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Unity through Diversity

Nov 18th, 2013 | Category: Feature Stories

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The University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) is known for celebrating the rich diversity of its students, faculty and staff.  After all, UIW’s first graduate was Antonia Mendoza from Durango, Mexico.

International students from 73 countries now comprise nearly 16 percent of the total enrollment, both all-time highs.

“This is by far the most diverse group of students UIW has ever encountered,” said Jose Martinez, Jr., director of international student and scholar services.  “I’m sure faculty and staff feel that we area global university.”

In addition, the UIW campus in Mexico City has more than 900 students, also a new record, while another 150 students from Mexico are enrolled in the main UIW campus in San Antonio.

“I always say that you can hear just about every language being spoken on the campus, and occasionally English, too,” quipped UIW President Dr. Lou Agnese.

UIW also reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of San Antonio. The current enrollment is 51 percent Hispanic and almost seven percent African American.  In fact, UIW graduates the most Hispanics with bachelor’s degrees of any faith-based university in the United States.

“In terms of the composition of our student body, UIW is the only university among the top four privates in the state that represents the Texas that exists today and that will exist tomorrow,” Agnese says in reference to the state’s rapidly changing racial and ethnic demographics.

Also known for its celebration of interfaith growth, UIW students and faculty practice many faiths; among them Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and many more.  UIW is the quintessential interfaith institution where those from all walks of life are embraced and free to celebrate their cultural and religious diversity.

“While UIW is Catholic in its Mission, we’re not going to either proselytize or preach religious conversion to those individuals who are not of the Catholic faith,” Agnese said.  “All that is suggested of students and employees is that they grow stronger in their individual faith, whether it is Islam, Judaism, Christianity or any other faith, as a result of being a member of the Incarnate Word community.”

The following are a few snapshots of the students, faculty and staff that make UIW such a diverse place.

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Cherie Pineer Huff

“UIW is truly a global university,” said senior biology student Cherie Pineer Huff, “and it does a fantastic job at giving its students every tool possible to feel that they are a part of that global community.”

Huff was born in Bluefields, Nicaragua but grew up on the Bluff, a small island just south of Bluefields located on the Atlantic/Caribbean Coast. She was raised primarily by her maternal grandparents until moving to Rockport, Texas at age 14 to live with her parents. Her first language is “Creole” English, known as Patwah throughout the Caribbean.

Her religious background revolves around the Unitas Fratrum Church more commonly known internationally as the Moravian Church. Growing up in a very conservative and religious family, Huff aspired to follow in the footsteps of her grandmother by becoming a born again Christian at age 11.

Her journey to UIW began while visiting schools in San Antonio. She was undecided on a college until a chance recommendation that she look at Incarnate Word. After visiting the campus, she knew the university was where she wanted to study.

“In a few minutes, I felt I belonged here, the campus was small yet big enough, the classroom sizes were perfect and after seeing the diversity on campus there was no doubt that Incarnate Word would be my alma mater,” she explained.
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Dr. Sishu Zhang

Assistant professor of business administration, Dr. Sishu Zhang, is Chinese and came to the U.S. in 2005. She earned her MS and Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University. Her road to the university began after a chance encounter at the American Economics Association Annual Conference in Atlanta, Ga., where UIW had a booth.

After the conference, Zhang said she was praying at church to find a teaching position and UIW entered her thoughts. She sent her teaching evaluations to UIW, interviewed, and was hired in 2010.

“After three years, I like everything about the university: the culture, the atmosphere, the students, faculty and staff,” said Zhang. “It accommodates diversity and offers colorful and diversified student and faculty activities.”

Last semester, she said faculty met to discuss ways of teaching to a diversified student body.

“I have students from Europe, Asia, Africa and Arab countries. What I find important is to respect each student’s culture and customs through communication,” said Zhang. “We are all human, so we have many things in common.”

Amira Alsareinye, a junior biology student, was born and raised in San Antonio. She is a practicing Muslim. Her father is from Syria and her mother from Mexico, but it is Alsareinye’s own spiritual journey that has made her who she is today. And part of that journey led her to UIW.

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Amira Alsareinye

“For a long time I didn’t know what I wanted to do, all I knew is I wanted to make God happy,” said Alsareinye. “I asked him for a sign, I dreamt I was a student here, so I decided to come here.”

Alsareinye wants to pursue a career in health care and hopes to eventually be accepted to the Feik School of Pharmacy. She is president of the Interfaith Student Organization that plans events year round to bring awareness to the different faiths on campus. Recently, she led the UIW community in a prayer service in response to the tragedy in Syria.

Alsareinye believes that through her interfaith organization as well as UIW’s dedicated and committed faculty members, she has seen many ways of educating others about the different faiths at UIW. She said students are very open-minded and inquisitive.

“I carry my faith on my sleeve, or perhaps my head I should say. Wearing the hijab or Islamic covering allows everyone to know that I am Muslim, which means I get asked a lot of questions,” she shared. “I always make sure people have enough information about what my faith truly teaches, because we live in a world where so much misinformation is being spread.”

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Dr. Noah Kasraie

Dr. Noah Kasraie, assistant professor and coordinator of the Dreeben School of Education’s doctoral program, was born in Philadelphia but spent most of his life overseas and speaks multiple languages. While his family is originally from Iran it also has Persian, Georgian, Arabian and Turkish roots.

Kasraie, who joined UIW in 2008, is involved in many interfaith efforts.  He’s a member of the planning committee for October’s Season of Peace and Justice activities.  He also established the Peace Month Research Symposium and co-chaired the International Conference of Cultural and Social Aspects of Research in 2012.

