Campus Highlight: Allies for Diversity: Creating Conditions for Student Well-Being

By Linda Major, Assistant to the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, and Director, Center for Civic Engagement, at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln; & Dr. Andre Fortune, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at the University of Texas Arlington

For some racial and ethnic minority students, the University of Nebraska—Lincoln (UNL) can be a lonely place. Out of the 19,979 undergraduate students enrolled at UNL this year, 3,015 are minorities—15 percent of the undergraduate student body.

The most recent National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), administered in 2013 to UNL students, revealed that only a small percentage of students claim they interact with those different than themselves. Data collected in the spring of 2015 during an investigation of UNL student experiences and attitudes around intervention practices in situations involving bias offers additional insight into the larger campus climate. Survey findings suggest that, on average, 58 percent of the student population witnessed verbal mistreatment or harassment based on race during the 2014–2015 academic year. Approximately 80 percent of the student respondents indicated that they were “very” or “extremely bothered” when observing the behavior, yet only 25 percent of the students surveyed said that they intervened “frequently” or “most of the time.” When asked whether or not something should be done, 84 percent of the respondents strongly agreed that someone should intervene when another person is harassed or mistreated based on their race.

So what is getting in the way of students acting when observing problematic situations involving race? Data from the 2015 Bystander Intervention Survey provides some insight. Three reasons students cited as barriers to intervention include (1) the lack of confidence to intervene, (2) not knowing when to intervene, and (3) not knowing how to intervene.1

Through funding provided by Bringing Theory to Practice, UNL faculty and staff developed Allies for Diversity: Creating Conditions for Student Well-Being, a dialogue-based project nested in a larger, comprehensive university effort to make the campus more welcoming by, in part, reducing the barriers identified through the survey. The project, titled “Dine, Dialogue and Pass It On,” was informed by a series of lectures by Dr. Shelly Tochluk, author of Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk About Race and How to Do It

Pass It On is an interactive conversation using customized playing cards featuring questions that prompt healthy and challenging discussions, directed at UNL faculty and staff. Pass It On provides an avenue for growing and developing skills for generating productive dialogue about diversity, inclusion, and social justice. Many participants find dialogues prompted by Pass It On challenging, but the questions and prompts on each card are intended to stimulate dialogue—providing an opportunity that makes discussing these issues increasingly less difficult. Ultimately the goal of Pass It On is to develop and practice skills that can be passed along from the faculty and staff to all those they interact with, increasing both the inclusivity of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln campus community and the likelihood of students intervening in problematic situations as their confidence and skill levels improve. Each discussion is intended to be group facilitated to mirror real-life settings in which we rarely have certified or trained “diversity” facilitators to guide challenging discussions surrounding privilege, oppression, and discrimination.

Pass It On has fifty questions and prompts that are placed on a deck of playing cards. Dialogue for Pass It On can begin many ways. If participants are talking with familiar people they may choose to begin and continue dialogue by selecting a card and addressing the prompt. If participants are unfamiliar with people in their group, they may want to get to know the others better before beginning Pass It On.

We originally intended to host six campus-wide workshops for about two hundred faculty and staff. Our expectations were exceeded—during the 2014–2015 academic year, we hosted ten workshops and directly impacted over four hundred faculty, staff, and students. Each participant was provided at least one deck of cards upon completion of the session. Many actually requested more decks as they thought about the conversation’s utility not only within but outside of the classroom. Pass It On has also proven to be transferable and adoptable outside of UNL’s campus; since its introduction to UNL, Nebraska high schools and colleges and universities across the country have requested decks of Pass It On playing cards. Recently, an enterprising graduate student facilitated the “Dine, Dialogue and Pass It On” activity during a job interview. To date, approximately 25 percent of the 2,500 decks we originally purchased have been distributed to Pass It On participants.

Plans are underway to extend the reach of Pass It On to the newest members of the campus community. New Student Enrollment Orientation Leaders used the cards this summer to engage incoming students in conversation during their first visit to campus, and learning community faculty are integrating the activity into their fall curriculum. Greek Affairs will provide opportunities to engage in dialogue around difference through new member and leadership seminars, and faculty responsible for first-year scholarship classes are adding Pass It On to their syllabi.

The program, which began as a robust collaboration between academic and student affairs, found a home within the recently created office of the Assistant to the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs for Diversity. Institutionalization of the program, within this set of responsibilities, ensures that Pass It On will remain beyond the life of the grant and help us become the more welcoming university we aspire to be. We will chart our progress against the baseline data described above and enhance the project with complimentary initiatives based on our findings.

For more information about “Dine, Dialogue and Pass It On” at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, please visit the website at, or contact Linda Major, assistant to the vice chancellor for student affairs, at


1. This survey, developed by Linda Major and Janice Deeds for use specifically at UNL, draws on similar bystander intervention surveys developed at the University of Arizona and the University of Virginia.