LAKELAND, Fla. — Florida Polytechnic University is committing to its diverse population of students.
This fall, the university announced a brand new Office of Diversity and Inclusion to better represent its campus, which houses students from all over the world.
“We highly value diversity as an academic institution and it is important that all of our efforts reflect that,” said Dr. Randy K. Avent, president of Florida Poly. “This new office will help our University become an even more inclusive campus, with a clear mission to continue growing diversity and making Florida Poly a place where everyone has a sense of belonging.”
ABC Action News spoke with one international student who began studying at Florida Polytechnic in 2016.
“I always make this joke; I never knew I was black until I came here. Because you come from a predominately Black Country,” Gabby Simms, who is now working on her graduate degree at the university said.
Simms, who earned her bachelor’s degree in engineering came from the Bahamas on a fully paid scholarship to FPU.
Although she never felt discriminated against, she says there was a bit of culture shock.
“Race isn’t something you talk about often and I go to this predominately white school,” Simms said.
According to Florida Polytechnic records, as of February 2020, just 5.7% of its population was black, 4.2% Asian, and 19.9% were Hispanic. More than 60% of the campus is white.
Out of all students, women only make up about 16% of students.
Simms says everyone was welcoming but that it was tough finding friends that reflected her own background.
“The only problem I had was I wanted to find other people like myself,” Simms says she joined a diversity club and is proud to now be a part of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
The chair of the program, Rick Maxey, says the movement ‘Black Lives Matter’ did propel the office to a top priority but it had been in the works before the murder of George Floyd too.
Maxey explained his own passion for the push for inclusion on campus.
“I have personally been stopped at gunpoint by law enforcement officers a couple of times in my life. Once I was told I was in the wrong area,” Maxey described his teen years in Alabama as being outnumbered by whites at school. “I absolutely know how it feels when you are a small number among the majority and trying to figure out where you fit,” he added.
Maxey says he’ll use his own experience to help better the environment at Florida Polytechnic University.
Maxey said the new office will enrich the student experience by reducing the feelings of isolation that can occur among members of underrepresented groups, and by growing the comfort in which people interact with one another. The office also aims to expand students’ world-views through opportunities to work and socialize with people from diverse backgrounds.
For Simms, she says she happy to have helped lay the groundwork for other minorities calling FPU their home.
“Now minority students like myself know where to go. We know there is a group of people to make sure that you as a minority feel welcome. I think that statement alone is really, really beautiful.”