For months, the role of director for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at Goshen College was empty, until last May when the position was filled by Aja Ellington.“The Committee on DEI has responsibility for the campus as a whole — students and employees all together,” said Jody Saylor, chair of the committee on DEI. “We’re gathering resources and information to support people across the institution … Aja Ellington is the face of the student side.”
Ellington develops professional trainings on DEI, assists with oversight for affinity groups, works toward education and bias training and serves on the MLK planning committee. Additionally, she is a clinical counselor, interim Black Student Union adviser and serves in many other capacities since her start mere months ago.
On top of working at GC, Ellington is the CEO and co-founder of Free Your Wings Youth Mentoring, Inc., a foundation that works to aid children and families with overcoming challenges of poverty.
Ellington is a mother of twins, published author and recipient of numerous awards for the work that she has done in the communities surrounding her.
For her work with GC students, the goal is for them to lead. “The groundwork that serves the students on campus comes from the students; I just want to facilitate,” Ellington said. “When you come in as an ‘expert’ and don’t listen to real needs, you lose a lot of people along the way.”
“I was originally concerned when I saw the scope of the job description,” Saylor said. “I thought ‘does this magical person exist that can do all of these things?’ but [GC] did find that magical person … [Ellington] brings a lot of wisdom and experience.”
When originally looking at the job description, Ellington was shocked at what she found. “DEI and social worker are usually not seen together in a job description. I’ve always advocated that they should be together, and that aligned with my purpose. … With DEI officers I saw a militant demeanor — the need to mandate rather than to understand.”
A perk for Ellington when looking at the job was the location. “I live in South Bend, but Goshen’s campus is like a hidden jewel,” she said. “There is a lot of diversity on this campus. I can have all the education in the world, but actually being in this space with so much diversity is a key way for me to continue in education.”
Ellington also wants to shift thinking at GC. “Unification is a goal,” she continued. “I’ve been seeing some disconnects.”
Changing the relationship between professors and students is also an aim in her work. “Students see professors every day, but might not seek out professional help on their own. Professors building relationships with students can identify mental health needs before a student is in crisis — it has to happen before then, and professors have closer access to students than I do in my role.”
Fernando Daza, a leader of GC’s Latino Student Union, said, “I consider Aja to be a very proactive person. … I am looking forward to working with [her] more often and seeing what projects we can get done this year. We’ve definitely been needing someone like her.”
In addition to working with DEI, counseling has been another way Ellington connects with campus.
Within the counseling office, one hope was to better serve students by providing representation. “When you don’t have representation, you can lose a lot of students seeking guidance,” said Ellington. “We’re more open to sharing with individuals who look like us — especially with youth.”