Employees of Color and American Indian support group founded by UMD faculty

Olihe Okoro helping diverse students feel welcomed at UMD. Picture courtesy of Olihe Okoro.

Olihe Okoro helping diverse students feel welcomed at UMD. Picture courtesy of Olihe Okoro.

In the fall of 2014, UMD faculty members Ariri Onchwari and Insoon Han were inspired to co-found the Employees of Color and American Indian (EOCAI) Mentoring program.

Born and raised in Kenya, Onchwari is an associate professor in early childhood studies at UMD. According to UMD’s 2016 Human Resource Survey Evaluation, Onchwari is one of 114 full-time instructional staff members of color, out of a total of 505.

“People are often focused on things they are familiar with, and in that process, [people of color] really become invisible and almost irrelevant,” Onchwari commented in a follow up email.

According to the UMD Campus Climate Executive Summary, 26 percent of faculty respondents felt that other faculty members in their departments prejudged their abilities based on their identity and background. This behavior is what the EOCAI group tries to combat.

The EOCAI program was created to welcome new faculty and staff to UMD, to bring them together for monthly meetings and to pair members up for small group meetings. A portion of the group's funds goes toward providing meal tickets for members to meet with each other over lunch or coffee.

The purpose of the group, according to Onchwari, is to maintain and create successful relationships during and after the work day.

“It’s not a disadvantage, it’s a strength,” Onchwari wrote in reference to having a diverse background. “That is why the university looks for people who are different, so they can enrich students’ learning and help them become successful in an increasingly diverse and global society.”  

Hailing from South Korea, Insoon Han is an assistant professor in the Department of Education and the second co-founder to the EOCAI program.

According to Han, many higher education institutions design their mentoring programs for new faculty in a “top-down” process, in which administrators create the program and invite people to join.

“We are a bottom-up, member driven organization, and we design the program ourselves through the discussion among the council,” Han wrote in a follow up email.  “In that way, it is a really unique and organic mentoring program.”

About 50 members have been actively participating since 2014, according to Han.

As a member of the EOCAI support group, assistant professor in the Pharmacy Department Olihe Okoro felt that the support and mentorship was important to her success as a professor.

“It’s a way to mentor one’s progress, work life, and challenges of being a person of color,” Okoro said.

Okoro’s experience with the group led her to co-create a similar group to support students of color at UMD.

“It was such a benefit for us, so we thought it would be good to have a support group for the students,” Okoro said.

Although the student group is independent from the EOCAI support group, there is some coexistence throughout the semester.

Onchwari, Han and Okoro all have student mentees. The group also holds a social meet-and-greet for students of color at the beginning of each semester, where they can meet employees of color.

“It allows students to connect, ask questions, and know that someone has your back,” Okoro said.

Both the student and the EOCAI program are founded on the idea that people are more successful when they have social support.

“Ultimately, as a human being, you want to be valued and respected,” Han wrote. “Everyone deserves that.”