Michelle Loyd-Paige first visited Calvin College due to the encouragement of her high school English and drama teacher. “At the end of my Fridays at Calvin visit, I said there is no way that I am going here,” she said. “The only other dark thing I saw was the breakfast sausage.”

That was nearly four decades and a career ago for Loyd-Paige.

In the late 1970s when Loyd-Paige visited Calvin, diversity was a little-used word on most college campuses. Multicultural diversity, as it was then referred to, was introduced nationally during the late 1970s and ’80s to infuse cultural customs or gender issues into institutions. Underrepresented populations started to be recognized for their potential to recruit and retain others and to contribute toward making institutions more aware of multicultural issues.

Initial efforts at Calvin were first formalized in 1985 with the introduction of The Comprehensive Plan, produced by the Minority Concerns Task Force, well after Loyd-Paige had graduated from the college.

One of few

“I was used to being one of very few,” said Loyd-Paige. “I was one of maybe five African-Americans at Wyoming Park (Mich., High School). I just didn’t want to do it again.”

In the end, though, of the colleges Loyd-Paige was considering, Calvin offered the best financial package, “and it was only 25 minutes from home,” she added.

Once at Calvin, Loyd-Paige found a mentor in sociology professor Rodger Rice and a home in the sociology department.

“My first contact with Michelle was in a summer class she took,” said Rice. “She did very well; she was an excellent student. After that she would stop in my office to talk on different occasions. I remember she was interested in the story of African-Americans. She wrote a paper for me on Black settlers in Grand Rapids; it was very interesting.”

Upon finishing Calvin, Loyd-Paige was urged to attend graduate school. “My dad was a regional sales manager for Johnson and Johnson,” she said. “I just wanted to graduate and become a clothes buyer for Gantos (a now defunct women’s clothing retailer). I was the first person in my family to go to college, but education was important to my parents. I decided to apply to Purdue.”

Upon completing her studies there, she returned to west Michigan, where she married her husband, Darrell, and began work on her dissertation. While there, she was asked to teach an interim class at Calvin.

“I always had in my mind that Michelle might come back to Calvin; I was hopeful,” said Rice.

Loyd-Paige accepted the offer: “I thought I would be working for 30 days at Calvin,” she said. “At the time I only knew one other person in Muskegon Heights who had gotten a doctorate, so it gave me a chance to get back into the academic community. I had no idea I would have a career here.”

She was then asked to teach a class in the fall and eventually a reduced load in the fall of 1987. “The Comprehensive Plan made it possible for me to be here,” she said. “That’s when it allowed for people who were Christian, not just Christian Reformed, to teach. At the time I was a member of the Church of the Living God, a historical African American denomination, and I was on the path to being ordained.”

A long shot

Still, it seemed a long shot that Loyd-Paige would stay at Calvin and receive tenure.

“I didn’t see it as possible long term,” she said. “It was like seeing a size 2 dress that you really like, but why buy it if you are a size 12? You’re never going to get into a size 2 dress. I figured there was no way I was going to get tenure here, so why invest myself? Why get excited about being a part of things here and maybe making a difference when that was not likely to happen?”

While Loyd-Paige was asked to stay on to teach and eventually was awarded tenure in 1996, she acknowledged that the racial and ethnic climate at Calvin was “not the best.”

“I felt like the college was saying, ‘we welcome you as long as you’re like us. Calvin wanted to be multiracial but did not want to be multicultural. They wanted the Michelle with the dark face but not the culture of an African American,” she said.

Loyd-Paige was particularly perceptive to this because she had struggled to identify with her Black heritage. “I was the daughter of a naval officer,” she said. “We had moved around; I had lived in Puerto Rico and Alaska. I had no idea what it meant to be Black. I knew I was Black; I always had people to remind me I was Black in hurtful ways, but I didn’t understand the collective Black experience in the U.S.

“I didn’t sound Black; I didn’t act Black. I didn’t know who Michael Jackson was; my favorite singer was Johnny Cash. I knew I was racially Black, but I had to learn as a young adult what it meant to be culturally Black. Once I had gained an understanding of this, I didn’t want to give it up. It became very important to me, and I didn’t want to be at a place that wanted me to check that at the door.”

Precedent setting

With the support of her department, Loyd-Paige applied for exemptions to the faculty church membership requirement and the Christian school requirement for her children. “I didn’t use race as a factor,” she said. “My husband worked in the public school system in Muskegon Heights, and it was important for us to be a part of that. And I felt called as an ordained minister to my church: I can’t see me going to God and saying, ‘I would follow that calling but my job won’t let me.’

