June 6, 2019 2:21 pm

President Barack Obama and former U.S. Secretary of State General Colin Powell were two of the featured keynote speakers at a national diversity conference recently attended by four Pierce students.

Garrett Bown, Anisia Khammala, Cory Newton and Itzayana Soltero, along with Facilities and Operations Program Manager and student adviser Patrick Carter, attended the 15th Annual Diversity and Leadership Conference in Dallas, Texas in April.

President Obama and Gen. Powell were the first African-Americans to hold the respective positions of president and secretary of state, a fact that Carter felt was important to highlight and celebrate.

So important, in fact, that he successfully petitioned Pierce administration to provide budgeting for students to attend the conference within only a few weeks of its start.

Carter first learned of the conference in winter quarter and initially planned on attending for his own personal and professional development. However, as an adviser for several past student events and with a self-declared passion for investing in and developing people, he says he knew this conference would be a pinnacle in the lives of Pierce students.

He worked with members of the Office of Student Life to identify a handful of students on campus who displayed diverse leadership traits and extended invitations for them to join him for the conference.

Bown, last year’s student body president and a member of the Gay Straight Alliance; Khammala, the current equity, diversity and inclusion student senator; Newton, a veteran resource officer; and Soltero, president of the Latino Student Union offered the traits Carter was looking for in the students he chose to accompany him.

In discussing their experience of the conference, the students who attended expressed two recurring themes: enthusiasm for the topics of conversation and motivation to implement what they learned in both their work and personal lives.

Newton says he came back from the conference on fire to make change on campus. He immediately began planning for a Veteran Student Union, which the college didn’t previously have. Now, he says, there is an army of people supporting the idea; the first club meeting took place a few weeks ago.

After returning, Bown also quickly got to work by reactivating the GSA club, which had become more of an inactive community on campus. He filed paperwork and asked for budgeting from student council to officially make the community a club again.

While it’s too late in the quarter to fund any public events, Bown plans to hold weekly meetings and hopes the club will continue during summer quarter.

“I want to find someone who was in the position I was in [when first starting Pierce], who has a lot of room to grow and flourish and just needs the space to thrive,” says Bown.

He adds he never would have gone through the trouble of starting the club again if he hadn’t attended the conference and been provided the motivation to do so.

Although the students agreed that it’s impossible to beat listening to President Obama speak, Bown was surprised that the person who ended up influencing him the most was not a keynote speaker but rather a workshop leader who shared personal stories of triumphing over adversity.

The students also agreed that the conference awarded opportunities for forging connections which would have remained elusive had they not attended.

Soltero recalls meeting a Spanish teacher from New Jersey in the hallway outside of her hotel room; they exchanged smiles and a bit of conversation, and the next thing she knew, Soltero was invited to travel to Peru with the woman.

Newton also took advantage of the opportunity to connect with people. He met other veterans in leadership roles in a variety of industries and learned that veterans sometimes forget they have marketable skills valuable to companies. He says the conversations brought him out of his shell and reminded him of his worth.

Self-worth was discussed repeatedly by the students. Each had a personal story about how the ideas they heard at the conference influenced them to think about the degree that self-worth plays in their lives.

Khammala says she often hears disappointment in people’s voices when she tells them she wants to major in sociology rather than law or medicine. At the conference, she met many people of color working as sociologists in higher education.

While not considered a prestigious occupation by some, Khammala says, “These professors and business owners opened my eyes to the available upward mobility in this line of work.”

National Diversity Council, the organization that hosts the annual conference, chose as this year’s theme Inclusion: The Time is Now. When asked if there were specific ways Pierce could address this theme on the Puyallup campus, the students replied unanimously that an EDI center would be the best step.

Khammala pointed out that the Fort Steilacoom campus has both a TRIO and Aspire program, each designed to address the needs of specific identity-based groups. She says if there is already a campus that is more diverse, focus should be given to the one that isn’t.

Bown and Soltero agree. Bown says he’s visited campuses where the EDI centers are powerful presences and would like to see something similar at Pierce.

Soltero recalled that when she first stepped foot on Pierce’s campus, she didn’t see herself or her culture represented, which is what inspired her and a friend to start the Latino Student Union.

“It will take students uniting and saying what we need [to bring an EDI center into existence],” Soltero says.

Until then, Khammala says the word inclusion is one that is thrown around to make students and administration feel good but in terms of practice there is still work to be done.

In the end, each student said that attending the conference awarded them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to network, do some self-reflection and gain skills and confidence in moving forward in their careers.

Soltero summed up the experience by musing on how her reluctant agreement to become the president of the Latino Student Union actually provided her the opportunity to attend the conference. Newton echoed her sentiment.

“You can’t get the opportunity if you’re not there,” he says. “You have to be out there making connections.”