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Diversity & Society: New course encourages students to become comfortable with the uncomfortable

Diversity graphic

In a newly developed course, West Virginia University undergraduate and graduate students will have an opportunity to expand how they think about diversity, power, oppression, social justice and more.

Diversity Society, DSGN 493B, is open to all academic majors and there are no course prerequisites.

“We’re aiming for an atmosphere of understanding and inclusion,” said course instructor Toni Owens, a licensed graduate social worker. “It’s OK to make mistakes. This is a safe space for learning.”

The goal is to broaden the spectrum of the mind when it comes to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Justice. Students will be introduced to the many dimensions of diversity, including but not limited to differences in age, race, gender, sexuality and ability, and how belonging to one or more of those populations can have implications mentally, emotionally, physically and economically.

Throughout the course, students will hear from Justice, Equity, Diversity Inclusion professionals. Owens said through their expertise, the course material will come to life. Further, students will emerge themselves—virtually for now—in a community with a mission to enhance diversity or social justice. Students will learn what the organizations do and how they do it.

Toni Owens

“Having this base knowledge, having an awareness—it starts with the conversation and this class is able to provide that,” said Owens, who developed the course with assistance from J. Spenser Darden, WVU Director of Diversity Initiatives and Community Engagement.

“The beauty of this course is that it offers an accessible format for students to discuss and consider principles related to inclusion and social justice. It is intentionally introductory and takes time to unpack general concepts as well as zoom in on their specific manifestations,” Darden said.

“Often in unstructured forums (e.g. social media), there is an assumption of knowledge or experience that people do or should bring into the conversation as they consider questions of power and oppression. There are many times where these topics are framed as having a clear ‘correct’ answer when the reality is often more nuanced, and this course will encourage students to navigate that nuance.”

Darden said by being open to all students, the conversation will be enriched by having the multi- and inter-disciplinary perspectives of students from across academic disciplines, which aligns with WVU’s mission to develop a diverse and inclusive culture that allows for excellence.

“Grappling with complex issues and analyzing our preconceptions is core to what it means to be a Mountaineer, and this course is designed to help students engage in a critical way,” Darden said.” As the University examines our commitment to inclusion, it is my hope that is just a precursor to a wave of academic offerings that introduce students to oppression, disparate impact, and equity and ask them it interrogate what that looks like in their current and future academic and professional context.”

And as students pursue their careers, Owens said being aware of any implicit biases will help them be better professionals. Rather than “treating everyone the same,” Owens encourages everyone to embrace their differences.

“If you erase the differences, you erase individuality. You erase struggles, pain, obstacles, experiences and history, which is giving you a false sense of who people really are. To meet people where they really are, the answer is not to erase history, but to appreciate and acknowledge it, so we can respectfully coexist. Don’t allow discomfort to stunt your growth.”

Owens, who is currently working on her Ph.D. in Human and Community Development at WVU, previously served as an assistant for Kansas State University’s former Associate Provost for Diversity, Dr. Myra Gordon. Owens also helped advise the K-State Black Student Union’s Freshman Action Team.

The three-hour credit course, offered through the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, is scheduled for the spring semester on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., but Owens does not want the meeting time to be a barrier for enrolling. To discuss further, Owens asks interested students to email her at



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Senior Communications Specialist
Health Sciences Center

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