Q&A: Dr. Adis Vila, chief diversity officer

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Dr. Adis Vila is the Air Force Academy's first chief diversity officer. As the CDO, her role is to build on the Academy's existing efforts to make the institution more inclusive and to ensure that future officers have a comprehensive understanding of the diverse world in which they will serve.

Dr. Vila's previous experience includes careers as a professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., vice president for regulatory policy and government affairs for Nortel Networks, assistant secretary of management for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, policy roles at the Commerce and State departments and a White House Fellow. She is a native of Cuba and speaks five languages: Spanish, English, French, Portuguese and German.

Q: This is your first foray into the military, right?

It is.

Q: How's that been?

You can see I've got the haircut now, and I'm signed up for water aerobics twice a week so I can get more fit and enjoy some of the good qualities of the military.

But all kidding aside, the transition has been quite smooth for me, in large part because of the openness of our workforce. People have received me with open arms. They have been very gracious, sharing their expertise and their time. I've gone through about 25 immersion briefings, so little by little I'm getting to know the organization and its many contributors.

But it's also my responsibility. This includes making myself accessible by walking  around, getting to know people at every level of the organization. And I've begun to do that as my schedule has allowed. I've made sure that I've been out to the Community Center Chapel for worship services, and that I've gone to the Fitness Center to work out and see folks, and attended a men's basketball game. And then today we had a very special Martin Luther King service, and I was sure to be there early so I could say hello to folks who came to that.

I think being accessible is key. If you're the newbie, as I am, I must make sure to reach out to Cadets and colleagues.

Q: Let's talk about diversity in the military. How important is it?

A: Some of your colleagues may look at problems or issues in a different way; they might ask different kinds of questions. Of course, that is true not just with race and ethnicity as variants, but it's also true with functional responsibilities. If you are trained as a lawyer, you look at issues in one way; if you are trained as a sociologist, you look at the issue in a very different way.

That's why the definition of diversity in the Air Force is so broad, because we believe that all of those different life experiences affect how any of us might approach a problem. The world is changing so fast that, as hard as we might try, we cannot predict the situations that a graduating cadet will face over a 20- or 30-year lifetime of service. So our greatest contribution is to share experiences or conditions in which we might place cadets so that, when they are placed in those very diverse situations, they can grab from these goodie bags of experiences that they've had at the Academy and say, "A-ha! This is how these different experiences can help me."

Q: What are the biggest challenges in an institution like the Air Force Academy, where you're not only an educational facility but also a military installation?

A: A lot of people believe that diversity is about lowering standards so that we can let  some of these "different" kinds of people in, but it's not. It's really about ensuring that we reach out to folks using my experience in different organizational settings and helping people find new ways to look at different challenges: something as simple as suggesting journals that serve our recruitment needs so that ... we get a variety of folks applying. An inclusive workplace builds on the diversity of thought that different people bring to the table.

A second place where I think it is challenging -- and where I hope I can play a role -- is that we require services from outside experts. I would like to see us support the Colorado Springs and greater Colorado communities by making sure minority-owned and women-owned businesses feel comfortable coming to the table and competing for contracts. I think that will send an important signal about our commitment to inclusivity.

Q: You may have people who've grown up around only people who are just like them, and then when they come here, they have a hard time. What do you say to someone who's having a hard time adjusting to a diverse environment?

A: We have to promote diversity of ideas and give people opportunities to experience different things. Now, not everyone's going to catch on at the same pace, just like everyone isn't going to catch on to calculus at the same pace. As we offer folks diverse opportunities to work across functions and with colleagues different from themselves, they become more comfortable and embrace inclusiveness. In the meantime, we uphold respect for all with whom we come in contact. Additionally, we reward folks who do embrace diversity so that their enthusiasm and energy rubs off on others.