GV official receives LGBTQ business leader award, talks campus diversity


Courtesy / Amanda Pitts

Joseph Poulos, Staff Writer

Dr. Jesse Bernal, Grand Valley State University’s chief of staff to the president and vice president for Inclusion and Equity, was named a 2022 Notable LGBTQ Business Leader by Crain’s Detroit Business.

The list seeks to highlight leaders who self-identify as LGBTQ and are making significant contributions to the community.

For Bernal, the selection was important because it helped showcase GVSU’s commitment to making the campus environment more inclusive for all students.

“Those selected had to demonstrate significant contributions to their industry,” Bernal said. “However, I would stress that the work to advance diversity, equity and inclusion at GVSU and in higher education has been the work of many – groundbreaking faculty, brave staff and outspoken student advocates long before my time. Any recognition for leaders at GVSU is truly a recognition for our entire university and the commitment we all demonstrate to creating an inclusive and welcoming GVSU.”

Bernal’s department, the Division of Inclusion and Equity, focuses on making that dream a reality.

“The Division of Inclusion and Equity was established in 2008 and focuses on advancing the university’s commitment to social justice and inclusion,” Bernal said. “While the division provides strategy, leadership, and direction for our inclusion and equity efforts, we work alongside partners across the university and seek to embed responsibility for inclusion and equity in all our functions. We also strive to elevate and expand effective practices and efforts happening in colleges, units and divisions.”

The services provided by the division, Bernal said, are key to its goal to support student diversity and well-being.

“The efforts of the division support students through working to create more welcoming and inclusive spaces on campus, but also providing direct services through Disability Support Resources, Campus Interfaith Resources, training and learning through the Inclusion and Equity Institute and resolving complaints of bias, harassment and discrimination,” Bernal said.

Through the division, in his capacity as chief of staff, Bernal acts as an aide to the president and vice president of the university.

“The role of chief of staff is broad – I get to work on a number of university initiatives and efforts with partners across the university and in the community,” Bernal said. “My primary role is to help identify students, faculty and staff who are eager to contribute as university citizens and support the president and other vice presidents by helping to build teams to advance priorities.”

Bernal, whose primary duties include making the campus more inclusive, believes diversity to be productive to the student community.

“Education research has demonstrated significant positive effects on educational outcomes (for all students) when a diverse student body is present – more so when universities capitalize on that diversity by implementing programming and classroom dynamics that incorporate diversity and intergroup interaction,” Bernal said. “This includes positive outcomes in critical thinking and ‘democratic values’ like increased volunteer and civic engagement. We also know that a diverse university promotes better understanding, expanded relationships and more cultural awareness.”

These benefits, Bernal said, are key in ensuring that students at GVSU are ready for life after graduation as they enter the professional realm.

“Having a diverse university also prepares students for the workforce and life outside of the university – where employers expect employees to be able to work in diverse teams and because GVSU expects our graduates to positively contribute to our growingly diverse society,” Bernal said.

Though GVSU has renewed its efforts toward achieving its diversity goals, Bernal said he believes the university to be ahead of its time in this regard.

“GVSU has a long history of being a welcoming place for individuals in the LGBTQ+ community,” Bernal said. “This is particularly important given that much of West Michigan does not have the same reputation – this reputation is one of the reasons I came to GVSU in 2015.  Much of our campus climate data indicate that gay and lesbian members of our community have overwhelmingly positive experiences at GVSU.”

However, Bernal indicated, members of intersectional communities that have been historically targets of discrimination in American life still require extra consideration from the university in ensuring equitable campus experiences.

“However, LGBTQ+ students and employees of color, and transgender members of our community, consistently report higher experiences of bias due to their identity,” Bernal said. “We have work to continue to elevate these experiences.”

For Bernal, being oneself is the best way to be, and he hopes to further that ideal at GVSU.

“Being able to bring our full authentic selves in spaces allows us to be the most effective, productive and fulfilled person we can be,” Bernal said. “However, I also know not everyone is in the same place of privilege or opportunity. There are legitimate fears of being fully out in all spaces. Individuals must navigate these decisions and make their own choices.”

Though such barriers exist for many, Bernal believes the staff at GVSU are prepared to help students navigate such difficult experiences and paths together.

“But there are people at GVSU and resources here to support students in their journeys,” Bernal said. “We care about each of our students with all their great diversity and want each of our students to be as fully present as they can be.”

Going forward, the Crain’s recognition recipient says he has even more plans for making the campus an inclusive environment.

“GVSU’s Reach Higher 2025 strategy has committed us to ‘building a culture of educational equity,’” Bernal said. “We have done this most recently through work of the Network of Advisors for Racial Equity.”