Q&A: Karlene Burrell-McRae on supporting students of underrepresented backgrounds

Karlene Burrell-McRae, director of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and associate dean of students, has spent more than two decades advising, advocating for and supporting students from underrepresented backgrounds. Now in her second year at UChicago, she recently oversaw the launch of the Center for Identity + Inclusion, a new office within Campus and Student Life housed at 5710 S. Woodlawn Ave. Encompassing the existing Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and Office of LGBTQ Student Life, the center also will be home to Student Support Services, a new initiative dedicated to supporting undocumented, first-generation and low-income students. Recently, Burrell-McRae took a moment to discuss her vision.

What follows is an edited interview.

Why a Center for Identity + Inclusion?

We wanted to create a space that offered enhanced opportunities for engagement, dialogue and action as the University works to create a sense of belonging for the entire community. It’s not enough to have a larger number of students here from underrepresented groups. How do we create an environment where they can feel they are full participants? There are ways to be deliberate about including folks, and there are ways—sometimes intentional but often not—where we exclude unknowingly, unconsciously.

What are some of the center’s goals?

I want everyone to see the center’s name and think, ‘Hmm, I belong there.’ I want our community to feel this is a space where they can come and explore their identity or identities, acknowledge that both privileged and marginalized identities are ever present, and yet, there is still a feeling of being valued. At the same time, our work is outward facing. We want to promote a sense of inclusion in residence halls, classrooms, sports teams and clubs, and we look forward to working more closely with a variety of campus partners to realize this goal. Our work is about advocacy, and ultimately it’s everybody’s work.

What will the Student Support Services provide?

The office was founded to create more support for undocumented, first-generation and low-income students—in the graduate divisions, professional schools and the College. We’d like this to be a place where we can help students create and sustain networks, assist them in a range of areas specific to their needs, and educate our campus community about the needs of our students. But more importantly, we want to create a space to celebrate our students’ resilience and build a sense of belonging and community.

What is your approach to work on diversity and inclusion?

I’m a scholarly practitioner. I rely upon the work of many amazing researchers at UChicago and elsewhere whose scholarship helps us determine how best to put our programming into practice.

Can you give an example?

The idea of “safe space” on college campuses is one example. Do we need safe space or do we need brave, courageous space? I believe it is OK and even necessary to explore areas of disagreement and be willing to sometimes be uncomfortable. We need to experience dissonance to be able to move to a different place and/or to be challenged. I don’t shy away from creating opportunities to have thought-provoking conversations, especially when it comes to challenging issues of privilege. So often, members from underrepresented and marginalized communities are the ones who bear the burden to challenge and defend their place in society, but this should not be their burden alone. It must be the responsibility of every member of our University community.

What is your background, and how did you become interested in this work?

I’m a first-generation college student and an immigrant from Jamaica. I moved to New York City at age 10, attended public schools and then went to Colby College on an academic scholarship. As part of my work-study at Colby, I helped the administration recruit and support students from underrepresented communities. The more I did the work, the more I realized I was good at it and I loved it. Students saw in me someone who resonated with their experience.