Washington and Lee Class of 1994 gives $1 million to Office of Inclusion and Engagement

The donation will support the renovation of the second floor of Elrod Commons for diversity-focused organizations on campus

Isabel Chiodo

Maurice “Moe” Cole had never told his Washington and Lee University classmates about how isolated he felt as an African-American on campus until this past September.

That’s when Cole, who graduated in 1994, was back at Washington and Lee for the first time in 20 years as a member of his class reunion committee. The committee was planning their 25th anniversary, but they were also deciding where to donate their $1 million gift to the university.

“Washington and Lee gave a lot to me,” he said. “But it also took a lot away from me.”

Cole’s memories of his time at Washington and Lee flooded back when President William Dudley spoke to the committee. “As soon as he started speaking, I really felt emotional inside,” he said.

During the question-and-answer session, Cole said he was “on the verge of tears.”

“I started sharing experiences that other minority students and myself had with the exclusion we felt on campus,” he said.

A few minutes after Cole spoke, Tamara Futrell, Washington and Lee University’s dean for diversity, inclusion and student engagement, heard about what Cole said. For her, it was another confirmation of the need for her office and the work it does with minority students.

During his first year on campus, Cole attempted to run for peer-elected positions and got rejected. The feeling of exclusion grew as his GPA dropped.

“It felt like, yes you are here and you’re at this great academic school with great opportunities, but you can’t also have social success and you just have to be okay with that,” he said. “But once I got more involved in faculty-elected positions, I felt more socially fed and improved academically.”

This is the type of work that Futrell said the Office of Inclusion and Engagement focuses on; by providing a healthy social atmosphere for students, they can breed academic success.

Futrell was in her office when she got the call about Cole’s revelation. It was the senior reunion giving coordinator who told her Cole and the other reunion committee members wanted to talk to her about their donation.

“I explained how their gift would help support the work that we do, the current students and even future generations. I mean, that’s a lot of money,” Futrell said. “An hour later I get an email saying they decided to donate the entire $1 million to the new cultural center we’ve been planning for our office.”

Futrell has worked at Washington and Lee for the past 16 years. Her positions have changed throughout the years but have always included working on the school’s diversity. She knows how far Washington and Lee has come and how far it still has to go.

OIE work-study students Julia Habiger, ’21 and Ayo Ehindero, ’21, have been working with Futrell for over a year now to increase awareness of the campus’s issues with the social connections between the white-majority and minority students.

“Maurice’s classmates were dumbfounded because they didn’t realize the struggles that minority students have here on campus existed when they were students,” said Futrell.

OIE’s purpose is not just to increase diversity, it’s to increase engagement between the students, no matter their background. This is one of the reasons the office, which was called the Office of Diversity and Inclusion last year, is now called the Office of Inclusion and Engagement.

Although Habiger and Ehindero had been working for OIE since last fall, they said it wasn’t until they pledged a sorority in the winter that they realized that social exclusion in the Greek system and diversity awareness went hand in hand.

At their monthly meetings with OIE, student organizations such as the Student Association for Black Unity and Amnesty International would share their upcoming events and efforts.

“It was like preaching to the choir,” said Ehindero. “It’s the same people here and the same information every month. Julia and I were two of only three Greek-affiliated students in a room of 40 people, so nobody else in greek life even heard these people speak.”

The women decided that if the social climate was going to be more inclusive of diverse students, Greek life was going to have to get involved.

“Almost 80 percent of the school is in Greek life,” Habigersaid.”This is great for the people involved, but it makes it that much harder for the other 20 percent to be included on campus.”

Habiger and Ehindero came up with a plan. By choosing two to four liaisons from each of the six on-campus sororities to attend the monthly OIE meetings, Greek members could promote their events while also learning more about diversity events.

“We realized after meeting with the interested liaisons that there was a lot of, specifically white, Greek affiliated students that are not purposefully ignorant, they just didn’t realize the problems that exist on campus,” said Ehindero. “It’s this idea that we just want to help bridge the divide by increasing awareness, and if they’re more likely to be aware, they’re more likely to be involved.”

Futrell knows how important Greek life is in making students more engaged with one another.

“One of the things I’ve heard a lot from the student organizations that fall under OIE is that they wish there was more collaboration with Greek life,” said Futrell. “And so that is something that we arede nitely working on and making those connections.”

Thanks to the gift from the class of 1994, the entire second floor of Elrod Commons will be renovated into a headquarters for diversity organizations on campus. This multicultural center will be named “The Class of 1994 Center for Inclusion and Student Engagement,” and will exist as a place for student support and awareness.

According to Futrell, the class of ’94 is hoping the center will help students realize the importance of social inclusion, as they wish they did 25 years before.

“We are in a situation now where the school’s alumni, students and faculty understand the importance of diversity and are willing to support the efforts, and that is great,” Futrell said.