Students Discuss Inclusion and Diversity in Higher Ed

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By: Amber M. Briggs with Maria Guadalupe Romo-González and Will Walker

Author’s Note: The student perspectives shared below are representative of their unique experiences in higher education. We acknowledge there may be experiences that are missing from this conversation and encourage higher education leaders to continually seek out their own students’ perspectives and thoughtfully engage them in their decision-making process.

This summer, the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) had planned to bring a group of students to NACAC’s Guiding the Way to Inclusion conference to discuss their experiences in higher education and share their thoughts on what higher ed professionals can do to foster inclusion and diversity.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus crisis prompted NACAC to cancel the in-person event and instead move the conference online,

Although our panel was unable to participate in the virtual event, we know the topics of inclusion and diversity are more important than ever given the racial injustices and challenges of COVID-19 that students are facing. And with the help of two LEDA Scholars, we hope to begin that conversation on NACAC’s Admitted blog.

Read on for a Q&A with two of our students — Maria Guadalupe Romo-González  and Will Walker — and share your thoughts in the comment section below. Romo-González is a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. Walker is a student at the University of Richmond (VA). Both are past members of the LEDA Policy Corps — an initiative that trains and positions young leaders from the LEDA community to lend their voices to federal policy discussions pertaining to postsecondary education.

When you think about diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher ed, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Why?

Romo-González: I think about the diverse backgrounds that students can come from and the diverse experiences that they bring with them and how institutions and higher education as a whole systemically contribute to and shape inclusion in higher ed. I don’t think any one of the three—diversity, equity, and inclusion—can stand alone. For equity to be achieved in higher ed, we must implement diversity and prioritize moving toward more inclusive environments.

Walker: The opportunity for minority students to succeed is the first thing that comes to mind. For me, diversity, equity, and inclusion is about creating more spaces and opportunities for the minority students that are often forgotten or disregarded in administrative meetings or conversations that lead to change. These words form the foundation of social justice in higher education, and I really believe in the power that they have to change the landscape of higher education. As the demographics of our country change, institutions and their leaders have to be ready to prepare the next generation of global leaders.

Many businesses, organizations, and institutions, including higher education institutions, released statements and implemented various changes related to racial equity after the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbury, and George Floyd and the resulting uprisings. What do you think about the higher education community’s response? Where have they missed the mark? What else would you like to see?

Romo-González: Various institutions of higher education have shared messages sharing their stance in solidarity with the black community and their commitment to advancing racial and ethnic diversity and equity at their respective institutions. However, I feel many have missed the mark at explicitly stating specific actions that will be taken to address these inequities. We should be much more proactive in addressing racial violence at institutions of higher education by implementing mandatory courses, workshops, or seminars that address historical and systemic racial violence. Educating students and encouraging them to relearn history through a series of courses offered by institutions that focus on providing resources for students to understand how the status quo disproportionately affects BIPOC is an important step that can be taken toward relearning and thus reforming institutions that reproduce racism. Revisiting financial budgets that disproportionately fund police and security services as opposed to student services and programs also speaks to the institutions’ true intentions of supporting students’ needs and prioritizing the well-being of their students by allocating funds for mental health care, for example.

Walker: Because of my experiences, I would say that higher education has a lot of work to do when it comes to dealing with racial violence. When it comes to dealing with racialized hate, there seems to be more responsive work than preventive work. If institutions and higher education as a collective system want to improve, there has to be more commitment to true diversity, equity, and inclusion. Institutions cannot just take a stance when it’s convenient for them. Take for example, the racial incident on the University of Richmond campus that involved several minority students being harassed with racial epithets like the n-word or terrorist. In response to this graffiti, administrators supported peaceful protests, open mic nights, and a community-wide forum. These events were productive in the sense that they allowed students to voice their opinions. However, they aren’t enough. In addition to these sorts of events, I recommend that university leaders provide more funding to cultural groups, programs, and activities. I encourage universities to adopt course requirements that require diverse interactions.

