Keith Turner has worked in various positions at state colleges and universities for the past 30 years.

One common thread ties his previous roles together: Being open and available for students to come and talk to.

He started as the director of equity, diversity and inclusion at Alexandria Technical and Community College on Jan. 6, and he said it’s been a slow transition. With COVID-19 restrictions in place, not as many students flow in and out of his office as often as he’s used to.

“It’s been weird not to have people just come in and just visit because in all of the roles that I’ve had, that’s the one thing that I really like is being able to connect to students,” Turner said.

He previously worked with ATCC President Michael Seymour when they were both faculty members at Lake Superior College.

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Seymour, former vice president of academic and student affairs at Lake Superior College, played a part in hiring Turner as the school's director of advising and retention in 2016. Seymour said Turner's background and experience made his efforts successful in improving retention rates of all students, including students of color.

Throughout his career, Turner also found himself at Vermillion Community College, Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He has held the positions of a head football coach, housing director and dean of students.

With a master’s degree in education and a bachelor’s degree in physical education and health, he dabbled in many areas of postsecondary job opportunities.

When the position opened up in Alexandria, Turner was intrigued.

“With a lot of the uneasiness behind culture and sensitivity, I thought maybe it would be something I would be interested in,” he said.

Although the full-time role Turner accepted is new to the college, Seymour said a diversity director role has been a part of ATCC for years.

"Diversity outcomes at a system level are so important (that) it became necessary to expand the role into a full-time position," Seymour said. "Having someone with Keith’s experience sends the message of the importance we place on inclusion for our students and employees. We would like that to extend to our surrounding community as well."

Redesigning the space

The goal of ATCC’s Intercultural Services is to encourage the appreciation of diverse cultures and individuals on campus.

Under that umbrella, the Intercultural Center provides a physical space for people from all cultural backgrounds to gather to do homework or socialize.

In order to follow COVID-19 guidelines, Turner said he plans to revamp how the Intercultural Center is set up to create a more user-friendly space for social distancing.

A desktop computer shoved in the corner by the door will be moved, the blocked-off corner for Turner’s office will be opened up and individual chairs will be spaced out to replace the couches and round table.

As part of the Equity 2030 initiative by Minnesota State colleges and universities, Turner said ATCC administrators are taking a closer look at policies that affect students, especially those who may be underrepresented, to work toward closing the achievement gap and encouraging student success.

“That’s really one of the mainstays in our strategic plan is to make the Intercultural Center and some of our other things that we offer from the veteran’s center to tutoring to disability services, and make those things more of a central hub,” Turner said.

One of the main reasons Turner applied was to create more connections and mutual understanding among students, faculty, staff and the broader Alexandria area community.

“I’ve been in the system a long time, and I’ve seen what that looks like,” Turner said. “We don’t give a lot of thought sometimes to the disparities or the inequitable things that we have in our policies and procedures. That was one thing that drew me to this role. I think I will have the opportunity to move the needle.”

Connecting to the community

ATCC students currently have opportunities to intern and work in the Alexandria area, so Turner wants to focus more on hosting events and inviting community members to campus.

Turner joined a board with Alexandria Police Chief Scott Kent, where they have the chance to discuss how to promote an equitable lens and build relationships between local law enforcement and the college.

One thing Turner was surprised by was how ATCC celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Students and staff all showed up for a day of service.

This year, that all occurred around campus. Next year, Turner would like to encourage them to volunteer their time somewhere else in the community on that day off.

“I think we’re doing a really nice job, but in anything that you do, you can always improve,” he said. “So we’re just looking at how we can make sure that everybody is feeling comfortable and welcomed and invited and included when they’re here on campus and within the community.”