The time is ripe for growth at Michigan Tech, and the Huskies serving on Michigan Tech's inaugural Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Sense of Belonging (DEIS) Alumni Advisory Board have begun their work to cultivate a truly inclusive campus.
Each DEIS Alumni Advisory Board member brings a unique perspective and skill set to their advisory role. In their first visit to campus since forming, they explained why and how they're focused on helping to create a welcoming environment where every student who chooses Tech can put down roots and thrive.
Fertile Ground to Propagate Diversity
The group's whirlwind campus visit in early October 2022 was timed at the request of board chair Otha Thornton to duck the snow (he doesn't miss UP winters). The nine members met with campus leaders, talked to current students, and laid the groundwork for developing specific enrollment and retention strategies as part of the University-wide effort to attract and retain students from historically underserved communities. Members also emphasized the need, through the lens of their own Michigan Tech stories, for a healthy network of advisors, helpers, allies, and advocates who can offer guidance to future and current Huskies, personally and professionally, just as their mentors did for them.
For many board members, the catalyst for their success at Tech was a key person. Somebody they instinctively knew had their best interests at heart. An admissions manager. An academic or organization advisor. A program director. A coach. Even a Houghton City bus driver. Someone genuine, who saw their potential and extended a helping hand. You could call it the Betty Chavis Effect.
The Legend and Legacy of Betty Chavis
Many alumni who were at Tech between 1989 and 2008 will know without further explanation what the Betty Chavis Effect means because they directly experienced it: the outreach of a caring champion who enveloped them in a warm coat of acknowledgment, encouragement, and on-point get-your-rear-in-gear tips for success.
Chavis recruited a generation of students from diverse backgrounds. DEIS Alumni Advisory Board member Doris Strong is one of them. "When I arrived on campus we had a recruiter who was top-notch: Betty Chavis. If you don't know her, look her up, because she's phenomenal. She was a driving force that allowed many of us to come into this space and not only exist but thrive," said Strong.
The Huskies who Chavis brought to campus went on to establish organizations like the Society of Intellectual Sisters, Society of African American Men, a campus chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, and the Echoes from Heaven Gospel Choir. A Detroit native who settled permanently in the Copper Country, Chavis spearheaded Black History Month commemorations on campus and co-founded the communitywide Parade of Nations.
It's been written that angels sometimes appear in disguise. The same might be said for some of the other mentors who, like Chavis, helped board members feel seen and known, drawing them into the stream of campus and community life.
Community Engagement Nurtures Transplants
On the shore of the Keweenaw Waterway, board member PeiPei Zhao '09 descended the recently constructed stairway to Prince’s Point, a tree-lined beach where Huskies gather for recreation and inspiration. Sitting at a picnic table near the fire pit with the occasional motorboat zooming past behind him on the sun-dappled canal, Zhao smiled. "When I fly back here today, I feel I'm returning home," he said, touching a hand to his heart.
The beach is located at the base of a steep, gravelly bank, and the stairs provide more direct access than the original winding path. The stairway also serves as a metaphor for Zhao's continuous efforts to provide a friendly onramp to the University, particularly for international students, as he was.
Zhao counts himself lucky that he first touched down in the US in Houghton, arriving 15 years ago as a graduate student from his native China. Seeking an advanced degree bridging international business and cutting-edge technologies, he identified two US schools that could help him meet his goal to bridge the worlds of international business and cutting-edge technologies. The Keweenaw felt better than New York for a first step into a new country.
His instincts proved correct, and living off campus brought additional and unexpected opportunities.
"As an international student, I actually got a lot of help from local residents," Zhao said. "I got my first car from a bus driver in Houghton. I took the bus every day and he asked me, 'Why don't you drive a car?' And I said, 'I don't have one.' He found me a '91 Ford Escort—it drove perfectly—for $300." The bus driver took Zhao to talk to the family selling the car to help seal the deal, then found him an agent who offered reasonably priced auto insurance.
Zhao got his first postgrad job locally, at Somero Enterprises out on Highway M-26. "They were looking for someone with an engineering background (which is my undergrad, a little bit) and also in business school that could help them expand their business in Asia," he said. "I think I was the only candidate meeting those criteria. Without those engagements in the community, I wouldn't have known what Somero is."
