Autumnal winds sweep the colorful leaves from ancient trees shading the academic buildings just as they carry students across campus. Like each leaf, each student has a different story and path. Vernon J. Hurte, senior associate dean of students, assistant to the vice president and director of the Center for Student Diversity (CSD), recognizes that this multiplicity of student backgrounds creates a rich community atmosphere.
“At William & Mary, we celebrate community,” he says. “Every student brings their own uniqueness. We all add to the richness of diversity here.”
This community development begins even before students arrive for the fall semester. The center offers the Preparing for Life as a University Student (PLUS) program as a summer experience for incoming freshmen. PLUS students begin early by meeting with faculty and learning about the resources that the university offers.
The program also introduces students to the diverse feel of the campus community. Hurte has watched groups of 35 to 40 freshmen for the past six years “begin to develop a sense of confidence and camaraderie that ushers them into the freshman year in powerful and transformative ways. The exciting thing that always happens is watching the network expand as PLUS scholars become ambassadors for the Center and help us connect with more members of the entering class.”
During the PLUS experience, students encounter other individuals from diverse backgrounds. When Hurte watches the students interact with one another, he notes that “you realize, in the midst of all of these differences, there’s much commonality. It sets the stage for community to happen.”
These students return to campus in the fall prepared to fully participate in the rich history and traditions of William & Mary. Part of this history includes the slaves that the institution owned from the 17th to the first half of the 19th century. Hurte views this history as a community-building opportunity.
Last year, Hurte served as a member of the Task Force on Race and Race Relations that made a recommendation that led to William & Mary renaming the Jamestown North and South residence halls as Lemon and Hardy halls. The Task Force chose these names to represent the continuum of African-Americans’ contributions to William & Mary over its history.
“Lemon was one of the only identified slaves that was owned by the College,” Hurte says. “Mr. Lemon is a named individual but represents so many unnamed people who were enslaved and gave all of themselves to literally build this institution that’s still standing today.”
Dr. Carroll Hardy HON ’12, at the other end of the spectrum, symbolizes progress. Hardy served W&M from 1980 to 1995 in many capacities, including as associate vice president for Student Affairs and through an annual leadership conference that she hosted for 25 years. “There’s a sense of pride among our students about where we are going as an institution and how the renaming of those buildings further sheds light on the fullness of the history of the institution,” says Hurte of the reception to the renaming.
True to the community effort that is William & Mary, the CSD receives support from the Parent and Family Council (PFC). Some of the greatest cheerleaders for the center are vice chairs of the PFC, Greg and Lisa Packer. Both of their sons, Greg Packer ’16 and Matt Packer ’19, participated in the PLUS program. Hurte attributes the increased number of applicants to PLUS to the Packers’ support of the program.
PFC’s involvement with the center extends beyond the PLUS program. This year, the PFC has provided funding for the Student Engagement and Empowerment Through Dialogue (SEED) project.
“Our SEED initiative provides these multi-week opportunities on dialogue around particular topics connected to diversity and inclusion,” Hurte says of the project, and he cites its fostering of dialogue as an integral piece to the mission of the center. The PFC’s partnership in creating dialogue extends to its funding of a new diversity education fellowship. This fellow will partner with various departments and create classroom initiatives for diversity education.
The PFC’s efforts in partnership with the center’s programs will further enrich the campus community to which each student contributes. Together, they will further the rich traditions and storytelling that this institution already enjoys.