California State University, Northridge is one of the most diverse universities in the United States. A Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), CSUN’s student body is more than 44 percent Latino, as of Fall 2015. It is also an Asian American, Native American, Pacific Islander Serving Institution (AANAPISI), with a variety of renowned ethnic studies disciplines, helping students become even more connected with their ethnic background. It educates more deaf and hard-of-hearing students than any other U.S. state university. And it has a large population of students from around the world, making CSUN a truly international campus. This rich mix of diversity represents the full spectrum of the human experience for a student body that is more than 40,000 strong.
Into this cultural richness has stepped Dr. Raji Rhys, CSUN’s first chief diversity officer (CDO). Rhys will work with all levels of the university community – primarily students, faculty and staff – so that the university’s operations are equitable, inclusive and use one another’s differences as creative fuel to help CSUN achieve its seven university priorities.
Rhys comes to CSUN with more than 15 years of experience in higher education as a champion for diversity, focusing on how individuals adapt to social groups and how that impacts culture change. Most recently she was a special advisor to the president for diversity and inclusion at the University of Arizona, and she recently consulted on diversity issues in Silicon Valley. Previously, Rhys was the founding director for the first multicultural center at San Jose State University.
“We are so happy to welcome Raji to the Matador family,” said CSUN President Dianne F. Harrison. “With her extensive experience and passionate approach to inclusiveness through diversity, I am confident that she will work with all campus stakeholders to help our university grow and continue to be one of the leaders in providing a high-quality education to an incredible array of students from cultures around the world.”
Growing up in Yuba City as part of an Indian-African household, Rhys had early exposure to social influences that helped guide her to her future calling. Her hometown had a sizable migrant Latino population and a fairly large Indian population, even though Yuba City’s population remained a majority white through her formative years.
Rhys recalled her mother going out to run normal errands, but experiencing different treatment than other people in the area.
“I watched how my mother was treated going to the bank because she had an accent, and knowing that people were not providing her the customer service that they would provide someone else,” Rhys said. “There was some pretty overt prejudice going on. I remember feeling angry that she got treated differently because of her accent and skin color.”
Rhys also recalled a time during her teenage years when she was in a car with friends when they passed by a Sikh man wearing a traditional turban. One of her friends uttered a derogatory term about the man, and Rhys remembered not saying anything at the time.
“These were my friends, and this is what they’re saying about this guy out there. And that’s me. What does that mean for me?” Rhys said. “I thought about what role I played by not saying anything in the car. It got me starting to think about equity, fairness and identity.”
These early influences helped shape Rhys’ life path, as after high school she enrolled at California State University, Chico and majored in psychology. She later earned her Ph.D. in counseling psychology at the University of Maryland, focusing her doctoral work on diversity in complex systems like cultures. Examining how diversity impacts larger groups has been at the core of the work Rhys has done in her years in higher education.
“The part about diversity that’s really exciting to me is about diversity as a force for innovation, for resilience,” Rhys said. “Diversity is our greatest hope to solve the grand challenges of humanity. The only way we’re going to solve them is through diverse teams.
“How do we leverage those differences to come to the innovative solutions that we so badly need to challenges that are beyond any individual? It’s going to be the collective that solves them. But two heads are better than one, only if they’re different heads.”
The makeup of CSUN’s diverse campus population is what made this new opportunity quite intriguing for Rhys. She saw the many different ethnicities represented among the student body, and the ever-rising number of first-generation college students who come to CSUN, many from low-income backgrounds.
“All of those things are important, because to graduate and be successful, students now need to be interdisciplinary thinkers,” Rhys said. “Twenty-first century leadership is about being a diversity thinker. CSUN does that as well. It’s a real-world learning lab.
“CSUN leverages difference, where a lot of colleges stop at making the campus diverse. Creating the opportunities to engage with difference so they get the best education possible, and they become the innovators of the next generation who will solve our problems.”
Rhys pointed out that where she has experienced the greatest success is not in honing in on deficiencies in diversity, but “to focus on what is working and amplify that.” She has reviewed the work of the psychologist and author Angela Duckworth, who has extensively explored how grit and determination positively impact career and personal success for individuals. Rhys especially sees plenty of resilience in the many CSUN students who are the first in their families to attend college.
As CSUN’s new chief diversity officer, Rhys plans to spend the coming days, weeks and months to learn as much as she can about the different cultures that make up the campus community. She said she hopes to build upon the positives to help create a campus culture that is even more welcoming to diversity than it already is – and foster an environment where students from all backgrounds can thrive and launch successful, well-rounded lives.
“Ultimately the ideal is to be an authentic campus of access, opportunity and diversity thinking,” Rhys said, “so that Matadors would be really proud and know what diversity means to them as far as the CSUN way, and they would know how to use diversity in the CSUN way.”