Growing up in Sarajevo and living through the horrors of the Bosnian War, Arijana Reese knows all too well the devastation and pain that can come from discrimination and hatred.
During the 1990s, Sarajevo went from a city with a multiethnic population known as a beacon of diversity to a capital under siege in a civil war rooted in the ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian Muslim population.
An estimated 100,000 people were killed during the country’s civil war. Approximately, 80% of the lives lost were Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims.
Reese, who is Muslim and a lesbian, did not have the freedom to openly be herself in her native country.
“I lived through that civil war and it was awful,” Reese said. “People can’t imagine how terrible it was, but it makes me realize how really blessed and lucky I am to live where I live today. I moved to the United States in 1999. I came here on a basketball scholarship. When I was younger, I played basketball for the Bosnia National Team, but then I decided to come to this country.”
Originally, Reese played for the University of Hawaii, but during her final year in college she was offered a scholarship to Augusta University, which was then Augusta State University.
“It’s the best decision I ever made,” said Reese, who graduated from Augusta University in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in communication. “I have spent more time in Augusta now than I have back home in Bosnia. This is my home now.”
Last year, Reese began working for her alma mater as the associate director of IT Customer Experience at Augusta University. Not long after starting her new job, Reese, who is actively involved in the local LGBTQ community and Augusta Pride, checked to see if Augusta University had a LGBTQ Faculty and Staff Association.
She was surprised to learn that there wasn’t one established at Augusta University.
“I was truly shocked because AU is so diverse and it’s an incredible university,” Reese said. “There is an LGBTQ organization for students, but not faculty and staff. So, I talked to my boss, Amy Triana, and I decided to start one.”
Triana encouraged Reese to contact Dr. Tiffany Townsend, the chief diversity officer for Augusta University, about creating a LGBTQ Faculty and Staff Association.
“I reached out to Dr. Townsend and she was very excited, because, right now, we only have one affinity group,” Reese said, explaining that Augusta University currently has the Black Faculty & Staff Association (BFSA) that was chartered in May of 2019. “Dr. Townsend was like, ‘I’ve been waiting for somebody to ask me this. Let’s do it.’”
“Affinity groups” are organizations formed around a shared identity or common goal to build community among members of non-dominant identities and to foster inclusion and a sense of belonging at the university, Townsend explained.
“The whole idea around affinity groups is for faculty, staff and administrators, if they so choose, to feel like they have a group where they can be completely themselves and they feel supported,” Townsend said. “Employee affinity groups are a way for people with similar interests, maybe similar backgrounds, to support each other, come together, share different activities and really feel like they can develop and build a community at the university.”
Townsend said the Office of Diversity and Inclusion is currently developing guidelines and protocols for affinity groups at Augusta University.
“Since we have not had affinity groups at Augusta University before and the Black Faculty & Staff Association was our first that started in 2019, we’re developing a full process and very specific procedures for faculty and staff who were interested in starting groups at the university,” Townsend said. “Our AU Health community and colleagues are also starting affinity groups. There are three or four that have started on the AU Health side, so we are working together to make sure that the processes and procedures for starting affinity groups are similar for employees from both AU and AU Health.
“But for any employee interested in starting an affinity group, the first step is for them to reach out to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion for more information so we can talk about the goals and the purpose of the group.”
Each affinity group determines its own scope and priorities, Townsend said. However, in order for an affinity group to be recognized by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the group must be as open as possible to all Augusta University employees around the affinity topic or identity; have a clear sense of purpose, including a mission statement that contributes to the larger university’s mission and core values; have a public presence, such as a website; and have meetings that are open to all employees.
Townsend said she hopes the new LGBTQ affinity group will encourage other employees to think about creating more affinity groups at Augusta University.
“For people from identities who have traditionally felt marginalized, we want to make sure that they know that they have a community here,” Townsend said. “For members of the LGBTQ community, if they know that they have this new affinity group, they will feel like they can connect and engage in it with the university and with their place of employment in very important ways.”
In addition, those employees who are in support of these affinity groups are encouraged to join, Townsend said.
“For example, even if I don’t identify as a member of the LGBTQ community, I could still join that group as an ally if I so choose,” she said. “All of these groups are open to anyone who is interested in engaging and learning more or working more in that community.”
Reese said she is proud of the fact that she’s already received a great deal of interest in the new LGBTQ affinity group.
“Currently, we are actively looking for another member for the chair from the Summerville Campus because we want to make sure we have representation on all of the AU campuses,” Reese said. “We are also looking for a communication and social events director because, eventually, I would like to have monthly or even weekly events like a movie on the first Friday of the month or something like pride in the park on the Summerville campus. My goal is to really have the LGBTQ community more involved.”
Creating the LGBTQ affinity group will not only help faculty and staff, but also the entire university as a whole, Reese said.
“I feel like when you have faculty members who feel comfortable to be who they want to be, students will see that and feel like, ‘Hey, I’m in a good place. This person is not going to not like me because I’m gay, or a lesbian or non-binary,’” Reese said. “I think it changes a lot of the mentality. A lot of fear will go away.”
This strength and insight comes from the difficult lessons that she learned living in Bosnia, Reese said. She wants to make sure her new home in Augusta is always welcoming of all people.
“Living in a country where you can be who you want to be and love who you want to is very important to me,” Reese said, adding she has been married to her wife, Melissa, for six years and they have a beautiful family together. “I come from a country where that’s not OK. But I’m now so blessed to live here.
“I want others, who might be struggling, to know they are part of a welcoming and supportive community here in Augusta.”
Click here for more information about starting an affinity group at Augusta University or email Arijana Reese at firstname.lastname@example.org or the new LGBTQ Faculty and Staff Association’s email address at email@example.com for more information on this new affinity group.