Washington State University Pullman student body president Quinton Berkompas leaned back in his chair and pointed up at a line of framed photos that adorn the office on the third floor of the Compton Union Building. The photos feature some of the past presidents and vice presidents of the Associated Students of Washington State University (ASWSU).
“If you look at the students who served dating back to our first student body president and vice president in 1903, they are mostly white and male. Things really started to change right here,” said Berkompas, pointing to the picture of Jared Powell and LaKecia Farmer, who served as ASWSU president and vice president during the 2014-15 school year.
As an African American woman, Farmer not only brought diversity to her role. She helped establish ASWSU’s first director of diversity position—now called the director of diversity, inclusion and veterans affairs.
Further evidence of inclusivity is evident just down the hall from ASWSU in the Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA) office. GPSA President Ralph Chikhany was born and raised in Lebanon, while Vice President Veneice Guillory-Lacy grew up in Lapwai, Idaho, on the Nez Perce Reservation.
By bringing diversity to the forefront, Berkompas believes Farmer helped pave the way for those who followed, including Jhordin Prescott, this year’s ASWSU vice president who also identifies as an African American female. Berkompas pointed out he is the first person to serve as ASWSU president since 2014 that doesn’t represent a diverse group.
“When you focus on equity and inclusion, you see student organizations that haven’t been active become more involved and that encourages more diverse students to take on leadership roles,” he said. “It’s important to acknowledge our history and see how far we’ve come. It’s an important part of our story.”
Each one of these student leaders attributes their passion for equity and inclusion to their unique lived experiences.
Broadening his worldview
Berkompas grew-up in rural Packwood, Washington, where he said at least 95 percent of the residents are white and share the same socioeconomic status. The Berkompas family welcomed foster children into their home, many from diverse backgrounds. One of them was a Native American girl named Jade, who provided him with a glimpse into another culture. His family took Jade to pow wows on the Puyallup Indian Reservation and called the experience eye-opening.
“It pushed me out of the bubble that I grew up in and allowed me to see different backgrounds and lifestyles people have,” said Berkompas. “It really shaped my worldview.”
A sense of belonging
Prescott was born and raised in Auburn, Washington. Whether she was in school, at the grocery store, or movies, she was always connected with the black community there. In fact, it wasn’t until she arrived at WSU her freshman year that she seriously reflected upon her ethnicity for the first time.
“I didn’t see many people that I could identify with, especially in leadership positions,” Prescott said. “I would like to help change that so everyone who comes here can immediately feel like they belong on campus.”
Bringing different perspectives
As an international student, Chikhany is proud to bring different perspectives to the table. With international students making up about 25 percent of WSU’s graduate and professional student population, he said it is important that they have a voice in determining campus policies and know about the programs and services provided by GPSA.
“The fact that I’ve been given the opportunity to serve in this leadership position says a lot about the inclusiveness of our university,” Chikhany said.
Resilient and strong
Guillory-Lacy comes from a tight-knit family. Her father is black, her mother Native American. In her family home, she was taught all about black culture and traditions. The minute she stepped out her front door, she became immersed in Native culture. Her parents taught her that where she comes from is a big part of who she is. She said being part of two different cultures make her resilient and strong.
Coming from tight-knit communities like hers, Guillory-Lacy said many students of color find graduate studies isolating in an environment where students are taught to be independent, to find friends and solve problems on their own.
“It’s contrary to our background and culture where family and community are everything,” she said. “Getting involved with GPSA is my way of feeling connected and I want do something to help my community.”
Broadening its audience
All four student leaders draw from their unique backgrounds and experiences and say together they bring a unified voice for equity and inclusion to the work they do.
Berkompas and Prescott have been bolstering ASWSU’s communication plan to better connect with students who are not part of mainstream information sharing. A big part of the new plan revolves around stepping-up the use of social media. They acknowledge, however, that there is no substitute for being at events and meeting with groups face-to-face. They vow to get out into the community to meet with diverse groups to learn what is on the minds of students and share how ASWSU is advocating for them.
They are also joining student leaders from other Washington higher education institutions in lobbying for Senate Bill 5800 which will allow universities like WSU to direct more aid to homeless students or those who were foster children when they graduated from high school. A version of the bill calls for universities to make available housing for these students during holidays and summer breaks, ensuring they have a place to live year-round.
ASWSU plans to host its annual Multicultural Fundraising Banquet in the spring in support of the student recruitment conferences VIBES, CASHE, and SHAPING. These conferences play a big role in helping to diversify WSU Pullman’s student body.
Giving all students a voice
For many graduate and professional students, GPSA’s Travel Grant provides an important source of funding that allows them to attend conferences. Between 16 and 25 awards are given each month totaling $130,000 each year. Chikhany and Guillory-Lacy said the application process has been carefully structured to help make sure bias does not influence who is selected.
They would like to improve the application process for registered student organizations seeking funding through GPSA. Many of the same groups apply and receive funding every year, while others fail to submit competitive applications or apply at all. Discussions are underway to clarify application guidelines, provide more training, and give feedback to groups, making the process more equitable.
While diversity among the GPSA directors and executive board is currently strong, Chikhany and Guillory-Lacy said their continual goal is to encourage diverse students to apply for leadership positions.
“It’s easy to put inclusion on a poster, but when you dive into the demographics of the student body, it isn’t as easy to make sure everyone is being heard and that their concerns are being addressed,” Chikhany said. “The future success of GPSA is dependent upon giving all students a voice.”
The same might be said for student organizations across the university system and may be a reason why WSU’s Student Government Council, consisting of student government leaders from each WSU location, is thought to be the most diverse in school history.
For Berkompas, Prescott, Chikhany and Guillory-Lacy, advocating for equity and inclusion is not something they need to be reminded of or told to do. It is second-nature for them.
“I know for Ralph and I, our lens is naturally like that because it’s who we are,” Guillory-Lacy said. “We are always looking for ways to give diverse students opportunities to have leadership roles.”