“I don’t even want to imagine the conversations that occurred because of this,” she said. “I was blissfully ignorant. If I would have known how precedent setting it was, I would have been terrified.”

Loyd-Paige was awarded the exemptions. “When I think of how tough it was for her to swim against the stream, it’s so great that she didn’t get discouraged and leave,” said Rice. “I know she suffered, and I thank God that she stayed and has served the Calvin community the way she has.”

In 2003, the college created the position of dean for multicultural affairs. Loyd-Paige was asked but chose not to apply. “I enjoyed teaching,” she said. “I also saw how important the position was, and I didn’t want to be the person that messed it up. You could say I had some confidence issues then.”

The following year Calvin formally adopted From Every Nation: A Revised Comprehensive Plan for Racial Justice, Reconciliation and Cross-cultural Engagement at Calvin College.

“It was a significant improvement from The Comprehensive Plan, and it demonstrated that the college was ready to pay attention to diversity,” said Loyd-Paige. “This plan looked at structures and policies; it instructed us to be intentional about naming barriers and removing barriers.”

When the first dean of multicultural affairs, Barbara Omolade, left the position earlier than expected and a search for her replacement was unsuccessful, Loyd-Paige was again tapped.

“I went through a fleecing period,” she said. “I asked God let the fleece be dry and the ground be wet if I’m supposed to take this. And wouldn’t you know it, the fleece was dry and the ground was wet. Then I said, ‘let’s try that again.’ Each time I felt God calling me.”

She accepted the role in 2006 as a one-year interim appointment; eight years later she was still there.

“I really liked it more than I thought I would,” she said. “And that’s how God tricked me into the dean of multicultural affairs position.”

A new era of diversity

But it didn’t end there. The installation of Michael Le Roy in 2012 ushered in a new era of diversity at Calvin with Loyd-Paige accepting the interim position of executive associate to the president in 2013.

“President Le Roy came to campus with diversity and inclusion as a priority,” said Loyd-Paige. “I think he could see the good work already being done here but could imagine even more being done.”

Le Roy concurred: “When I looked around the table at the leadership team, it was obvious who wasn’t there. We’re very diverse in terms of gender, but in terms of people of color there was no diversity. Having that voice is important. Hearing from people with different backgrounds and different experiences is important; it helps us make better decisions.”

The decision for Loyd-Paige to be at the table has made a difference, she said. “Very early on in his presidency, Michael named diversity as a priority at events that were not diversity events,” she said. “He has a vision for the college. Research says that if diversity and inclusion are to take hold, they have to have senior leadership commitment.”

A new voice

In the college’s recently released strategic plan, strengthening Calvin’s pursuit of diversity and inclusion is one of the six major themes.

“It’s a very strong theme in the plan because of Michelle’s leadership,” said Le Roy. “She spearheaded that effort and offered a fresh perspective. She wanted to be sure that we don’t keep doing things the same way. She helped us to set a new direction for diversity.”

Loyd-Paige is grateful for this new voice. “I have the ear of a lot of people who have power,” she said. “And this plan is more than words, it is a plan with action. We have key performance indicators and people will be accountable to it.

“I am hopeful now; five years ago I was not as hopeful,” she said. “When I first started here I was 100 percent of the African American faculty; happily, this is no longer the case. There were times when I have prayed to leave here; at times it’s been emotionally and psychologically hard to be here. But I never want to be willfully outside of the will of God, so as I have sensed God saying stay, I have.

“We’ve made great progress, but there are still some reminders that we have not quite inherited the kingdom yet. There’s still a lot to learn on how we engage with one another in the kingdom of God.”

Le Roy is thankful for Loyd-Paige’s longevity at Calvin: “She provides a very honest and grace-filled history of what it’s been like; she helps us to be truthful about what we might need to confess,” he said. “But she’s also incredibly positive about the potential of Calvin College.

“Institutions that I have been a part of have been successful at growth and change when leaders who are champions of diversity are successful at inviting people into the process and not making them defensive. That is something that Michelle does really well.”

As for her fortitude, Loyd-Paige said: “I can’t explain why I’m still here,” she said. “I’ve seen really good faculty and staff of color come to Calvin. I’ve seen some stay, but most have left. I’ve asked, ‘Lord, what do you want me to do?’ The answer I’ve received is to work as a bridge builder, to work for institutional change, to have transformative impact on students and to be an agent of renewal here on Calvin’s campus.”

Lynn Rosendale is managing editor of Spark.