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A Guiding Light for Diversity Initiatives

A lush green canopy extends in all directions as Clifton Harcum and his students traverse over a suspended bridge connecting giant treetops at the Wild Center. Around the corner, they enter an enormous manmade bird’s nest that provides an awe-inspiring, birds-eye view of the Adirondacks—all part of a week-long alternative spring break program that Harcum launched at SUNY Potsdam in 2020.

 “I’ve grown a lot over the years from working with thousands of students. I’ve learned so much that’s helped to shape my professional views. I'm always an advocate for students, that’s why we’re here.” - Clifton Harcum

In his role as program coordinator for the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at SUNY Potsdam, Harcum has infused the College with a fresh perspective since he started in the fall of 2019—creating new applied learning experiences for students, and fostering a supportive community for diverse populations on campus through the Center for Diversity (CFD).

With a study room, two lounges, a prayer room, and a computer lab where students can print for free, the CFD is a hub for social interaction and offers support to numerous student groups on campus ranging from the Black Student Alliance and SOCA LOCA, to Ummah and the African Student Association. “The Center for Diversity is open to all people, but it’s also a place where BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) students can celebrate their culture and their ethnicities. I really see it as a wellspring of culture,” Harcum explained. “My role is to support these student groups and create an environment for them that is inclusive. This is an important place for students of color, and students from different sexual orientations.”

Shortly after taking on his new role at SUNY Potsdam, Harcum rolled out an alternative spring break program with the assistance of campus and community partners. In the spring of 2020, ten students joined Harcum on a five-day exploration of the Adirondacks—visiting everything from the Wild Center in Tupper Lake to the Olympic Center in Lake Placid, and the Saranac Lake Museum to the Pendragon Theater.

“Combining community service with experiences, and education, the students traveled to all of these places. They were learning, they were interacting, and they were having fun,” Harcum said. “It was great, because I learned that a lot of students don't really get off-campus. 100 percent of them were like, ‘This was probably one of the best things I’ve been involved in here at SUNY Potsdam.’”

For Harcum, it’s extremely important to provide these types of hands-on experiences for students without the financial burden. And for his alternative spring break, he connected with several campus and community groups to make that a reality. SUNY Potsdam’s Lougheed Center for Applied Learning and Student Government Association provided funding, the Adirondack Diversity Initiative provided food, and Paul Smith’s College offered free housing. “I remember being a student, being broke, and trying to find a job,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to provide them with opportunities where they don’t have to pay.”

Another experience he created for students was a trip to Titus Mountain for a full day of snow tubing. Thirty students spent the day careening down the slopes and laughing with their friends and classmates. One of Harcum’s goals is to get students out of their comfort zone, for them to have an immersive college experience. He had planned on bringing another cohort of students on a hiking trip with Adam Wheeler, SUNY Potsdam’s wilderness education coordinator, but due to COVID-19 it had to be postponed.

Despite the pandemic, he’s working behind the scenes on a number of diversity initiatives at the College. Collaborating with colleagues on a banner project, cultural flags will be displayed all over campus in the near future. “I know that's a small step, but it’s a step to recognize all of the different cultures that we have on campus. From my understanding, we have students who identify with 36 countries,” he said.

He’s also been collaborating with SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Art and the Art Museum to fill the CFD with works created by professional artists, alumni and current students of color. Two student interns, Isaiah Cullum, a museum studies minor who designed and hung the exhibition, and Elvis Ricketts, a graphic design major who designed the signage, have been working on the project this fall.

“Clifton hopes the Center will now be a more welcoming space, and provide inspiration for all SUNY Potsdam students,” said Caroline Downing, chair for the art department. “Works by African American, Native American, and Latinx artists are featured, with room for more to come.”

Harcum’s ability to collaborate with faculty and staff, and to improve the lives of diverse populations on campus, stems from his extensive work experience in higher education. In 2005, he received his undergraduate degree in sociology from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES)—recently ranked the 18th best historically Black institution in the country by U.S. News & World Report. In those early years, he met Sam Douglas, the area director at the UMES, who became his mentor and friend. “He got to know me and my potential as a leader, and he ended up giving me a job as a student worker. That turned into a career in higher education,” Harcum said. “If it wasn’t for him intervening in my life and believing in me, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”

After graduating, Harcum was hired by his alma mater in the Department of Residence Life. He later transitioned to the Center for Access and Academic Success where he created the MADE (Men Achieving Dreams through Education) male initiative. The program offered a supportive community for hundreds of male students at the College. The men formed friendships and joined together in community service, building houses with Habitat for Humanity, marching for social justice in Washington, D.C., and embarking on outdoor adventures. “The students loved it. And I said, ‘OK, let me take those concepts to this new position as the director for university engagement,’” he said.

In 2013, he was promoted to director of University Engagement and Lifelong Learning. In that role, he oversaw community outreach and helped students develop leadership skills. He launched his first alternative spring break—the brainchild for the program he just started at SUNY Potsdam—bringing students to the Ninth Ward in New Orleans to help with the recovery efforts following Hurricane Katrina. “That changed my life. It changed how I thought about education,” Harcum said. “Every single day we got involved in a lot of service work, we explored the city, we learned so much. It really inspired me to keep it going no matter where I went.”

While working full time at UMES, Harcum also pursued a master’s degree in management from the University of Maryland University College. Then in 2018, he moved to Northern New York when he accepted a job at Jefferson Community College. A year later he found his calling at SUNY Potsdam. “One of the things that motivated me to apply for this job was that I learned that in the North Country there are a lot of issues when it comes to cultures getting together and understanding each other,” Harcum explained. “I wanted to go somewhere where I can fully focus on that and try to create an environment that was welcoming and inclusive.”

His efforts have been commendable as he partners with faculty all over campus to improve diversity, equity and inclusion at the College. He recently connected with Sarah Lister, the coordinator for the campus food pantry, to set up a satellite food pantry in the CFD. “Food insecurity is a big thing, especially among college students. That’s one of the other amenities that we’ve added to the CFD to make it a better place for students,” Harcum said.

As he looks ahead to the spring, he’s working with Assistant Professor Anna Sorensen to create hands-on learning opportunities for students in her sociology course. Students in the class will be paired up with social justice organizations throughout the region. “I really believe in partnerships and collaborations,” Harcum said. “It shows that we as professionals can work together for the students. I'm always an advocate for students, that’s why we’re here.”

To learn more about the Center for Diversity, visit: https://www.potsdam.edu/studentlife/diversity/center-diversity

Article and photos by Jason Hunter