy to an academic community.

The Mason IDEA: Our core institutional characteristics

  • Innovative = We do not cling to old ways just because they have worked in the past. We honor time-tested academic principles while we strive to create new forms of education that serve our students better and new paths of research that can help us discover solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.
  • Diverse = We bring together a multitude of people and ideas in everything that we do. Our culture of inclusion, our multidisciplinary approach, and our global perspective, make us more effective educators and scholars.
  • Entrepreneurial = We take ideas into action. We educate students to become agents of positive change, to do or create jobs, to create value through government or business, public or private organizations, academia or the arts. We pursue discoveries that can make a difference in the world. We help our community thrive culturally, socially and economically.
  • Accessible = We are an open and welcoming community. We partner with public and private organizations in our region and around the world. We proactively engage with our community. We define our success by how many talented students with potential we serve, not how many we leave out.

Diversity is a source of innovation, energy and growth. It is through equity and meaningful inclusion that we are able to arise to the benefits of the diverse environment that we have actively and intentionally created. The words, beliefs and acts of our faculty and staff confirm these ideas: we are at our best when we are most diverse, and doing the work of inclusive diversity only enhances our greatest strength.

"Their Stories Help Me Advocate for Change"

Picture of Sally Lorenston, Associate Dean, University Life

Dr. Sally Lorenston
Associate Dean, University Life

Diversity is critical to successfully accomplishing our mission of serving students and supporting their success. Each individual on our team brings their own self into the work they do, and those experiences and identities represent many of the same of our students. When we can work together to illuminate the impacts of systems and biases in how our approaches or strategies may be formed, we can shift to inclusive and equitable policies or practices. Where we lack those insights, we run the risk of missing the mark in how we build our programs and outreach in ways that leave students behind.

Mason is a place where there is a rich abundance of diverse student and employee experiences. My work has been enhanced through opportunities to listen to their stories, understand their perspectives, and incorporate their voices into how I do my work. Further, their stories help me advocate for change in ways I may not have before due to my ignorance or misunderstanding of the experience from their lens. When I can acknowledge the power and privilege I hold in many spaces and work to actively break down those inequities and remove systematic barriers, it is because of the exposure to the richness of our community.

" I Am More Able to Respond to Challenges That Arise"

Picture of Valerie Olmo, Term Associate Professor, Biology

Dr. Valerie N. Olmo
Term Associate Professor, Biology
College of Science

When I was applying for faculty positions, I made it a point to arrive a little bit early for my interviews so that I could sit in one of the dining halls and observe the student population and get a sense for how I might be able to engage these students if I was hired. When I interview at GMU, I decided to have breakfast at the Johnson Center. As I walked by a half-dozen tables filled with students to order my breakfast, I was so excited to hear so many different languages being spoken! I sat and watched students with different accents and faces talking, laughing, and eating together. It was at that moment that I knew I would take the job if it was offered to me. I was so excited about the prospect of walking into a classroom and looking out at all those different faces. Since my appointment as a faculty member in the Biology department, I have taught, mentored, and advised students from all parts of world. I am so proud to be part of a community that recognizes that Diversity is necessary to foster the diversity of thought needed to solve the complex problems facing our world today.

My experience with diversity in all of its forms on the GMU campus has definitely enhanced my abilities as an instructor, researcher, and academic advisor- the three most important aspects of my job! Over the years, my frequent interactions with students and scientists from diverse cultural backgrounds has made me a better listener, and by default, a more effective instructor, scientist and academic advisor. I feel that I am more able to respond to challenges that arise in all facets of my work because I have learned so much from my students and colleagues. Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned from all of these interactions is that few problems have only one solution. The problem of effectively teaching biology to students who come from all walks of life means that we need to have a diversity of academic tools to improve our ability to teach as many students as possible. Today, I proudly work alongside my colleagues in the College of Science to design and execute high-quality undergraduate research experiences and innovative teaching techniques to train our students for successful careers as GMU graduates.

As a Hispanic woman in the sciences, I have often been the only person of color in the classroom, at a meeting, or in a lab. Therefore, I have experienced first-hand the challenges of trying to keep my own identity while simultaneously trying to “fit in” with my colleagues at each level of my career, starting from my undergraduate years up to my faculty appointment here at Mason. As an undergraduate, I often felt that being a minority put me at a disadvantage. It wasn’t until I joined my first lab as an undergraduate student that I felt like I belonged in the sciences. My labmates took the time to get to know me and in time we learned a lot from each other: I learned that I don’t have to lose my identity as long as I can use the language that matters within my field; at the same time, my labmates learned that slang and body language, which was foreign to them, was a necessary survival tool growing up in New York City. I was able to give them an idea of overcoming levels of adversity that they didn’t know existed in order to sit at the table alongside them just to analyze data that I collected. By the end of my undergraduate years, it was clear to me that most people simply want to be seen and respected for who they are—if we all put our guard down just a little, I think we will find that we are more alike than dissimilar and have much to teach each other. Today, I am still moved by that first undergraduate research experience; I still draw inspiration from my former labmates and remind myself every day to keep an open mind and an open heart. By doing so, I am able to better mentor and teach the rich diversity of GMU undergraduates.