On campus, Zhao found a sense of belonging by putting his own spin on traditional student opportunities. He deejayed an hour-long Asian rock show on WMTU, worked as a water safety instructor, and bartended at the MUB. "I would like to see more people like me repeat those different experiences," he said.
"I was so lucky to find the right school."
"Living in the UP, living in the Houghton-Hancock area, is a very good place to start from. You can learn a lot before you learn to fly higher. You can get more readiness for future growth," said Zhao.
Finding a Second Home on Campus
Over the crest of the hillside, golden leaves wafted down onto Walker Lawn. It was one of those bucolic October days that make it feel like autumn will never end—just what Otha Thornton '01 '09 was hoping for when he helped to schedule the group's first visit to campus.
The chair of the DEIS Alumni Advisory Board took in the campus vibe from his vantage at the entrance of Walker Arts and Humanities Center. After coming to Tech as both a recruiting officer for the Army ROTC program and a graduate student, he first found his sense of belonging at ROTC headquarters. But, he also found another home here in Walker, with the College of Sciences and Arts.
He had two Techs on his radar for graduate school, but Georgia Tech's program had been full. Thornton wasn't thrilled about living in a place where you don't need to travel anywhere to do cold weather survival training, but as soon as he got here, he knew it was the right Tech for him.
Fresh from Morehouse, the historically Black liberal arts college, Thornton had already developed a strong sense of identity. He'd also attended a predominantly white high school, where he was student body president. At Michigan Tech, much of his sense of belonging came through being a mentor through ROTC.
"I'd seen a lot of the world, so I was able to relate and connect to people," he said. "As a recruiting officer, one of my responsibilities was getting to know all the different organizations on campus and working with them. As I started taking and teaching some classes in Walker, meeting students and faculty, the College made me feel comfortable. Integrating in the community really made a difference, too. I'm still talking to people I went to Tech with."
"How can we continue to build a community and make it better? You invest in what you believe is important. Diversity has been increasing and improving and we want to continue doing that. We have seen some very good progress."
Outreach for pre-college students is also vital, said Thornton, who has helped represent Michigan Tech at high school STEM-centered events. "When they see people that look like them, that makes a difference."
Mentors Level the Playing Field
On Friday during the board's visit, a fierce wind did its darndest to rip the fall color show off the trees and send Huskies digging into the back of their closets for winter coats. Board member and former Huskies football player Jaylyn Boone '18 appeared oblivious to the chill. He was all smiles on Sherman Field, beaming even brighter after he retrieved wife Kaija's jacket from the car; he spotted Coach Tom Kearly at the top of the bleachers.
Again, it was the Betty Chavis Effect at work. "Being back here brings overwhelming gratitude," Boone said. "I not only got the opportunity to walk down the 50-yard line, I got to see the man who started it all."
"This was a man who believed in me when nobody else did," Boone continued. "Coach Tom Kearly pulled me and my mom up into his office. He told my mom, 'I'm not necessarily recruiting your son because he's the greatest athlete. I'm recruiting your son because I can see on film that he plays bigger than himself. He plays as if he has something bigger to play for.' And there, in that room, he gave me an opportunity to get an education, a little kid from Flint who lives below the poverty line, food stamps, you name it. He gave me the opportunity to change life for my family forever."
Boone said his Michigan Tech family provided supportive relationships, opportunities to grow, and leadership development he regards as even more valuable than the degree he earned.
"When you don't know what's out there, you don't even know what to go for. For me, my job is to bring Michigan Tech to the people who might not otherwise discover it, so that they can have a life-changing experience."
"I found my sense of belonging at Michigan Tech on the hardest night of my life," he said. "I lost my temper, I was crying—which I didn't do much of. I was far away from home. My roommate somehow got hold of Coach Kearly. It was two or three o'clock in the morning. Coach Kearly got out of his bed, got into his black pickup truck, and came over. We rode around Houghton. He stopped at a gas station and got me a pop. He just talked to me. He listened to me. He asked about my family. It was then that I knew, 'I'm more than just a player to this guy. I'm a person.' That's when I knew I belong on this campus."
Boone knows there are others like him who can benefit from the access, opportunities, and experiences found at Tech.
Board member Jimmie Cannon ’19 ’20 found family in the football program, too, along with the communities he found in Undergraduate Student Government and the Black Students Association. Cannon is increasingly focusing on a career path in diversity, equity, and inclusion, provided an example of how ongoing allyship from the highest level can make an impact.
