Salena Hill was sitting on a bench in the Branch Center having her photo taken, when a young child, no older than two, waddled over to her in his puffy winter coat. Even masked, one could see Hill’s face light up as she spoke to the boy and his father.
A passion for helping others and meeting new people is among the reasons Hill was hired as University of Montana’s first director of inclusive excellence.
“I want to be that person where, when something heavy happens to a student and they’re not sure if it was a microaggression or if it was an actual unjust thing that happened, they can come and sit and share that with me,” Hill said.
Hill is a UM alum. She earned a master’s in school counseling in 2008 and a doctorate in counselor education in August 2020. She began her new position on Feb. 22 and spent her first week meeting new people, getting re-engaged with campus and having conversations with students.
In her position, Hill plans to focus on student inclusion to encourage diversity on campus. Her goal is to shape this new position to best support students on campus and identify changes that need to be made.
“My focus is really just being a support person for the BIPOC and LGBT students,” Hill said. “I’ll also be connecting students with services or advocating for them when services don’t really accommodate or align with the needs that they have as BIPOC.”
Hill, a Crow tribal member, said being Native American in Montana gave her the personal experience to better help her empathize with students. She said she knows what it’s like to internalize feelings and questions, and she hopes to help others work through their own.
Hill added that she plans to utilize her counseling skills to listen and support students while also learning from their conversations. She emphasized the importance of hearing other students to understand what is happening on campus and what changes need to take place.
“You can’t really advocate for something you don’t understand fully, or haven’t heard a personal story,” Hill said. “When you do any type of diversity work, you have to know what you don’t know.”
She is most looking forward to hearing student stories and connecting with them. Hill said she feels honored to sit in on somebody’s experience because it gives her more insight and ideas on what needs to change.
Hill’s advocacy style is gentler in its approach. She tries to understand all angles of a situation and determine the proper ways to approach it, as not every scenario is black and white.
But her goal of serving the students and making a positive impact will remain the same.
“This office and this center can serve as ‘okay, that happened, so let’s go forward and figure out how we can start creating change within this system,’” Hill said.
Her office is in the Branch Center on the second floor of the University Center. And she encourages students to stop by for a conversation.