As academic program coordinator for the center’s diversity and democracy initiative, Dahlia Petrus works to support diverse representation in higher education. However, Petrus’ commitment to diversity and inclusion extends far beyond her work; indeed, it is a lifelong passion that has been shaped by many of her own experiences as a first-generation college student, immigrant, and woman of color.

Petrus’ dedication to helping marginalized communities began long before her academic tenure. “My parents immigrated to Detroit from the Middle East in the 1960s, watched the 1967 Detroit Rebellion from their third story window, and began a life working tirelessly as grocers seven days a week—hoping to send  me to an elite institution such as the University of Michigan. Their sacrifices shape me and my work, and I strive to also empower others who come from marginalized communities,” Petrus said.

A newspaper clipping about demands for "anti-racism" workshops at the University of Michigan.

As a student at the University of Michigan, Petrus’ own educational experiences continued to develop her interests in diversity and representation in higher education. Petrus recalls being part of a student group at the university that supported the adoption of the university’s Race and Ethnicity mandatory course which was called the “Racism Requirement” during that time.

“My experiences as a first-generation college student, immigrant, and woman of color shapes who I am today and inspires me to advocate for others who are underrepresented at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) such as ours,” explains Petrus.

Mentorship played a particularly influential role in Petrus’ academic career at the University of Michigan. “I’ve been fortunate to have many talented mentors. I taught and served as a student advisor for the Comprehensive Studies Program where my mentors were experienced administrators of color who also fought for social justice as civil rights activists in the 1960s and 1970s. I learned so much and am still full of admiration for them,” Petrus said. 

Earning her second M.A. in counseling at the University of Michigan was a particularly influential part of Petrus’ education and career, during which she was greatly inspired by the many students of color who she taught and advised as well as by her faculty mentors.

“Working as an academic researcher for and teaching with Dr. Alsultany and Dr. Zaborowska gave me the skills for exciting new career pathways while learning interdisciplinary approaches to innovative scholarship. My second M.A. transformed and inspired me as a scholar and educator, as I worked in and was welcome into the ecommunities within the Departments of Afroamerican and African Studies, Arab and Muslim American Studies, and American Culture,” Petrus reflected.

Throughout her career, Petrus has continued to hold many positions at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor and Dearborn campuses as a scholar, educator, mentor, coalition builder, administrator and advocate. She most recently co-facilitated a committee that helped inform the university’s strategic diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) plan and supported a coalition of underrepresented administrators. Petrus adds that supporting the growth and fostering the community building of the Arab and Muslim American Studies program has been one of the most rewarding experiences for her overall.

Petrus’ accomplishments and dedication to DEI initiatives in higher education at the University of Michigan have been recognized with a Woman of Color career award. 

“I was super honored to receive the award from an African American student group (H.E.A.D.S) and have many fond memories of being inspired by and honored by the student orgs such as the Black Student Union and National Council of Negro Women at the University of Michigan. Being a woman of color both as a student and professional at an institution such as U-M has influenced my work through a myriad of ways but mainly through my DEI advocacy work,” Petrus stated.

Petrus’ goals of working with social impact initiatives is what drew her to the Center for Social Solutions while she was serving as a Manager for Recruitment of underrepresented graduate students at U-M.

“It is exciting to contribute to a unit that is committed to social transformation and collaborative models connecting us to national and international thought leaders and changemakers working within the center’s four focus areas,” Petrus said.

As a Project Coordinator at the center, Petrus supports collaborative efforts to build a leadership institute founded by Dr. Earl Lewis and Dr. Dwight A. McBride that is a partnership between the University of Michigan and The New School. The Academic Leadership Institute aims to increase the representation of rising leaders, including faculty of color, committed to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). 

 “I can’t think of a better goal than helping work toward fostering future leaders committed to DEI and toward a prosperous democratic society in the U.S. and beyond,” Petrus said. 

Petrus’s commitment to helping marginalized communities extends beyond her work. During the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, Petrus has been helping deliver food packages to senior citizens through the Detroit-based non-profit Focus Hope. She also mentors immigrant and first-gen students with their academic development.

Petrus is excited to continue her work as Academic Program Coordinator at the center and keep advocating for DEI initiatives. “My aspirations are to continue supporting the Center for Social Solutions’ mission that includes fostering collaborations and solutions of critical social problems,” said Petrus. “Beyond the center, I plan to supplement my HE career with teaching, academic research and curating a digital public history project that will help support the growing body of history on Arab Americans in the United States.”