Dr. Paola Ehrmantraut believes in the power of inclusive space. The director of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies and the Endowed Chair in Humanities at the University of St. Thomas, Ehrmantraut is on a mission to produce space where everyone is welcome – whether that’s in the classroom, the break room or the boardroom.
“When people really engage in diversity in a meaningful way, it produces these places where we can all thrive,” Ehrmantraut said.
As director of the university’s newest degree offering, a Master of Arts in Diversity Leadership, Ehrmantraut says the interdisciplinary program aims to prepare leaders to do meaningful work and engrain diversity, equity and inclusion into the culture of their organizations.
“I said ‘yes’ to directing this program because it speaks directly to my passion, which is to make this world more inclusive of everyone,” Ehrmantraut said.
While DEI degrees and certificates are growing across the country, St. Thomas is one of the only universities in the nation to offer a graduate degree in the diversity space. An innovative program, it’s built to respond to a growing need from organizations as they seek skillful leaders who can implement DEI strategies.
“We are in a pivotal moment where a lot of organizations, businesses and companies put (DEI) items in their strategic plans … but now have realized that maybe the skill set of their employees or the people in charge of making those changes actually happen are simply not there,” Ehrmantraut said. “They are now looking for that knowledge and those skills.”
To promote interdisciplinary learning, the courses bring together eight university departments from the College of Arts and Sciences, Opus College of Business and School of Education. Course titles include Navigating Political Polarization and Storytelling for Inclusive Cultures. Multiple leadership-focused courses are also offered such as Equity Focused Leadership and Leading Self and Diverse Teams.
Dr. Heather Shirey, a professor of art history and diversity leadership, designed the course Street Art and Social Justice to challenge student perceptions of the world they live in.
“Murals and graffiti and stickers – all of these things are in the spaces where we're moving and living every day, and they're communicating to us, and people often ignore it,” Shirey said. “I'm really hoping that people will look at it seriously and notice the world around them in a different way.”
A core component of each course focuses on understanding and connecting with culture within communities. That’s a lesson that’s meant to resonate with each student no matter their objective – whether they’re new in their career or looking to move into a DEI-focused role.
“In order to learn to live together and to create a more just and equitable society, we really have to learn to engage with multiple perspectives,” Shirey said. “It’s so exciting to see this program at St. Thomas engaging in these really nuanced and complicated dialogues about identity.”
Designed for busy students with families and full-time jobs, the degree program is completely online and asynchronous. Students enroll in a single course at a time, 12 in all, and can finish in just two years.
The program is the brainchild of Executive Vice President and Provost Eddy Rojas, who was looking for a new way to realize change in our communities.
“What we're doing when we develop education programs is always looking to create a multiplicative effect,” Rojas said. “We want to educate individuals who are going to go back to their organizations to educate others and become agents of change. That's how you get transformation in society – one person at a time, one student at a time.”
Students may pursue the program with the support of their employer or enter directly after graduating with a bachelor’s degree. No matter how they come to the program, Rojas is confident they’ll walk away with lessons they can use for years to come.
“If you want to be an effective leader, if you want to be able to understand the people you're working with to really embrace their strengths and their differences, to understand your customers, to understand society in general, I think this is a fabulous program for you,” Rojas said.
Applications are now open for the first semester of the program, which starts Sept. 6, 2023.