Fifteen years ago, board members and administrators at Illinois Central College decided to make diversity a priority.

“We created an entire department to support people with disabilities, programs for under-represented students, and students of poverty,” said Rita Ali, vice president of diversity and community impact for ICC. “We (also) created a leadership position and a department that would help to support diversity, as well as to manage diversity.”

Since that time, ICC has worked to promote diversity in all of its aspects. The school’s efforts were recently recognized by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development and the magazine Diverse: Issues in Higher Education as one of the 2019 Most Promising Places to Work in Community Colleges. According to Ali, the award recognizes community and technical colleges for exceptional commitments to diversity through student and staff recruiting and retention, inclusive learning and working environments and meaningful community service and engagement opportunities.

“It’s a fantastic place to work,” said Michelle Weghorst, coordinator of public services at ICC. “You get support from administration, you get support from you co-workers and faculty. You’re listened to, your ideas are always heard.”

A total of 19 colleges throughout the United States received a Most Promising Places to Work in Community Colleges award during NISOD’s 2019 International Conference of Teaching and Leadership Excellence last month. ICC was one of only two schools in Illinois — along with Malcolm X College in Chicago — to receive an award, according to Ali.

“We are extremely honored and extremely proud that Illinois Central College can be recognized with this very distinguished award,” she added. “I think it demonstrates that we are a leader. It demonstrates that we are committed to using the best practices in teaching and learning.”

The aspects of diversity include race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, economic class, military service and diversity of thought, said Ali. While the school has made great strides in terms of addressing all of those aspects over the past 15 years, Ali believes there is always room for improvement.

“We need more diversity in terms of our faculty,” she said. “We’d like for our faculty to mirror our student population and we just have not recruited or retained enough minority faculty, particularly African-American or Hispanic faculty. About 19 to 20 percent of our students are minorities, but a much smaller percentage of the faculty are minorities. That’s a challenge. You have to get them in the (hiring) pool before you can hire them. We’ve got to build that pool and make it more diverse.”

A challenge that ICC has faced in recent years is declining enrollment, caused by students moving out of the area and by competition for prospective students from out-of-state community colleges. Ali hopes that ICC’s status as an award-winning institution will help recruit more students.

“ICC is committed to changing lives and helping improve the quality of life for individuals within our community,” she said. “Because ICC is a community college, we’re very connected to the community. We have a sense of responsibility to help the community economically, educationally, in terms of employment and other opportunities. I’ve been here for 15 years and it’s the only place I’ve wanted to remain for the rest of my career. I would love to retire from ICC. I feel very welcome here and there are a lot of opportunities to help students.”