January 29, 2013

Miller Hopes for ‘Protected Path’ for All Students

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When Andrew Thompson Miller, associate vice provost for academic diversity and head of the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives, came to Cornell in Summer 2011, he suggested that the office’s initials — OADI — be pronounced as one word. That way, he said, it would sound like “wadi,” the Arabic and Swahili word for a protected path across the desert.

The change fit in well with Miller’s planned academic initiatives at OADI. The office organizes programs to guide underrepresented students — those eligible for Pell Grants, those who are the first in their families to attend college and ethnic minorities –– through their time at Cornell.

The programs include weekly lunches focused on topics ranging from financial aid to alumni success stories, a Friday “Stress Busters” club with activities such as improvisation and yoga classes and a pre-professional program targeting students with a variety of career aspirations.

“These might be students whose high schools didn’t have a drama program. [Our career] programs don’t assume you have an uncle who’s a lawyer who can tell you about it,” he said. “We’re making sure everyone’s starting from the same place.”

As associate vice provost, Miller is responsible for responding to racial crimes on campus. He cited instances such as the racial attack at the Sigma Pi fraternity in May 2012, when a visitor from Florida threw bottles and yelled racial epithets at black students from the roof of the house, and one in August, when a student walking through campus was allegedly struck by an egg and taunted with racial slurs by students in a passing car.

“It was awful,” Miller said. “Any time the Cornell community is torn apart, or people are placed in fearful situations, it’s very destructive to [the] community. … When you’re a huge institution, it’s always a balancing act of realizing such things will happen. You’ve got to be ready for when they do happen, and at the same time [be] proactive about reducing the incidents.”

Beyond the academic realm, Miller is part of a folk duo called Bridgewater, made up of himself and his husband, Craig Kukuk, that kicked off this fall’s sixth season of Cornell United Religious Works’ “Soup and Hope” event by singing Abraham, Martin and John’s “What Love Can Do.”

Miller also volunteers with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, with which he has worked to lobby Congress on issues of peace and social justice.

“Even though Quakers have to be the smallest religious group in the United States, we’re the largest peace lobby in the United States,” he said. “That’s something that gives me hope. Even one person doing little things … you can effect change. Living our lives well can effect change.”

During his nearly two years at Cornell, Miller has aimed to alter the expectations that he says many at the University have of the students his office represents. He said that too often, underrepresented students are not held to the same standards as are other Cornellians.

“‘We hope you graduate’ … What kind of expectation is that?” he said. “I want the students  to be on the Dean’s List or winning a Fulbright. These are students who bring a lot, and to overlook them is a huge mistake. OADI is here to put them front and center.”

Original Author: Sarah Cutler