When Aric Faulkner ’12 first came to Illinois State, he brought with him a deep curiosity about other cultures.

How deep? He became so fluent in Spanish that he’s often mistaken for Latino—he’s not—thanks to years spent totally immersed in that culture, learning from friendships, internships, even telenovelas.

Now a graduate student at Illinois State, Faulkner turned his curiosity into action on campus, helping launch events such as the Black and Latino Male Summit and participating in many others. Just last month he was honored with Diversity Advocacy’s prestigious Student Partner in Diversity Award.

But even though he’s one of Illinois State’s diversity all-stars, what he’s discovered over and over again is that there’s always more to learn—about others, and about himself.

“Everyone has a different path in life,” Faulkner said. “We have all these different pieces of this story that we call life. And when we come together, we put the pieces of the puzzle together. We tell the story called life.”

The Peoria native’s awakening began in high school, where learning Spanish in class evolved into a love for Latino culture. He transferred into Illinois State and majored in Spanish, joining groups such as the Association of Latin American Students and Alpha Psi Lambda, the nation’s first and largest co-ed Latino-interest fraternity. He spent three summers working with Latino families as an intern at Peoria Friendship House of Christian Service. He also studied abroad in 2011 in the Dominican Republic—a life-changing and unforgettable experience—and still returns to visit during summer and winter breaks.

Faulkner is of African-American and Caucasian decent, but identifies as multiracial to avoid placing himself into racial categories or boxes.

“I’ve learned so much about other cultures that aren’t necessarily my native culture, but they’re definitely native to my heart, native to my soul,” Faulkner said. “It’s really helped shape my life, in determining my goals and the things I want to achieve—professionally, academically, personally.”

Faulkner at diversity awards with Dietz and Angela

Faulkner with Illinois State President Larry Dietz, left, and Diversity Advocacy’s Angela Davenport at the Commitment to Diversity Awards in April.

After graduating Illinois State with his bachelor’s degree in 2012, Faulkner stayed to pursue his master’s in college student personnel administration. The 24-year-old plans to pursue a career in higher education, likely working in social justice and multicultural affairs, after he graduates in 2015.

Diversity at Illinois State

Faulkner is already doing that kind of work here at Illinois State. His involvement with the Dean of Students Office’s Diversity Advocacy unit only grew after he started graduate school in 2012.

That first year, he attended Diversity Advocacy’s overnight Diversity Retreat, where students engage in critical discussions and team-building. The next year, he was asked to serve as a facilitator at the retreat.

“It was a mind-blowing experience,” Faulkner said. “I thought I knew so much about privilege, about power, about oppression. I thought I knew a lot about LGBT culture. I thought I knew so much about the history of diversity in our country. And I got to that retreat, and I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew.”

One of Faulkner’s biggest achievements on campus was helping launch Illinois State’s first Black and Latino Male Summit in 2013, inspired by a similar event at University of Illinois. Illinois State’s second summit was held last month, and Faulkner says he’s excited for year three and to pass the reins to the next generation.

“I am working to achieve my life goal and my life purpose—to touch the lives of others and to leave behind an unforgettable legacy,” said Faulkner, who leads the summit’s programming team.

Diversity stretches beyond race and ethnicity, and so does Faulkner’s passion for it. As a grad student, he did an ethnographic research project on Illinois State’s group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, ISU Pride. In a research and statistics course, he completed a phenomenological study of nontraditional female students at Illinois State.

Faulkner’s work made him an easy choice for recognition at Illinois State’s annual Commitment to Diversity Awards, which honored 10 students, faculty, staff, and organizations in April.

“Aric is passionate about diversity issues and exploring his privilege as they relate to each of his identities,” said Ashley Taylor, Diversity Advocacy’s specialist for educational programming. “He has made a strong commitment to diversity and has been very intentional in creating professional and personal developmental opportunities for himself in preparation for a career in diversity education.”

Faulkner praised Illinois State’s Diversity Advocacy unit for its high-quality programs, services, and staff. But he also cautioned that “although they’ve done great work, there’s never a stopping point in diversity.”

That point resonates even more this week in the wake of much-publicized racist comments attributed to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who now faces a lifetime ban by the NBA.

“It goes to show that racism, prejudice, discrimination, and—I would argue—slavery still exist,” Faulkner told STATEside. “This is why we need diversity work. There are so many traditional mindsets that don’t want to change, that don’t want to accept new, different, and nontraditional.

“There’s no way we can stay one way forever,” he said.

Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.