FLORENCE — As the fall semester draws near, few are counting down the days more than Andrea Hunt, founding director of the University of North Alabama’s new Mitchell-West Center for Social Inclusion.
Hunt has already touted the new academic year as one of the most exciting yet.
The center will be one major component of that excitement as it debuts this month with its mission to make campus a more inclusive place for all students.
Ahead of its official debut, Hunt said the center has already received positive feedback. She said her email inbox was “flooded” with questions about collaborating following the announcement that she would be director.
“We’re pretty full in the fall,” she said. “We’re booking out in the spring at this point because so many people want to collaborate and partner on things. It’s an exciting time.”
The center, named for donors Elliott Mitchell and Clark West, will be situated on the first floor of Rice Hall once minor renovations are complete.
It will offer counseling services, which Hunt said will reflect the university’s move toward a health and well-being model and allow it to work more closely to assist students in need.
And not just one type of student. While Hunt said there will be a focus on LGBTQ students, the center also will have resources and opportunities for students of color and those who are disabled, economically disadvantaged, food insecure, or struggling in other ways.
“Every month we are focusing on … providing students with the opportunity for education, training, a service opportunity, and then points of reflection,” she said. “We’ll be addressing food insecurity and adversity among students — what are some of the things that they face?”
Hunt said she is in “constant conversation” with UNA President Ken Kitts, Provost Ross Alexander and a host of faculty and donors, including Mitchell and West, to shape what the center will look like moving forward.
As an associate professor in sociology, Hunt sees the potential impact it can have in helping students succeed against the odds.
“Students are coming to us with a lot of things going on in their lives that make it difficult for them to be successful,” she said. “You have kids that are coming that are already economically disadvantaged. You have kids that are experiencing things in their family. You have kids that have experienced loss in their family, so they’re coming right to college with a whole host of things that are happening.”
One way to combat this, she said, is to examine what diversity looks like on a modern college campus and address the availability of resources and opportunities for students.
Hunt acknowledged the strides UNA has already made in terms of diversity and inclusivity — part of its strategic plan — but said it’s necessary to re-examine the best ways to help students, a need that is constantly evolving.
As the center grows and expands, Hunt said she hopes it will serve as a model for other institutions facing similar challenges.
“To be known as an inclusive, affirming campus regionally and nationally is really important to me — that we are able to have that bigger footprint where students across the nation are able to say, ‘Hey, this is a place where I want to go because I know I’m going to be supported,’” she said.
Hunt said the center is unique in many ways, one being that it will operate entirely on donations. It will also focus heavily on education, research and advocacy with the help of campus and community partnerships to not only help students, but give them opportunities to give back.
This might include trainings with K-12 teachers and collaborations with nonprofits.
Hunt said the center also plans to bring in someone from the United Nations in April for a high school debate competition about sustainable goals centered on human rights issues.
It’s all part of the center’s mission to help students succeed and learn how they can be part of the solution to some of today’s biggest social issues.
“For me, this is the perfect job,” Hunt said. “I’m still in the classroom, and I will still be teaching, but then I get to do what is really sociology in action for me, and working with community organizations is what I do already in my free time.
“I want us to continue to be an important part of campus, an important part of the community, but to have that bigger footprint even beyond the community, and to kind of have a name in the region and to be a part of these larger conversations. That’ll be a challenge, but we’ll get there.”