MLK honor 'means the world' to diversity director

MLK honor 'means the world' to diversity director

Karen Kassebaum poses during the Dear World event held in the Nebraska Union in spring 2016. Kassebaum is winner of the 2017 Chancellor's Fulfilling the Dream Award.

“In diversity there is beauty and there is strength.” -- Maya Angelou

Those powerful words from the American poet and civil rights activist shine from a frame on the desk of Karen Kassebaum.

The quote also portends to how Kassebaum approaches her work -- first in student recruitment and now as director of diversity and inclusion for staff employees -- and her hopes for the future of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“I’m passionate about diversity and I want people to love each other,” Kassebaum said. “Like President Obama said in his final speech, ‘Embrace all, not just some.’ The most amazing things happen when people open their hearts and embrace our differences.

“When that happens -- when we willingly combine our differences -- it makes us stronger as a university, community and nation.”

For her commitment to diversity and inclusion, Kassebaum will be honored with the 2017 Chancellor’s Fulfilling the Dream Award. The honor is reserved for individuals who contribute to the university or community in promoting the goals and vision of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Kassebaum will receive the award during the university’s MLK Week keynote address by Ryan Mack, which is 6:30 p.m. Jan. 18 in the Nebraska Union Auditorium. The talk and award presentation are free and open to the public.

A first-generation college student, Kassebaum’s diversity-related viewpoint is fueled by her own unique life experience.

Fifty-three years ago, her mother and uncle joined MLK for the march on Washington, D.C. She hails from Chicago’s Southside and was adopted, raised by a multiracial family. Today, she’s married to a white husband and has biracial children.

That background helped in her work as director of student recruitment for Nebraska’s College of Education and Human Sciences. It also focused Kassebaum’s research as she pursued a doctorate in educational administration.

“As a recruiter of color, I was asked to recruit for diversity,” Kassebaum said. “I am fortunate that I can use my experience being a person of color who grew up on the Southside of Chicago and my lived experience in a predominantly white environment to recruit students.”

For her doctoral dissertation, Kassebaum opted to explore diversity recruitment in higher education. The research centered on the lived experience of student recruiters who were asked to recruit for diversity based on their visual diversity rather than individual lived experiences.

The research led to findings that several of the recruiters were presented with challenges navigating recruiting for diversity because their lived experiences were not diverse experiences.

"I felt like universities weren't asking the right questions when seeking students of color to recruit minorities," Kassebaum said. "It had to go deeper than skin color. To do it right, you need recruiters that have similar life experiences to the students you are recruiting."

Kassebaum's role as director of recruitment for the education and human sciences recently ended as she transitioned into a new position as the university's director of diversity and inclusion for staff employees. The position is dedicated toward recruiting and retaining employees from underrepresented groups.

Accomplishments earned in the first six months of the new role include integrating a diversity statement into staff employee job listings; building an index of resource groups for new and current employees; and developing/leading workshops on diversity and inclusion practices.

“This job is challenging, but I’m up for it,” Kassebaum said. “I want to develop among all university employees a mentality that diversity and inclusion are responsibilities in all of our jobs.”

She believes that shift in thinking will be accelerated by the university’s ongoing diversity initiative. Nebraska has recently partnered with Halualani and Associates, a leading national research firm, to complete a campuswide study on diversity and inclusion.

Results of the survey will be used to shape future programs and guidelines on diversity and inclusion.

“I’ve been here for nearly 13 years and we’ve talked many times about diversity initiatives,” Kassebaum said. “But, this time, it feels different, like something is going to happen.

“This initiative is poised to stitch diversity and inclusion into the fabric of the institution. That’s exciting and I can’t wait to help that process develop.”

Additional diversity efforts that led Kassebaum to the MLK honor include: developing creative methods to teach multicultural education courses; leading strategic planning and assessment of related training materials; and assisting students with leadership development programs like Athlete2Athlete and diversity-related symposiums.

She is also an adviser for the Nebraska chapter of the Black Graduate Association, Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, and the recently launched Young and UnAshamed student organization.

“This award, it means the world to me,” Kassebaum said. “The lessons of MLK inspire everything I do. To me, life is about people and what you are doing to help others.”

For more information on Nebraska's Fulfilling the Dream award, click here. Previous winners of the honor from the university include Linda and Gene Crump, Debra Hope, Jake Kirkland, Helen Moore, Charlene Maxey-Harris, Amelia Montes and Pat Tetreault.