For 35 years, the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives (OAMI) has nurtured students and staff, developing leaders across the University of Michigan. While the organization’s mission is broadly to serve and foster an intellectually and culturally diverse community, cultivating future generations of leaders is embedded in its DNA, with many former participants now leading programs and offices throughout the campus and beyond.
“There was a lot of attention brought to how to do things right, how to develop as a leader, and also how to develop others in their leadership roles,” recalls University of Michigan Athletics Director Warde Manuel, who directed the Wade H. McCree Junior Incentive Scholars Program in the early 1990s for OAMI.
Developing leaders cannot be done without robust leadership in place, and OAMI has benefited from transformative leadership throughout its history.
Founded in 1988, OAMI was created as a result of the Black Action Movement and the United Coalition Against Racism. Dr. John Matlock, who passed away earlier this year, served as OAMI’s inaugural director and assistant vice provost for the University; his influence in developing these future leaders is still widely recognized. He worked alongside the University’s first vice provost for minority affairs, Dr. Charles Moody, in developing many of OAMI’s early outreach initiatives. Gloria Taylor, OAMI’s second director, joined OAMI in 1997 and became executive director in 2013; she retired this fall after a decade at the helm.
For its first 25 years, OAMI focused on community outreach, with a particular emphasis on connecting with future college students in underserved communities. Signature programs included the King Chavez Parks Program (KCP), which today is part of the GEAR UP program through the Center for Educational Outreach, and the annual MLK Symposium. KCP, an outreach program for Detroit high school students that, for many, presented the first introduction to the University of Michigan, as well as to the possibility of attending college, simultaneously served as the introduction to OAMI for many future leaders.
[Panel discussion at the 2023 MLK Symposium, a featured program of OAMI]
“I got involved with OAMI before I even knew about the office,” reflects Ayanna McConnell, president and CEO of the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan. McConnell participated in the King-Chavéz Parks program when she was a student at Detroit’s Renaissance High School. As a U-M undergrad in 1993, she applied to become a student counselor for KCP as a way to “help out the next generation of students.” But what she gained, she says, was “access to the staff who worked [at OAMI] at the time,” as well as a “home away from home on campus, and a community that offered not only employment, but community and resources.”
Dr. Marie Ting, assistant vice provost for equity, inclusion & academic affairs, also got her start with OAMI through KCP. During her undergrad, Ting welcomed participating high school students to the University of Michigan campus. She notes that there were very few Asian-American student leaders in the program, which was particularly notable when a bus arrived on the Ann Arbor campus with Hmong students, a population that, from her understanding, did not send many to college. Connecting with these potential first-generation college students was critical for Ting, as a key element of bringing high school students to the U-M campus was so they could see others like themselves in a college setting.
She noticed this discrepancy, realizing that there was an opportunity to connect Asian-American students. She says she “pitched this idea,” to Dr. Matlock. “He gave me money for a bus and some food, which was amazing and blew my mind. … this was my first exposure to this director changing the course of my life by saying, ‘yes, you have a great idea, and I’ll give you some resources to make this happen.’” Ultimately, Ting created a program for Hmong students from Detroit to visit the University of Michigan, which, she says, “is how I started as a student leader.”
Over time, She went on to become a full-time OAMI employee, eventually designing the Student Academic Multicultural Initiatives (SAMI) program with Matlock, honing her own Asian-American identity and the perception of Asian Americans within diversity work.
What is the students’ role? How can they become more engaged in the design of these programs?
When Gloria Taylor joined OAMI after working in U-M’s Detroit Admissions Office, she too, was connected with KCP as the director of the King Chavez College Day program. In this position, she hosted over 2,000 middle and high schools annually that attended day and week-long visits in an effort to promote higher education to underrepresented students in southeastern Michigan.
When Taylor became OAMI’s director, the organization pivoted from focusing on the pre-college experience to engaging with students and “student development” once they had matriculated to the University of Michigan. However, the support for students within OAMI never wavered.
“What is the students’ role? How can they become more engaged in the design of these programs?” she recalls asking, echoing her predecessor’s commitment to encouraging students to guide programming.
These undergraduate and graduate students who joined OAMI were often given responsibilities that transcended their experience. Noted Manuel, “At a young age for me, at 22-years-old, they allowed a lot of flexibility in terms of how to develop the programs, how to support the high school students to develop and matriculate and be successful academically,” he said of Drs. Moody and Matlock.
“You give people guidance, you let them develop the programming to how they see it, and then help tweak it. They weren’t micromanaging,” which he notes is something he tries to emulate with his staff today. “I give them a set of expectations and what we’re trying to do, and I ask them how to best solve this issue, as opposed to me as a leader always trying to solve the problem for people.”
One way in which these student leaders were empowered to establish their own initiatives was by leadership, with Matlock providing them with the financial resources and capital to be successful.
“He really loved new ideas,” says Ting. “He nurtured an environment where if you have a great idea, he will find the resources. I think I took that with me working with student leaders. He understood that money should not be the source of suppressing good ideas.”
Dr. Matlock would allow you the space to be creative and to propose new ideas.
Dr. Katrina Wade-Golden, associate vice provost, deputy chief diversity officer, and director of implementation for the diversity, equity and inclusion strategic plan, worked in OAMI’s research arm from 1990 to 2015. It was there, she says, that at the age of 18 she attended her first national conference, gaining access to resources and networks unheard of for young scholars.
Working on the nationally recognized Michigan Student Study, Wade-Golden worked closely with Dr. Gerald Guron and Dr. Matlock to examine the factors that both foster and inhibit making the educational experience at Michigan diverse, equitable and inclusive. As a first-year student, she was hired to do data entry. By the time she left OAMI, she was the research director. “Jerry [Guron] taught me everything I know about the ins and outs of research,” she says, while “John [Matlock] would set you up with the resources you needed and would allow you the space to be creative and to propose new ideas.”
In October 2023, OAMI began its next chapter with Dr. Rachel Dawson as its director. Although leadership has changed over time, a legacy of unwavering support for students remains deeply ingrained in the culture.
My hope for OAMI moving forward is that we continue to evolve and grow in our delivery of holistic success services in support of our students during their time at U-M and beyond with a keen focus on high academic achievement, true multicultural inclusion that centers and amplifies the voices of our diverse community, and the fostering of leadership on campus and in the community.