Diversity and Inclusion a Focus for University’s Newest Director

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

With a mission to provide quality health care to diverse communities, Rush University Medical Center brings that same vital spirit to its classrooms. And recently it made an even deeper commitment to inclusion, one in which students of all backgrounds will feel supported while preparing to serve people from many walks of life in their future health care careers.

“My goal is to create an environment for the students to feel welcome,” said Lee Bitsoi, EdD, Rush University’s newly named director of the Office of Student Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. “If we can create a home away from home for our students, they’re going to feel welcome, and not only will they thrive, but they’ll have a rewarding and successful experience here.”

For Bitsoi, the idea of fostering inclusion runs to his core. He is Navajo and has spent his career working in social justice research in two related strands: access and equity as well as bioethics — most recently at Harvard University, where he examined bioethics in research on indigenous and underserved communities. Before this he worked with the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations and played a part in recruiting underrepresented students and scholars to Harvard.

In addition to these and other higher education positions, he served as lead scholar for the Educational Experience of Young Men of Color initiative for the College Board. This culminated earlier this year in the publication of a book to which he contributed, “Men of Color in Higher Education: New Foundations for Developing Models for Success.” And it was this work, Bitsoi said, that inspired him to continue his career in student development.

“For the past year at Rush, students and faculty have provided senior leadership with compelling reasons to take diversity and inclusion efforts at the university to an even deeper level and add a dedicated role to spearhead the effort,” said Gayle Ward, JD, associate provost of the Division of Student Affairs.

Bitsoi was drawn to the opportunity at Rush because of this effort to embed diversity even further into the University’s culture, and he met with current students as part of the interview process to share his views.

“There was consensus among the students that Lee was their preferred candidate, and they spoke at length about the qualities he would bring to Rush that could ultimately advance the institution’s commitment to diversity and inclusion,” Ward said.

In the newly created role, Bitsoi will serve in a number of capacities. Most importantly, he’ll be a point of contact to support students as they navigate the higher education experience and how that might intersect with their particular backgrounds. He’ll also kick off a “diversity audit” of efforts at the University, with the intent of uniting the various pockets of inclusion work into one cooperative strategy.

And drawing upon his past experience, Bitsoi will play a role in recruiting students from underrepresented backgrounds and join financial aid officials to look at ways to increase minority scholarships.

There are opportunities to educate as well. Bitsoi hopes that the events he will begin to schedule over the coming year, many based off the established heritage months — Native American; African-American; Hispanic and Latino; Asian-American and Pacific Islander; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender; and more — can show students the wide range of peoples included in these broader terms — the “diversity within diversity.”

Exposure and reflection such as this creates a “cultural dexterity,” Bitsoi added. It not only improves the environment of support inside the University but better prepares all students, who see themselves as part of a connected spectrum, to care for the communities they will one day serve.

Bitsoi believes Rush is ahead of the curve in listening to students and using this critical feedback to support them on the road to meaningful careers. His own role is a perfect example.

“When you create an environment of compassion and commitment and care for the most underrepresented,” he said, “and you’re successful at those levels, you’re going to create an environment that’s going to be beneficial for all.”