I do see progress on this campus. Like they say, Rome wasn't built in a day, but we're making progress.
"It meant a lot that President Koubek came to some BSA meetings to see how we were doing," said Cannon. "Knowing that leadership is genuinely interested makes a huge impression on students."
Nurturing the Betty Chavises of Tomorrow
Friday's gusts persisted into late afternoon. Board member Doris Strong '97 adjusted her interview location—originally set for the Alumni House lawn—accordingly. "It's cold out there," she said from the warmth of the living room. "We're not going to do this outside."
Tech itself can feel like a cold and unwelcoming place if there are few people who look like you and you're not sure where to find safe spaces and friendly faces, said Strong, who is parent to two Huskies. Both of Strong's daughters—Christiana '21 '22 and Kylese, in her second year—bookended their mom, wearing matching black jackets with red SIS lettering outlined in white. All three are members of the Society of Intellectual Sisters. Formed at Tech in 1991, two years after Betty Chavis flew up in a snowstorm to begin her new job expanding the student base at Tech, SIS promotes sisterhood, academic excellence, diversity, and service to the community.
"The purpose is to give voice to the Black female face," Strong said. "There's a sense of comfort in having more numbers of support around you." Her sense of belonging at Michigan Tech came from people and, in her words: "someplace we could go where we felt like we were being supported."
Chavis helped create that framework of support.
"I don't know that there's been another Betty Chavis in a while," said Strong. "I appreciate that Michigan Tech is taking a look at recruitment and retention. We can't talk, necessarily, about where we are. We have to talk about where we want to be and how we're going to get there."
Strong said initiatives to increase recruitment are one step in the process. "Once you get students here, you've got to retain them," she said. "Once they're here, then if they're miserable, if they can't find a sense of belonging, or a safe space, or any of those things, they're going to leave. And we have to be willing to hear that voice and not be dismissive of that voice … what I'm hoping to do as a board member is connect those two pieces."
"There is an opportunity to improve the space that we all coexist in on this campus for the good of Michigan Tech."
During her campus tour, Christiana sensed a collaborative atmosphere at Tech, rather than a competitive one. It was a deciding factor, along with knowing the community her parents were part of at Tech.
"Having her and my father (Cornelius Strong '97) come up and create brothers and sisters of their own, who I grew to know as my aunties and uncles, I wanted that same relationship when I got to campus for myself," Christiana said. Kylese nodded in agreement.
“I want to have the voices of the board be heard,” Strong said. “I want to have a presence that’s going to be positive, that’s going to influence growth for all.”
Creating the Next Wave of Problem-solvers
It rained, it shone, and there was even a moment of snow as Monique Wells '02 settled onto a concrete retaining ledge under a crabapple tree, with the Chem Sci building and the rumble of construction on the Tech's new H-Stem Complex as a backdrop.
The former MTU Winter Carnival Queen was unruffled as she zipped her winter parka.
Wells also experienced the Betty Chavis Effect firsthand. But her catalyst was Rochelle Danquah, another former Michigan Tech recruiter. Wells had already settled on a different school when Danquah guided her toward Tech. "She had such an amazing way of really showing that she cared, not only about me, but what I would do in the future," said Wells. "She was convinced that I needed to be at Tech. It was her relationship-building and her tenacity that made me feel like she really did care that I was a part of the Tech family."
Danquah, who met Wells' mother and assisted the family in every way possible to reach a college decision, was the first in a string of mentors, who all imbued in Wells a deep affection and appreciation for her school that continues today.
"My sense of belonging is a byproduct of the people who were here. I had two amazing professors, John Sandell and Todd King; they made it their business to make me successful," said Wells. "They made it their business to make sure I was included and that I had the best of what Tech had to offer. The sense of belonging came from a sense of commitment from those professors. And not only that, I had those like Betty Chavis—many of the pillars of Michigan Tech history who were there as support. Really, it came through relationships and the commitment they had to my success. And that made it really easy for me to say this was home."
Wells said the Husky Nation reputation for rolling up our sleeves and digging in to solve problems will be amplified through the DEIS initiative.
"Inclusion should be powerfully demonstrated through university culture and community. Our awareness of others and the value each person brings to inspire innovation and creativity can fuel the unimaginable and bring about the impossible."
