Dedicated to Diversity

Deb Harris moves mountains at Northern Arizona University and in Flagstaff. Currently the associate dean of students in the Office of Student Life at Northern Arizona University, she also serves on the steering committee of the university's Ethnic Studies department, and actively preserves Flagstaff's diverse history as president of the Southside Community Association (SSCA). According to Harris, the common thread in all her efforts is a passion for bringing "a broader worldview" to students and the public, which has also led to her working on the university's Commission on Ethnic Diversity.

"[The commission] wants to make a campus climate that is open and welcoming to all students so that when they come here they feel like they are connected to NAU," says Harris. "Everything I do outside of my role of associate dean is really related to this role because it's all about helping students."

Harris' commitment to students begins in the university's Office of Student Life. Everything related to student success launches from this "vibrant hub" of the university. According to Harris, the emotional scope of her work ranges from nurturing care to tough love. "If you remember your high school days and the principal's office, that's what we do," says Harris. "We facilitate everything from health issues to discipline."

Making a difference

Her touch earned her the student vote for Homecoming Dedicatee in 2007. The Homecoming Dedicatee is awarded to Northern Arizona University faculty and staff who have been with the university for at least 10 years and have made a significant impact on students and the university. "It's a big deal," Harris says. "It just helped me to know that what I was doing in their lives made a difference. It still gives me goose bumps."

Harris' historical fascination with Flagstaff's Murdoch Center, a community center located near the Flagstaff campus, led her to the Southside Community Association (SSCA), a non-profit group that services socioeconomically disadvantaged communities in Flagstaff. Through her association with the SSCA, Harris worked to dissuade Flagstaff from selling the Murdoch Center in order to preserve it. According to Harris, her fascination stemmed from Murdoch's place in history: the center is on the site of the Dunbar School, originally a segregated school.

"Flagstaff had desegregated their schools two years before Brown vs. the Board of Education was ever decided by the Supreme Court," she says. "The rest of the country wasn't ready to do that. So rather than trying to hide that, we should celebrate that."

Amid her many commitments to the university and local communities, Harris also owns a window treatment business. She says that the work plays in to her natural inclination to weave together different elements. "I'm a seamstress," she says, "I love to sew."

And many people—from the students she's helped to the community members she serves—would agree that she has woven a remarkable tapestry.