“Diversity and Inclusion...Makes Our Jobs Easier"

Picture of Eric Fowler, Clery Compliance Coordinator, Police and Public Safety

Eric D. Fowler
Clery Compliance Coordinator, Police and Public Safety

At Mason, I have experienced Diversity by serving on search committees consisting of colleagues from a broad range of campus departments. Whenever I work with a group of people from departments like Human Resources, Student Conduct, the Student Support and Advocacy Center, Counseling and Psychological Services and others, I gain a window into different cultures and perspectives that I would not otherwise experience.

Working with diverse people has enhanced my work in a couple of ways. First, I have developed a greater appreciation for ideas and perspectives that are different from my own. I am more willing to listen and consider other ways of solving problems. Also, my exposure to diverse people has improved my ability to relate to other people’s experiences, which helps day-to-day problem solving.

We should constantly strive for greater diversity and inclusion in the workplace because it will ultimately grow and strengthen our relationships with other people, which makes our jobs easier. Moreover, our goal should be creating a space where all colleagues feel welcome and valued, which results in a better work environment for all of us.

"I Am Humbled and Inspired Nearly Every Day"

Picture of Kirstin Franko, Assistant Director, Communications and Marketing, CVPA

Kirstin M. Franko
Assistant Director, Communications and Marketing
College of Visual and Performing Arts

To me, a commitment to diversity represents an intentional mindset focused on how I can personally and professionally incorporate, and be open to, as many perspectives as possible and in any given circumstance. It’s constantly learning, and advocating when inclusion or support may not be present. It’s also recognizing and admitting the areas I might not be familiar with and seeking more information from sources I can trust and/or individuals who have lived through it—respecting their right to share and my time to listen. 

The Mason “Pledge to Diversity” opens with, “Mason's goal is to build and sustain an inclusive campus community and to foster a welcoming climate that values and respects all members of the community.” At Mason, I am grateful to work in a supportive office with an immediate focus on making sure every student and patron of our performing arts centers feels and truly knows they are welcome. I feel thankful that every day I come to work, I do so knowing that I am doing my part towards that goal and I will continue to do the work personally to ensure it.

My job as Assistant Director of Communications and Marketing for the College of Visual and Performing Arts means I have a unique opportunity to support the work of our seven academic units within our college as well as two performing arts venues: the Center for the Arts in Fairfax and the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas, VA. In supporting our students and faculty, I am humbled and inspired nearly every day by their talent and I’m continuously encouraged by everyone’s unique backgrounds. Every student brings with them their own story, and at Mason they are safe in their ability to tell it, shape it, and guide it into their next chapter. One of my jobs is to help amplify as many of these stories as possible. Sharing their courage, their determination, their passions, their highs and lows and what they have overcome—it gives me such hope. Little do they realize, it allows me to learn and grow in my own ways along with them.

For more than 15 years I have enjoyed a career supporting the arts. During this time, I have learned from artists of all backgrounds: playwrights, producers, directors, and actors, along with the administrators who like me are passionate about ensuring the work could be appreciated by audiences. I feel honored to have worked with countless artists who challenge us to question through their art. To think differently. To ask more questions. To put others in their shoes. To become uncomfortable. To find joy in new ways. To not just watch, but then to communicate with each other about what was experienced. To learn where we could find out more. To advocate for others. For ourselves. I try to bring this attitude of growth into my personal and professional goals. I’m still learning, but it continues to be a goal to keep this an active part of my work and I love that it is a Mason value. How can we listen better to our colleagues, to our students, to our audiences? How can I ensure that the way I do my job is safe for others, too? I’m still learning. My largest goal to date is now passing this along to my two daughters. It’s humbling to see their young actions demonstrate they are listening. After all, like our Mason Nation, they are our future.

