April 26 2018

On June 3, Sheila Caldwell will move back to her home state of Illinois, and the only thing she’s not excited for is the weather.

“That’s really something I can’t sugarcoat,” Caldwell laughed. “I like the four seasons, if you can call Chicago four seasons. Snow in April? I don’t think that’s four seasons.”

Born and raised in Chicago, Caldwell will head back to the Midwest from Georgia to start a new position on Wheaton’s Senior Administrative Cabinet. Caldwell’s official title is Chief Intercultural Engagement Officer, not Chief Diversity Officer — and this moniker makes a difference to her.

“I’m very excited about that aspect of the title,” Caldwell said. “For me [when you talk about] ‘diversity,’ a lot of times you’re looking at recruitment. … You’re trying to represent variety. … But when it comes to ‘intercultural,’ I look at it from an inclusion perspective. It’s not just bringing those people to the table, but how do you make [them] count?”

“Making diversity count” is something which came up repeatedly when talking to Caldwell about her new position. She emphasized inclusion, which, for her, all comes back to the golden rule: loving people as you love yourself.

“Really diversity is about the great commission,” Caldwell said. “Loving people as you love yourself in a way that they feel loved, not looking at them as a microcosm of you. … How can we have the empathy, have compassion and really [have] that understanding of ‘how do you feel loved?’”

As a Christian liberal arts institution — the first on Caldwell’s long resume in higher education — Wheaton provides a unique set of both opportunities and challenges for Caldwell. Currently Advisor to the President on Diversity at the University of North Georgia, Caldwell has worked in the administrations of various private, public, three-year, four-year and selective enrollment academic institutions in the decades since. Her trajectory in education got its start, however, in the residence halls of Northern Illinois University.

Caldwell served as an RA at NIU for three years, an experience which shaped her desire to make students the focus of her career.

“I found that I had somewhat of a knack for it in the sense that students felt comfortable building relationships with me,” Caldwell said. “I could really enjoy that mentoring aspect of working with college students.”

After graduating from NIU with a degree in marketing, Caldwell immediately entered the education field with her first job at Northwestern Business College. She hasn’t looked back since.

“It’s been a joy,” Caldwell said of her experience in institutions across the field. Now Wheaton, is something new.

“This is a unique experience working in a Christian liberal arts [school],” Caldwell said. “It’s definitely some common ground, but even in that I believe [there are] 58 different sects of Christianity represented [at Wheaton], so that’s another thing I’m very interested in: How do we define ‘evangelical,’ how do we define ‘diversity’ and ‘equity’ and ‘inclusion’ and ‘intercultural’?”

Caldwell wonders alongside current students and faculty how those definitions have evolved since Wheaton’s founding.

“Wheaton being one of the first institutions to graduate a woman and an African-American, that was very appealing to me,” Caldwell said. “I know that in our history we have deviated, but I definitely sense that the intent is to get more closely aligned to those [values].”

Caldwell said it was the school’s origins and mission which initially drew her to Wheaton, along with a “transparency” about where it stands now regarding the “intercultural engagement” which she is to facilitate on campus.

“Wheaton was very forthcoming with a lot of their diversity documents. They have done a thorough analysis of the climate and really want to see transformation and change,” Caldwell said. “I feel like people are ready for a change, and I’ve been getting a lot of honest feedback. It’s very motivating for me to know that I have champions of inclusion and diversity as well as allies, and just a strong force of people who I can collaborate with.”

Caldwell is hopeful but matter-of-fact; she believes that “we have to move beyond diversity.”

“It’s not about representation, it’s what kind of experience do people actually have when they come into the institution? Are they being valued? Are they being included?” Caldwell explained.

She provided a frank illustration.

“If you get invited to somebody’s house, and they all get to sleep in the bed and you have to sleep on the floor, would you rather have just not come?” she explained. “If we’re not going to treat people well we don’t need to invite them.”

Caldwell sees conversation as a means to moving toward true inclusion.

“One of the things I think may be lacking is talking to students of color, and when I say that I mean to really all of the ethnic backgrounds that you have represented,” Caldwell said. “When we talk about marginalization and exclusion, it’s the voices of the people who’ve been marginalized [and] who’ve been excluded that really count, so you’re asking [questions]… not so much from a sense of ‘Do you feel like you’re being discriminated against?’ but ‘How do you feel like you’re being treated differently?’ I think those are different questions.”

Caldwell’s enthusiasm for Wheaton College as an institution is evident. To her, Wheaton should — and does — provide an example for the rest of the world in what it means to love.

“I feel like as Wheaton goes the world will go,” Caldwell said. “Who’s going to be the example? Who will be one of the key problem solvers in this space? Wheaton is perfectly positioned to do that.… We really should be the agent that teaches, directs the world how to love.”

But Wheaton’s status as a Christian school does not solve all of its problems.

“We can’t rest in our good intentions,” Caldwell said. “We have to understand that people have unique experiences based on their racial identity, gender identity, same-sex orientation, class, age — all of those diversity variables have an impact on how people view themselves, so we have to look at the individual and not just say we’re all one in Christ, even though that’s true. We have to understand that people’s identities are based on their experiences and in a lot of ways the complex ways they interact with the world based on race, because we act within color in this world. I like to say color colors everything.”