Growing up in a family of servant leaders in Cincinnati, Ohio, Robert Canida soaked it all in.
The way his great grandmother Jennie – who he affectionately called ‘Big Mama’ – faithfully served as a minister’s wife. How his mother Patricia made ends meet while raising five children on her own. To the compassion his aunt provided her patients as a nurse.
Instinctively, Canida accepted the servant role as well, applying those life lessons as director of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
“This is what you do as a humanitarian,” Canida thought, drawing on his childhood memories. “You serve others.”
Canida has spent the last two decades diligently serving the UNC System’s most diverse campus through multicultural programs, student dialogues, and promoting diversity and inclusion.
Although the office has undergone name changes, its mission has remained unchanged.
“When students are not as aware of the cultural, economic, and social differences, it is my responsibility to make sure they have an awareness of the fact that it is okay to be different,” he said.
Canida was named the 2017 recipient of the Erskine B. Bowles Staff Service Award for the UNC System.
The award is given annually to a staff member who has shown exemplary understanding, empathy, and devotion to mankind and whose accomplishments are consistent with the goals exemplified by Bowles during his tenure as UNC President.
He was honored during a recent awards ceremony on campus and will be the special guest during a reception on March 23 at the home of UNC President Margaret Spellings.
“Just the honor of being nominated and having a staff member think that much of me is wonderful. Not that we work for the state or an institution to be recognized, but when someone notices the service that you have given, it makes you feel good.”
Anne Coleman, a long-time colleague, said he is dedicated to supporting and nurturing all students.
“He creates a very inclusive environment for all our students,” Coleman said. “His services are not ruled by the 8 to 5 clock, rather they are dictated by student needs.
“He is creative and inclusive, always being open to new ideas or activities for our students and always reaching out to collaborate with diverse partners in the public schools, in the communities, and local businesses.”
Since joining UNCP in 1995, Canida has made it his mission to foster inclusion campuswide.
Canida has been long recognized as an agent of change.
From co-curricular programs celebrating and embracing students, staff and faculty and community members during Black History Month, Disability Awareness Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, LGBTQ Pride, Native American Heritage Month and Women’s History Month to supporting student-led discussions like Brave Dialogues.
He established the Social Justice Symposium, which is in its 11th year, and is the brainchild behind the Diversity Committee for Communities of Interest.
Abdul Ghaffar, a fellow colleague, said he can’t think of anyone more deserving of the award.
“Robert is honest, committed and loyal to UNCP. He has a great deal of respect for our students and passion to help their experiences at UNCP be positive and memorable,” Ghaffar said.
Jean Marie Floyd, Staff Council chair, said students, faculty and staff are drawn to Canida.
“When I encountered Dr. Canida, his demeanor and outlook was positive, and encouraging and was just what I needed to push me through,” she said.
“His relentless giving to the entire campus community and his overwhelming ability to allow everyone to have a voice and be heard is impeccable.”
Canida says he is grateful to be a part of an institution that values service, adding that service for him is second nature.
“It’s not hard being a servant leader,” he said. “I was raised by a group of women who exude service throughout their lives so it’s just normal for me to do the same.
“This university – for 131 years – has been based on service, so I am honored to be a part of the BraveNation family and I look forward to continue serving this university.”