"Diversity and Excellence Fit Together Naturally"

Picture of LaNitra Berger, Senior Director, Office of Fellowships

LaNitra M. Berger, Ph.D.
Senior Director, Office of Fellowships
Office of Undergraduate Education

As Senior Director of the Office of Fellowships, my work is focused on cultivating and supporting excellence in undergraduate students at Mason. For decades in the United States, excellence and diversity were viewed as opposing concepts that could not exist together. At Mason, we fundamentally disagree. Diversity and excellence fit together naturally, and you can’t have one without the other. It is our responsibility as university educators to bring out the best in every student by working to meet their needs. This ethos of inclusive excellence is built into the vision and goals of the Office of Fellowships at Mason: we strive for underrepresented students to be overrepresented in winning nationally competitive awards. If we accomplish this goal, it means that we are providing access to life-changing resources and opportunities to a broader range of Mason students. In recent years, 60-65% of our winners have been first generation, low-income, or minority students. This is a statistic that brings me great pride because to me, it is the best proof that excellence and diversity coexist.

In recruiting and supporting undergraduate students applying for nationally competitive awards such as the Fulbright, Marshall, Boren, Goldwater, Truman, Beinecke, and Critical Language awards, I am looking for students who have had to overcome personal and structural barriers to succeed. These students are smart, capable, and service oriented, and they make important contributions to our community and our world. But, the burdens of racial, gender, and class discrimination are real, and they erect barriers that make access to educational opportunities very difficult for many students. Through advising, coaching, and academic support, my office helps students recognize and overcome these barriers to success, creating life-long relationships with students as they progress from being students to becoming young professionals and alumni. When a student wins a nationally competitive award, they know that they are also responsible for sharing their experience with younger students by mentoring them as well. In short, embracing inclusive excellence allows us to build a stronger intellectual community of students and scholars.

Mason has always been an incubator for new and innovative ideas in Northern Virginia. For the last ten years, the Office of Compliance, Diversity, and Ethics has been an advocate for my work with students, a partnership that is unique among institutions in the region.

"I Think of Our Shared Journey"

Picture of Julie Owen, Associate Professor, Leadership Studies, School of Integrative Studies

Julie E. Owen, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Leadership Studies
School of Integrative Studies

As a white educator holding multiple privileged identities, it is incumbent on me to interrogate the many ways the status quo of white supremacy, patriarchy, classism and other ideologies shapes the curriculum and culture of my classes. Since I believe in fostering equity and justice on campus, and in order to create inclusive learning communities, I must continue to interrogate my own lenses and positionality and, to the extent possible, share my own learning process with students. Why would students risk vulnerability, critical reflection, and challenge in the classroom if I am unable to model these myself?

I have found the following questions (Owen, 2018) to be useful in cultivating inclusive learning communities:

  • How can we make explicit the complexities of power within education and prepare individuals and collectives to navigate it?
  • How can we interrogate/deconstruct dominant narratives? Whose voices are missing/silenced in classroom content and processes?
  • How do we understand intersectional identities (of ourselves and of our students) in the classroom? To what extent are we engaged in examining our own assumptions, preferences, blind spots, identities?
  • How do our own values/philosophies/identities shape the curriculum and culture of our programs/classes? In what ways might we acknowledge our positionality and embeddedness and not feign at objectivity or neutrality?
  • In what ways do the social locations of those practicing education replicate dominant norms? How might we disrupt this?

When I think of diversity at Mason, I think of our shared journey towards liberation. We can wait for others to call out injustice wherever they see it, or we can roll up our sleeves and get to work.

"Diversity Has Helped Me to Find My Purpose in Life"

Picture of Nicholas Lenon, Director, Leadership Education and Development

Nicholas R. Lennon, Ph.D.
Director, Leadership Education and Development (LEAD)

When I was first introduced to the idea of privilege, I became defensive. I felt under attack. I felt the need to justify what I had accomplished. I felt the need to prove that who I had become was not just given to me. It may be helpful to know that I am the poster child for just about every aspect of privilege. I am a currently able-bodied, cisgender, straight White male who was raised in a loving, upper middle-class Christian family in a suburb of New York City. What I did not understand about privilege at the time was that it did not need to be a threat to me, or my identity. Instead it was an opportunity to open my eyes to what I had failed to see on my own, and to collaboratively make positive change.

After being exposed to the idea of privilege, I reflected on how I was raised. I considered my intentional and unintentional actions. I explored how life could be extremely unfair for so many people. I strived to not be racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, ableist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, etc. I felt good about my efforts. I felt that I was doing enough. I was not. It may have been a necessary first step, but it will not stop things like the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on marginalized communities across the country and the world, and so much more.

Some of us may believe “I’m not a racist, so I’m all good.” However, having a clear conscience about not being racist will not stop racism. As professor Marlon James discusses in his two-minute video, “Are you non- or anti-?”, having a clear conscience about our own behavior will not stop racism more broadly. I have learned over time, that silence can be complicity and by only focusing on not being a perpetrator, I was falling short.