In what ways do you think the higher education response to COVID-19—past, present, and future—impacts diversity, equity, and inclusion? What solutions do you think would avoid issues?

Romo-González: Students I know reconsidered enrolling in a four-year institution immediately after graduating from high school because of the uncertainties that the pandemic is bringing. First-generation students, low-income students, and students with disabilities have shared with me their concerns in continuing their education during the COVID-19 pandemic because they are facing financial challenges, health complications, and learning difficulties through the remote programs schools are offering. I think our students who are already most disadvantaged will be facing extensive repercussions. Many institutions are attempting to pivot to the best extent possible to offer a valuable learning experience, but even then, that at times is not enough for students who do not have stable internet connection (or any internet connection at all), reliable computers or electronic devices, and are battling food and housing insecurity all while trying to adapt to a new style of learning. There’s not just one solution that will address all of the issues, but perhaps a starting point would be for universities to consider reducing the cost of tuition and campus fees during the periods of remote learning so that the financial burden for students can potentially be minimized. Institutions should also consider allocating funding to expand technology services for students who may be in need of a computer and/or hotspot devices. The all-around needs and well-being of students should be prioritized at all times, and I would like to see more universities offer extensive resources that promote students’ mental and emotional well-being.

Walker: Over the past year, institutions across America have had to make some tough decisions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. These choices directly influenced decisions related to the cost of attendance, residential living, and the mode of delivery for academic coursework. In the fall, students of the University of Richmond (UR) were able to live on campus at their discretion. As an incoming senior, I elected to move off-campus because of varying concerns. I was wary of a COVID-19 outbreak. Beyond that, I was concerned about my health and well-being. On campus I would have lived alone and interacted as distantly as possible because each of my courses is virtual. UR formally adopted a hybrid model (virtual and in-person), but each of my professors elected to go virtual for their own reasons. Beyond my concerns of loneliness, I was most influenced by how drastically different the social scene was at the beginning of the fall semester as opposed to others. There were few planned events and activities to meaningfully engage students. Students were rightfully prohibited from being within six feet of each other, but there also seemed to be little planning about what would be the campus-wide alternative to meaningful, diverse cultural interaction. Beyond this, access to some important resources and offices/departments became a bit more restricted because of virtual work and limited in-person hours. That said, I cannot stress enough the importance of socially distant opportunities for diverse, inclusive engagement. I recommend that institutional leaders (students, faculty, staff, and administrators) work closely with student leaders and cultural organizations to get creative about the social programming that is being provided to students.

What are your recommendations to higher education leaders who want to make improvements on their campus for diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Romo-González: Listen to the students. When gathering to discuss the future of higher education and institutions, invite underrepresented students to be part of the conversation. Hear from them; listen to their experiences and how their unique stories have been impacted—attempt to understand where they come from and what and how institutions of higher learning can be restructured to be more inclusive of students from diverse backgrounds. Let’s think of diversity beyond race and class and be proactive in reaching an inclusive environment that is welcoming to students of different backgrounds and provides equitable access to upward and social mobility.

Walker: First of all, I want to thank the educators who are already doing social justice and diversity work in higher education. This work is crucial to the betterment of higher education. Some thoughtful ways to engage this work include publishing articles that call out white supremacy, creating new academic departments like African/Africana Studies, and mentoring students of color. Beyond this, I encourage social justice advocates to engage students, particularly those who are racial minorities, queer, first-gen, low-income, disabled, or any combination of these identities. This engagement can take a variety of forms, but the most valuable to me is active listening and mentorship that affirms the experiences and identities of these historically underrepresented students. The key to solving the diversity and inclusion rests within the words that these students use, and they need to be fully considered if we ever want to see real change.

Amber M. Briggs is the policy project director at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA). The national nonprofit, which is based in New York, empowers a community of exceptional young leaders by supporting their higher education and professional success in order to create a more inclusive and equitable country.

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