“”UIW not only acknowledges and respects diversity, we celebrate our diversity,” said Kasraie.

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Rev. Fr. Justin Udomah

Rev. Fr. Justin Udomah, a Catholic priest from the Southeastern part of Nigeria, belongs to the Ibibio tribe, one of many minority tribes in the country. He is a doctoral student at UIW with a concentration in organizational leadership. He attended college and did his priestly formation in Ibadan, an ancient city in Yorubaland, in Southwestern Nigeria. As a priest, he spent two years doing missionary work in the predominantly Muslim country of Chad in Central Africa. He has also served culturally diverse parishes in the U.S.

Udomah said what led him to UIW was not only the doctoral program, but the faith-based dimension of the university.

“The university respects individuals’ religious and cultural beliefs and by that respect, it enables every student to feel safe in upholding his or her legitimate cultural and religious values,” he said.

Udomah said he has had the opportunity to be involved in interfaith activities on and off campus. Over the summer, he accompanied the Cardinal Community Leaders, an initiative of UIW’s Center for Civic Leadership, during their orientation and spoke to the students about Catholic social teaching.

“The university welcomes and supports activities that showcase the rich cultural roots of various people on campus,” said Udomah.

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Yasmeen Awada

A third year student at the Rosenberg School of Optometry (RSO), Ohio native Yasmeen Awada graduated with a degree in biology from the University of Toledo in 2011. A first generation Lebanese American, her father was from Lebanon and mother from Sierra Leone; they met in Africa and moved to the U.S. in 1984. UIW’s Mission is the primary reason Awada chose to continue her graduate work at the university.

“The Mission is centered on professional and personal development with a commitment to the service of all humanity at its heart,” she said. “As an optometry student, this allows me the opportunity to serve people from all types of backgrounds and cultures with a focus on pride and professional excellence, a quality rare among any other university.”

Awada is a member of the National Optometric Student Association (NOSA), a multicultural organization focusing on diversity and the importance of a multicultural experience both in San Antonio and across the nation.

“Both in the classroom and on campus, the cultural experience is incredibly rich at Incarnate Word,” she expressed. A number of faculty members of UIW’s professional programs hold diverse international backgrounds as well, the RSO being one of many examples.

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Dr. Srihari Narayanan

Dr. Srihari Narayanan, associate professor of optometry and director of Cornea and Dry Eye Service at the RSO, has been with the university for two years. Born in Chennai, India, he is a practicing Hindu whose mother tongue is Tamil. He has practiced optometry in India and Bahrain in the Middle East.

After earning a Ph.D. and OD from the University of Houston, he was interested in moving to San Antonio.

“UIW was already featured in The Chronicle’s Great Colleges to Work For the year I interviewed here,” explained Narayanan. “It sounded like a diverse university that was tolerant of all faiths.”

Narayanan is involved in various religious holiday activities at RSO and believes many students come to RSO due to the faith-based education.

“I have the opportunity to talk with students about my beliefs and culture. We are doing a great job of promoting one of the tenets of our Mission—faith,” said Narayanan, “even before students join our campus.”

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Dr. Lourdes Fortepiani

Originally from Spain, Dr. Lourdes Fortepiani, assistant professor of optometry, lived in the Canary Islands during her youth, and found it commonplace to see people from India, China, and Africa because of its location on the Atlantic Coast of Africa. She had not encountered such diversity again until moving to the U.S.

Fortepiani is Catholic and feels blessed to have been raised in a family that lived their Catholicism in a life of service. She has an aunt who has been a cloistered nun in the North of Spain for almost 50 years.

Fortepiani, who joined UIW in 2009, uses the RSO Interfaith Room during reflection time once a week. She believes interfaith to be a vital component that sets UIW apart from any other university.

“Every country has their different faiths and beliefs that make them unique and we are all proud to share with the rest of the UIW community and feel at home,” she said.

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Qianbo Guan

“American students and professors are very friendly,” said Qianbo “Brendan” Guan, who hails from China.  Guan’s three-year experience with the UIW community has been one of embrace and support.  “If I have questions or problems, I can ask them and they help to solve the problems as soon as possible and this helps me very much.”

The junior accounting major, who hopes to pursue a master’s degree at UIW, enjoys the many activities available to students.  He also appreciates the community service requirement for graduation as it provides international students with social experiences they might not otherwise have.

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Midori Henderson

Freshman Midori Henderson is from Texas, but was raised in Harare, Zimbabwe. She is a double major in music industry studies and communication arts and has Japanese, African American,  Indian  and German roots.

Henderson chose UIW for its sense of community and its  incorporation  of  all faiths.

“Being an individual with many different backgrounds, it is very important to me to maintain cultural diversity in my life,” said Henderson.

 UIW has more than 120 international sister school relationships for reciprocal education in 43 countries. As the university expands its reach internationally, so does the access it provides its students; UIW Online is a key example of this access.

Grazie Acosta, who is studying psychology, is set to graduate in December. She maintains dual citizenship, American and Italian, yet her family lives in Italy.

“The UIW Online program has been convenient because with my husband who is active duty military, we are stationed overseas in Ankara, Turkey, and I am able to continue my education even if in another country,” said Acosta.

As the university heads ever long into the future with an emphasis on providing an enriched global experience for students and the community, the many members of the home we call the University of the Incarnate Word celebrate and stand unified in diversity.

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