A ‘baseline of respect’: 8 cadets return from Diversity Fellows Program externships

  • Published
  • By Ray Bowden
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
It might be impossible to know just how many societies, cultures and ethnic groups exist in a world of nearly 200 countries, populated by 6.5 billion people who speak at least one of the 6,500 known languages, but Air Force Academy officials plan to positively affect this cultural smorgasbord with its Diversity Fellows Program.

The program began its inaugural year in June, and cadets taking part in its four summer externships returned to Colorado Springs calling their experiences "profound" and "valuable."

"The purpose of the Diversity Fellows Program is to create allies in pursuit of diversity, cultural learning, and mutual respect, to help us start a conversation within the cadet wing and across the Academy via public forum," said Col. Ronald Machoian, the Academy's Culture, Climate and Diversity director.

"The idea is that if we can promote a string of discussion of diversity-related topics, it will translate to reflection and growth, both for the cadets involved and across our community."

The Diversity Fellows Program was managed by the Academy's Culture, Climate and Diversity office this year; it's precisely designed to enhance cadets' educational experience and develop their comprehension of cultural differences to help them solve interpersonal conflicts, build relationships and improve their collaborations with others of varying world views, said Dr. Jackie Wilks, a CCD analysis.

"The Diversity Fellows Program is deliberately planned to build the cadets' understanding of a specific culture and foster within them a greater connection to the importance of culture," he said. "The program primarily offers cadets an experiential learning activity as it involves education, immersion and campus outreach activities allowing them to be mentored by experts in the diversity field."

The crux of the program is national outreach and to that end, Machoian said, eight cadet externs were sent to Colorado Springs, Indiana, New York, and Ohio to meet with diversity and inclusion experts and bring what they've learned back to the Academy.

"We're not just affecting eight cadets - we're affecting eight cadets who will carry the message of inclusivity, diversity and respect back to the community," he said. "We're giving the cadets a much more vibrant experience than just visiting a museum. Our hope is that the cadets will return to the Academy and discuss issues of inclusion and diversity and be able to sit on Academy boards, such as the Student Athletic Advisory Council, and advise their fellow cadets and the directorate staff."

Diversity Outreach: Colorado Springs

The Atlas Preparatory Academy is a school for fifth through 10th grade students in Colorado Springs. Cadets 1st Class Kiara Davis, computer science major, and Jeanne Domingo, international history major; and Cadet 2nd Class Adam Marcinkowski, political science major, spent their externship as teacher's aides in Harrison School District 2 classrooms, June 2-13, assisting students.

On average, 85-90 percent of Atlas Preparatory students qualify for a free or reduced lunch, said Adam Lenzmeier, the head of Atlas Prep.

"Atlas Preparatory students know that strong academics and strong character leads to positive life outcomes," he said. "Not only did the Air Force Academy externs reinforce this message through the development and execution of rigorous lesson plans, but more importantly, they served as symbol of what is ultimately possible for this often-overlooked student population."

Domingo said the Atlas Prep externship was a rewarding experience.

"Overall, I think the students and faculty at Atlas Prep taught me more than I anticipated," she said. "I knew it was going to be rewarding and enriching, but I didn't know just how much until I took part in it."

Working at the prep school helped Domingo grasp how respect for diversity often leads to societal progress, she said.

"Without the different mindsets people bring to the table, there would be no progress and no one to challenge the wrongs in the system - everyone would just agree and follow-on," Domingo said. "In my opinion, diversity is very important to the Academy if it and the Air Force want to keep up with our changing country."

Domingo summed-up her time at the prep school as a leadership learning experience.

"There's a lot of opportunities at the Academy to lead, but the different environment Atlas Prep offers really challenges the lessons learned (at the Academy) about being a servant leader," she said. "It was a great opportunity and a great start to my firstie year to introduce me to teaching, one of the few professions in the civilian world where people are not in their profession because of the money they make, but because of the change they can make in society."

Diversity Outreach: Indiana

Another facet of the Diversity Fellows Program is a National Collegiate Athletic Association externship, promoting participation for student-athletes, according to the NCAA website.

Moses Stewart, the CCD deputy chief, managed the Academy's NCAA externships.

"We wanted to get cadets more involved in running the cadet programs," he said. "This is their Academy and their cadet wing. We want them to come back to the Academy and talk about how we infuse diversity, respect, and inclusiveness into the culture of the Academy.

"Our message to cadets was 'We expect you to provide leadership and talk to the Cadet Wing, your coaches and your friends about diversity."'

Cadets 1st Class DeLovell Earls, management major and Academy men's basketball athlete, and Lindsey Lewis, also a management major and an Academy women's basketball athlete, visited the NCAA national office, the University of Indiana, DePauw University and the Indiana Sports Corps, in Indiana June 23 - 27, and met coaches and diversity and leadership experts.

"The inclusion chapter of the NCAA is a group dedicated to making all athletes feel comfortable and protected in their individual athletic environments," Lewis said. "The main issues that the NCAA is trying to address are LGBT awareness, women's equality and athletes with disabilities. Cadet Earls and I talked with the head of the NCAA Inclusion Department and learn about how schools are trying to hold seminars and increase awareness about these issues present in locker rooms, field houses and athletic training facilities."

