MISSOULA – Salena Beaumont Hill is the first to say she didn’t recognize the job title. A friend sent her the position description for the director of inclusive excellence at the University of Montana and her immediate thought was, “What does that mean?”
Fast-forward one year (and a pandemic), and Hill has become a trusted adviser for many students on campus, working within a role that is increasingly critical in higher education: creating efforts and impact across diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism (or DEI).
It’s a big job; one that Hill says boils down to creating space at UM for every single person – with an emphasis on supporting underrepresented populations – so they can thrive. And, in that process, “level the playing field of higher education.”
She says that can only happen through a full-court press toward DEI.
“On a national scale, we’re seeing an increasingly diverse student body seek higher education,” Hill says. “And that’s not the same student body that higher education was originally designed for. So, it’s a really interesting time to work within a very old educational model whose systems don’t work for everyone. It’s kind of like reconfiguring a framework from the inside.”
Hill, the University’s very first director of the Inclusive Excellence for Student Success office, says that her job can mean a lot of different things to many people. But to her, the job funnels down to something she says is at the heart of her passion: supporting students. In particular, students who identify as Black, Indigenous and people of color, or BIPOC, and LGBTQ+.
“Or any student for whom the infrastructure of higher education was not built for, nor is working very well for,” Hill says. “A lot of the work is finding ways and places to champion the change. This is a place for everyone.”
Those changes can look big and small, depending on who drops by Hill’s office during the day, where Hill employs her training in counseling. (She earned a doctorate in counselor education and supervision from UM in 2020). She says the emotional labor of the work – of listening and providing a safe space for students – can be exhausting, “but incredibly rewarding.”
Conversations with students, she says, run the gamut – from validating an experience of a microaggression to advocating for a student who has trouble navigating systems that are at odds with their cultural perspectives. Sometimes that looks like equipping students with a sense of confidence and belonging, and other times that can look like evaluating systems and removing barriers.
For the moments when student experiences fall into the categories of discrimination and harassment, she leans into her support network across campus that includes UM’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX and UM’s Student Advocacy Resource Center, which are both dedicated to legal and support structures across harassment, sexual assault and discrimination.
“Sometimes a student will just really need to talk something out, to share,” Hill says. “I get to be that person who can validate an experience for them and then think about the ways I can be an advocate for them and for change.”
Hill says that these hard moments, coupled with a willingness to learn and listen, can eventually lead UM to a greater understanding of implicit bias and gain a heightened awareness of unequal opportunities.
“The goal is to remove barriers,” she says. “If there’s a joke in a classroom that actually had racist undertones, or if there’s a curriculum that could widen its cultural perspective, or a student who doesn’t see themselves represented in staff or faculty, or painful, unspoken messages that students internalize – those are all systems that can be changed and that have to.”
As an Indigenous woman – Hill is Apsáalooke from the Crow Nation – she knows a thing or two about navigating systems as a minority. She didn’t know it at the time, but she was already doing DEI work while researching her dissertation, which solely included interviews and research from within her own Native community.
“My dissertation chair supported me in using an Indigenous research methodology, which uses Indigenous ways of knowing and let me be who I already am when I was doing my research,” she says. “I didn’t have to put on a Western research methodology hat just to talk to the people in my own community and learn from them. For Dr. Murray to support using an Indigenous research methodology, and that she saw this research methodology as being equal and as valid as the “traditional” ways of Western research methods, that is DEI. That is equity in higher education at work.”
Hill even takes a tenant from the late Crow Chief Plenty Coup into her work, honing his philosophy that education is a route to change everything, and quotes him directly: “Education is your most powerful weapon.”
“I see myself in this role as opening more doors for people like me, or who have had experiences like me,” Hill says. “We have an obligation to look behind us and open the doors for everyone else.”
Adrianna Medina, a senior from Georgetown, Texas, said Hill’s presence on campus has allowed her to thrive as a Latina student.
“As a parks and recreation major, with not a lot of Latinas in that major and field, talking to Selena about DEI has been an incredible experience,” Medina said. “I feel so lucky to get to work with her and learn from her.”
Medina said Hill helped her develop a communications framework around DEI and deeper listening – skills.
“She helped me understand how to truly listen and take in other people’s perspectives and properly speak and communicate about those differences,” Medina said. “That has been invaluable to me.”
True equity, Hill says, is a long way off, but the seeds of change are sprouting each time a student walks through her door. In addition to serving students, Hill along with her colleagues at UM’s Student Advocacy Research Center, lead learning sessions on the definitions of diversity, equity, inclusion, anti-racism, microaggressions and allyship, and Hill is hard at work developing programming to better support BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students and work closely with students to create a supportive peer network for underrepresented students. She also provides leadership on UM’s DEI plan and manages a budget within those efforts.
She said another motivation for focusing on this work is because UM didn’t choose to hire a chief diversity officer, or a top-level administrator first. Instead, they chose to listen to students and hire a student-facing position who would support and advocate for them.
“What I admire about UM is that they really listened to what the campus and what students were saying about what was needed,” Hill says. “They saw the acute need when it comes to student-facing support, and they hired a person (me) to fill that role because it’s most important right now.”
Hill believes in coming years UM will expand its efforts, programs and staff dedicated to DEI efforts.
“Not one person can do this work,” she says. “And there are a lot of amazing, talented people on this campus doing the good, hard work. I’m just one of them. And it’s an honor to be here.”
Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM strategic communications director, 406-243-5659, firstname.lastname@example.org.