‘I felt called to it’: Maha Younes named chief diversity officer at UNK

KEARNEY, Neb. -- Maha Younes was supposed to be on the search committee for the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s chief diversity officer position.

With extensive international experience and a passion for serving marginalized and vulnerable populations, she would have been a perfect fit for the group.

But that wasn’t enough to satisfy the social work professor, who connected with the position on a personal level.

“I felt called to it,” she said. “This is what I’ve been doing all of my life. This is what I’ve been teaching. My job is to lift people up, to elevate discussion in society, to elevate policies, to advocate for inclusion. This has always been my mission.

“Everything in my life felt like it was preparation for this.”

Instead of joining the search committee, Younes applied for the position. She was selected last month to serve as UNK’s next chief diversity officer, a role that was recently expanded.

Younes will lead a universitywide effort to make UNK a more diverse, equitable and inclusive institution. The chief diversity officer will focus on curriculum, classroom environments, position searches and other academic areas while working collaboratively with offices and departments from across campus to develop sustainable goals and initiatives.

“I want to create the most welcoming and inclusive campus environment for everyone – staff, faculty, students and visitors,” Younes said. “I want all perspectives to be heard and respected. I want people to feel comfortable walking around this campus. I want them to be treated with dignity. I want to make it OK to be different.”

John Falconer, senior adviser to the chancellor for executive affairs, knows Younes is the person to make this happen. He recognized her passion when they first met more than two decades ago.

“When Maha takes on an issue, she is committed to it,” he said. “She inspires others and is very effective. She also has a very good record of achieving change within an organization, and that’s important.”

Her background is another benefit. “I know what it’s like to be marginalized,” said Younes, whose accent often prompts strangers to ask: “Where are you from?”

An Arab Christian, Younes grew up in a Palestinian family living in Israel. She moved to the U.S. in 1978 – one month shy of her 18th birthday – and attended UNK as an international student, earning degrees in social work and psychology.

Younes went on to receive master’s degrees in educational psychology from UNK and social work from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, as well as a doctorate in adult and community education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The licensed clinical social worker and mental health practitioner joined UNK as an adjunct faculty member in 1989 before accepting a full-time position with the university in 1991.

She played a major part in the transformation of UNK’s social work program.

As department chair, a position she held for 15 years, Younes established a social work minor, boosted student scholarships and developed a strategic plan that increased the number of social work majors and faculty members. She also created an International Social Work Experiences program to provide study abroad opportunities in several foreign countries, helped establish an online bachelor’s degree in social work and spearheaded the effort that brought a Master of Social Work program to UNK through a partnership with UNO.

Younes has a wealth of experience in curriculum development and her research has covered topics such as child welfare, human rights, rural issues and immigration. As a Fulbright Scholar, she studied social, economic, political and cultural systems in Thailand and Myanmar in 2005.

In addition to those accomplishments, Younes organized a partnership between the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (NDHHS) and social work programs at several Nebraska universities that focuses on recruiting and training child welfare workers. She also had a lead role in the adoption of a legislative measure that provided funding for professionalizing the child welfare workforce and internships with NDHHS.

Along with her duties as chief diversity officer, Younes will continue to teach classes, conduct research and serve as an adviser and mentor for students. She believes the roles are complementary.

“I cannot think of a more important place to transform society than higher education,” she said, noting that diversity and inclusion extends beyond race and ethnicity. It also includes gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability services and urban-rural issues.

“As a university system, our mission focuses on the entire state,” Younes added.

The UNK campus is already home to numerous diversity champions who are making a difference, she said, “but we need to bring everyone along.”

“My vision is for that to happen in a very organic and natural way where people feel OK being who they are.”

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