One of the things that I love most about working at George Mason is the opportunity to work with people from so many diverse backgrounds and experiences to unite around a common purpose: positive change for all. We may be extremely different, but I have found that these differences can be a source of great strength. Furthermore, I am fully convinced that there are values and principles that unite us across these differences, including the creation of a more fair and just society. My experience with diversity has helped me in my job immeasurably, but it has also helped me to find my purpose in life; the development of more effective and ethical leaders for the world.

"We Will Get Nowhere By Sitting on the Fence"

Picture of Richard Craig, Director, Master's Program, Department of Communication

Richard T. Craig, Ph.D.
Director, Master's Program
Department of Communication

I have experienced Diversity at Mason primarily in a positive way. Mason has certainly been, by far, the most diverse college/university I have been a part of. As a faculty member I have had the privilege of directly working on behalf of our community in matters of Diversity, but indirectly I have had exchanges with members of our community that remind me of the uniqueness of our campus. The nature of my areas of research and teaching also lead me to engage Diversity on a regular basis. In doing so, it is interesting to observe our behaviors when discussing matters of Diversity, or interacting with those that are “different” than us. In as much, learning and educating on diversity in relation to Diversity are ongoing phenomena.

Sometimes the attempts to be “diverse” get convoluted with “political correctness” and I believe that in certain spaces/environments we attempt to be politically correct as opposed to being aware and attuned to respecting others, their perspectives and their ways of life. At times I feel like our ability to work and conduct our business is hindered by what we think are “diverse” ways of living. A lack of “Diversity”, likewise, hinders my own work. I honestly believe it is exposure and experience of diverse students, faculty, staff that contribute to me being able to develop professionally. It is in conversation with individuals that are not necessarily “like me” that I gain new knowledge; it is when engaging in groups that are “Diverse” that I am able to potentially respond to the needs of our students, as well as experience ideas for research.

Having a “Commitment to Diversity”, to me, means that recognizing that many people have similar goals and objectives in life—raising a family, successful careers, upward socio-economic mobility, etc.—but we come from and with a variety of experiences and methods to accomplishing these objectives in life. To have a commitment to diversity means recognizing we occupy one planet but there are multiple worlds that inevitably cross paths in environments like George Mason University. And we must come to not necessarily tolerate others perspective, but accept and engage to the point of understanding there is no one way to live life. Apart from injuring others, physically or mentally, we should be able to live and let live all parties having equal access to resources.

As an undergrad I was actively involved in efforts to increase diverse representation of students and faculty at my alma mater; my pursuit in my master’s program was in effort to own businesses in an industry that, of course, has very minimal representation of people of color and women; and my interest in pursuing my Ph.D. was tethered to better understanding how to improve the experiences of people of color in an industry that is considered influential in the normalization of values and beliefs in American society. For me, Diversity has meant everything in my own personal and professional goals.

I think Diversity has allowed our department to challenge ourselves in the best ways, and remain vigilant to increasing diversity. We have a growing number of faculty that have been with the department and maintained the importance of enhancing Diversity.  Doing our best to stay in connection with student needs and desires to meet Diversity.  We still have room for growth and development, but I have seen our faculty and department reach out to students and engage different areas of leadership across the college and university to continue our growth.

To those on the fence about the benefits of diversity work, get off the fence and engage! Put your feet on the ground walk over and get to know those that you are not familiar with. Progress requires movement, and we will get nowhere by sitting on the fence.

"It Is the Differences...That Hold Us Together"

Picture of Donna Fox, Associate Dean, Student Affairs and Special Programs, College of Science

Donna M. Fox, Ph.D.
Associate Dean, Student Affairs and Special Programs
College of Science

I started working at Mason in 1993 thinking I would probably move on to some other job within a few years. Twenty-seven years later, I’m still here!  Although I have had the privilege of doing a variety of jobs on campus, it is Mason’s culture and diversity that have kept me here for so long. I fell in love with the students I met who came from all over the world and throughout the U.S.—from rural, suburban and urban areas, alike— each bringing such a wealth of experiences that made every day a unique learning event. Diversity is Mason’s greatest strength and the foundation of all of our successes.

Our office is a beautiful tapestry woven together with eight very different people who represent a wide swath of the diversity that exists at Mason! It is the differences in our ethnicities, cultures, religions, age and gender identities that hold us together. We learn so much from each other and value the various perspectives each person brings. Each member brings strengths that help lift the rest of us when needed. Our diversity also helps us act more creatively when we solve problems because our different points of view help us to see and appreciate a much broader picture.