"How do you really technologically advance? How do you really move companies forward? How do you really solve some of the world's hardest problems? When you bring in underrepresented groups who may not have legacies of that profession or that type of education, you open things up for more collaborative input and awareness about how to really make change happen," she said. "It happens at the grassroot when you bring in many different diverse people and experiences; those things make for the best innovative ideas solving the deepest, darkest, scariest, stickiest problems. When you have that in higher education, you create the next wave and generation of problem-solvers who are just comfortable with it. When they get into the corporate arena or academia, they come in there with a talent and knowledge that helps them to be able to hit the ground running."
Wells, recently appointed to Michigan Tech's Board of Trustees, said the DEIS alumni advisory group is excited to bring its expertise across a broad range of industries back to the University.
"I've got lots of hopes and aspirations, but one that is the most foundational is that we really do become thought leaders and thought partners for the efforts of the school to retain, recruit, and reach all types of talent," she said.
Weeding Out Cultural and Knowledge Barriers
The winds of change are already blowing in higher ed. Global conditions for increased diversity in enrollment are favorable, with international student enrollment rebounding nationwide following the pandemic. Zhao sees the upward trend as a diversity accelerator for Tech that will continue to strengthen the vibrant alumni network he's an integral part of. "I sent a 15-second video (to the network) when I landed," he said. "Everyone who visits sends back photos they take." Alumni have set up a chat for students in China and throughout Asia. "We talk a lot," he said. Hee sees international MTU alumni events in mainland China as another important component of establishing a diverse culture; such events always include campus updates and any special guests from Tech.
"We're all human beings. We all like to see someone like us to be successful, to fly higher in the future, to be smarter."
Zhao and his wife, Shuying, sponsor the Global Elite Bridge international scholarship in the College of Business, open to both domestic and international students. Zhao sees the scholarship as a reflection of the University's potential to straddle the worlds of business and technology as he's done.
Students coming to campus don't just need to see others like them. They also offer the gift of their culture, Zhao said. He said it's important to ensure the components that will make students feel at home are in place, including international foods that also offer something different for the community. Recognizing and reaching out to international students should happen as early as possible, said Zhao. A sense of belonging begins when faculty, staff, and administration connect both personally and through on-campus student associations about students' needs. Enhancing the DEIS culture is as good for alumni as it is for students, leading to a lifetime of opportunities, said Zhao. "My current job is a referral from alumni," he added.
Developing a Framework to Grow Diversity
The board is drilling down into very specific areas it wants to address, but some of the broad concepts of supporting an inclusive environment have emerged, aligned with the University's strategic plans and goals:
- Reaching pre-college students and their families earlier
- Helping new students make interest-based connections
- Collaborating with institutions that are not predominantly white
- Nurturing, strengthening, and utilizing the international alumni network
- Serving as mentors, contacts, and University ambassadors
Finally, it wouldn't be Michigan Tech without a mechanism for monitoring growth.
"We've had an increase in a diverse population of students being accepted here over the last couple of years, so we're making good progress—and we're tracking that to make sure that we stay on course," Thornton said.
"We hope we can continue to make Michigan Tech a wonderful experience for all students, from my era of Create the Future to Tomorrow Needs Michigan Tech."
Unlike the Keweenaw's mercurial meteorological shifts, the DEIS climate at Michigan Tech has the potential to be both stabilized and accelerated thanks to the help of dedicated advisory groups like the DEIS alumni board. The willingness to explore a myriad of possibilities and perspectives can ultimately create an atmosphere where every Husky is able to weather the inevitable storms, shine as a lifelong member of our community, and create an epic tomorrow.
Diversity can't be grown organically at a predominantly white institution. The advisory board is part of the efforts by Michigan Tech's Office of the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion (VPDI), established in 2020, to develop strategies for nurturing DEIS values backed by actionable, specific tactics.
The board is facilitated by Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Wayne Gersie and Vice President for Advancement and Alumni Engagement Bill Roberts. In addition to the folks interviewed for this story, board members include Terre Lane '82, Ashley Simpson '09, and Alumni Board of Directors liaisons Britta Anders '15 and Arick Davis '16.
Thornton said he's excited by the expertise and enthusiasm of the board members. "VPDI pulled together a team from all over the world," he said. "We want students to feel they're a part of campus when they come to it."
Learn more about all the members serving on the inaugural DEIS Alumni Advisory Board and check out other campuswide initiatives, advisory boards, and resources at Michigan Tech's Diversity and Inclusion hub. Email the board at email@example.com.
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.