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Friday, May 20, 2022

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#IAMUH starts deeper conversation about diversity


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“I am one of the many students who benefited from the diverse opportunities that the campus has provided me with. I really feel that my experience in the community (exemplifies) that message,” Honors College and Bauer student Brinda Penmetsa said. | Justin Tijerina/The Cougar

Being the second biggest diverse campus in the nation is a given. You practically hear it everywhere. But few talk about engaging in the diversity.

“We are different, but what does that really mean?” Center of Diversity and Inclusion Director Niya Blair said. “How does that impact us?”

CDI plans to answer this question with its new campaign, #IAMUH, which officially launched this week. Students, faculty and staff will get a chance to share what makes them not only unique but what the University means to them during the campaign’s release Feb. 2 and 4.

With the help of the Center for Student Media, CDI will photograph students who stop by and share their unique answers to the question.

When Blair first received a button “I am One” in a conference roughly three years ago, she couldn’t get the concept out of her head.

“I was going through my box as I was unpacking when I first started here,” Blair said, rummaging through her office drawers, looking for the button. “I really wanted to do something and use this button in some way.”

Prominent figures like President Renu Khator and head football coach Tom Herman are kick-starting the campaign with their portraits of what makes them UH, as well as sophomore Honors College and Bauer student Brinda Penmetsa, was one of the students asked to participate.

“I think this (campaign) is coming at a great time,” Penmetsa said. “I am one of the many students who benefits from the diversity, opportunity and community that the University provides me with.”

UH students come from more than 137 nations across the world, according to the CDI website. Roughly 28 percent are white, 27 percent are Hispanic, 20 percent are Asian, 10 percent are African-American and about 10 percent are international. But to Penmetsa, it’s much more than physical appearance.

“We get to show everyone our majors, our backgrounds and our student involvement on campus,” Penmetsa said.

Blair said when she took her position as director, she wanted to develop a deeper understanding of the varying differences students have and find not only coexistence, but true understanding. That’s where the inspiration from her button came.

“We put something out as a teaser last spring,” Blair said. “During the Diversity Institute that we hosted with Counseling and Psychological Services Center, we had students speak before our keynote speaker and they would introduce themselves and say (how) they made UH so diverse. They ended with ‘I am UH.’ Everyone’s story was so different; people really liked it.”

Psychology alum and former Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society member Gabriela Chen said she couldn’t pass up the chance to be included in the campaign.

“I may be the homecoming queen to many people, but I am so much more than that,” Chen said. “We get to see another side than what we interpret from first glance. This campaign sparks differences as strength, and I think that’s how I’ve always seen it.”

She said one of the reasons she chose to attend UH was the environment and culture, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t have some difficulty adapting.

“This campus was crowded with so many different people, it was overwhelming,” Chen said. “All universities aren’t like this. We can’t pinpoint someone easily, it was intimidating to try to communicate with someone I may not have much in common (with). With this campaign, students get to know a certain person in a whole new light.”

When asked to sum up her #IAMUH experience, she chose “valiant,” but that wasn’t an easy choice.

“I turned in my slip Sunday night, because I took so long to think of a single word to describe all I feel about being UH,” she said.

The quote came a little easier.

“I wrote ‘Despite adversity and difficulty, I found solace through education,'” she said.

“If everyone took the time to appreciate (their) surroundings and broaden their horizons, they’d be able to get much more than just textbook knowledge. (They’d get) true understanding of what educating oneself means.”

The first #IAMUH tabling will be in the Student Center South Building and will feature #IAMUH signs in six different languages for students to pose with. The second tabling will be held at the Student Center Satellite.

Penmetsa said the campaign has the potential to find and establish a deeper sense of community, if everyone is willing to contribute.

“It would mean a lot if students can take this project and step into the next level which is having larger conversations of collaborations and build from each other’s gifts and programs,” Penmetsa said. “We can make something bigger when we’re truly united.”

Blair emphasized that all students and faculty are welcome to share what makes them UH and to learn about themselves and society through their stories.

“I don’t think many people think of themselves as contributing to diversity,” Blair said. “They tend to think it’s specifically for people of color or females, when in fact we can all contribute to this, no matter your background. Using the #IAMUH, we can bring the pieces all together.”

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