Earls and Lewis visited the University of Indiana and DePauw University to get a glimpse of day-to-day life on a Division I and Division II campus. The NCAA is trying to establish a baseline of respect for all student-athletes regardless of their lifestyle or ethnicity, Lewis said.

"Sports are meant to be fun and a safe haven for students who love the game they play," she said. "Everyone should be comfortable in their own skin and not afraid to be themselves around their teammates. (This externship) was very humbling and just reminded me that people deserve to be treated with respect and be comfortable around friends and teammates."

Lewis also said the NCAA - just like the Air Force Academy - is "digging deep" to help student-athletes understand and appreciate similarities and differences found within each teammate.

"Sometimes the issues go beyond the sport, and there is a bigger mission and message that needs to be shared," she said. "Inclusion is bringing this awareness to reality."

Diversity Outreach: New York

Cadets 1st Class Katharine Kessler, foreign affairs studies major, and Tim Royce, humanities major, visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, a "living memorial to the Holocaust," according to the organization's website. The museum features artifacts and historical displays of the Holocaust, during which an estimated 10 million perished.

Both cadets said they were profoundly affected by their externship experience.

"The biggest takeaway from this experience is that when people start to see others as less than people, terrible things can happen," Royce said. "We need to see all people as other people, as fellow human beings. The Diversity Fellows Program teaches us the importance of that, and of accepting and respecting others for all our differences."

Kessler said the externship to the museum showed her how valuing diversity enhances teamwork and problem solving.

"It's important to understand issues from another person's perspective," she said. "On a basic level, appreciating diversity emphasizes that everyone is human. There is a human essence we all share and you can't truly get to know a person unless you know their background, their experiences and what makes them tick."

Outreach: Ohio

Cadet 3rd Class Jeremy Jacobellis, African-American foreign studies major, spent much of his externship at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.

The center celebrates "The heroes who created the secret network through which the enslaved could escape to freedom - the Underground Railroad," according to the organization's website.

It features a variety of historical items and artifacts, including a slave-pen taken from a Pennsylvania farm.

"The freedom center exceeded all my expectations and I was astounded to meet so many people dedicated to African-American history and philanthropy," Jacobellis wrote in the journal he kept during his June 2 - 13 externship.

Jacobellis led tours at the center and was placed in charge of Picture Freedom, an exhibition created by seventh-through-12th-grade students highlighting the struggles and strides made in racial justice. The exhibition entails a contest in which students read biographies of famous freedom fighters and then create their own depiction of freedom, he wrote.

Jacobellis was prepared for his externship the moment he arrived, said Richard Cooper, the center's director for museum experiences.

"Jeremy was incredible," Cooper said. "He brought great leadership to the program. He came in ready and well ahead of the other college students we normally work with. He was dedicated and ready to handle anything."

Cooper took Jacobellis to Ripley, Ohio, the site of several Underground Railroad stations where the cadet spent time walking the same path African-American slaves took to freedom 150 years ago, Cooper said.

Jacobellis also visited Miami University-Western College, in Ohio, for a walking tour of the campus that detailed "all the important lessons where students learned to overcome the adversity and hatred they would soon face in Mississippi with nonviolent tactics," he wrote, referring to the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project 1964, a pivotal movement within the Civil Rights Movement.

During that movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congress of Racial Equality recruited college students from across the United States to travel to Mississippi, cast a light on racism there, register voters, build community centers and teach at freedom schools. Three Western College students, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, were murdered for their activism in Mississippi in 1964.

Jacobellis also learned about modern slavery at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

"The invisible slavery exhibit also opened my eyes to the insidious nature of modern slavery and reinforced my passion for not only African-American slavery but humanitarian efforts, as well," he wrote. "I became especially interested in the Restavecs of Haiti who are children forced to become domestic servants for wealthy families. With the help of the various antislavery organizations I am now aware of, I hope to propose a program to the Air Force Academy that would allow cadets to go to Haiti and assist in the rehabilitation of former Restavecs who have been freed."

Future Potential

Domingo, Lewis and Machoian expressed their high hopes for the Diversity Fellows Program's future.

"I very much respect the Diversity Fellows Program because it helps cadets bond and meet with other people who maybe they wouldn't have reached out to otherwise," Lewis said. "The Academy's diversity programs bring together people from different backgrounds to share their experiences. I definitely think that awareness is the biggest issue right now because some people can be set in their ways, but the world is absolutely changing and people need to accept this. I would definitely recommend future diversity externships for the Academy."

Domingo agrees.

"Being an Academy Diversity Fellow helped me better understand the role of professors and teachers, how leaders are able to shape the minds of their followers whether or not their intention is to be a servant-leader," she said. "The opportunity I received at Atlas Prep was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I will cherish."

The potential for future Diversity Fellows Program externships cannot be underestimated, Machoian said.

"In the future, we want cadets to act with faculty and advisors to develop their own diversity-related proposals," he said. "We worked with the Scholars Program, the History Department and the Athletic Department to enhance our partnerships with institutes across the United States and develop a learning outcome."

Cooper said he hopes to work with Academy cadets on future externships.

"Jeremy opened our eyes to wanting to continue our relation not only with him but with the U.S. Air Force Academy," he said.

The Diversity Fellows Program is funded by local Operations and Maintenance funds and the Academy Endowment.