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Are colleges prioritizing communities of belonging on campus? If so, why and how?

For many students of diverse backgrounds, finding a sense of belonging and community at a predominantly white institution can be a challenge. Not only can it give students a feeling of isolation on campus, but it can also adversely affect their academic performance.


Photo by BCC News. Illustration by Debie Loizou.



At predominantly white institutions, students from diverse backgrounds can often have a hard time finding their niche. Not only is finding a sense of community more difficult for these students, but as people who don’t necessarily fit into the majority of the student population, a lack of community can often feel isolating. Not to mention continued instances of discrimination prompted by race or identity. Colleges and universities do their best to address these issues, but usually to no avail. Many students, professors, and college administrators are either unable or unwilling to talk about race, and when they do, conversations often don’t lead to meaningful takeaways. With that being said, many colleges and universities have begun to roll out Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) plans that aim to create a welcoming and equitable learning and research environment for all students at their school. At the same time, schools have begun incorporating programs and more on-campus resources to help students from diverse backgrounds. Let’s take a look at some ways colleges have aimed to create a more inclusive learning environment, and create a greater sense of community for diverse students.


DEI Initiatives/Plans


Many schools, including the University of Washington’s College of Engineering, have conducted DEI assessments in recent years by partnering with outside firms, such as Erolin Solutions. The purpose of these assessments had been to gather data on the current state of DEI in these schools, provide recommendations, and develop a multi-year DEI plan for said colleges. For the report with UW’s College of Engineering, Erolin identified the college’s strengths and areas to improve in its current DEI state. Some of the strengths of the college that were identified included an interest to learn more about DEI, a shared understanding of why DEI is important, and a commitment from departments on DEI, to name a few. However, the assessment also noted that the school needed to increase diversity and representation across its student body and faculty population, as well as providing consistent learning and development on DEI for members of the school. The assessment then turned to recommendations on what to do next, both in the immediate future and years down the road. Among the recommendations, UW was advised to develop and implement a multi-year DEI plan, build the capacity of leaders on campus, and increase awareness and skills on DEI across its community.


The University of Iowa also announced the implementation of 5 new DEI initiatives in January 2021 aiming to increase the awareness and engagement among their campus community. Part of the university’s plan to increase engagement was through listening sessions and DEI storytelling, intended to bring a personalized approach to hearing about campus experiences from the community. The university will also require DEI training for all “senior-level administrators, departmental executive officers, shared governance members, and DEI leaders.” The training is intended to deepen knowledge and build DEI leadership skills across the university. Additionally, the university also appointed two DEI faculty fellows to focus on strategies to support faculty DEI on campus, with guidance from a DEI strategic plan and their 2020 Campus Climate Survey.


Many graduate schools are also implementing DEI initiatives as well, following similar plans and actions as their undergraduate counterparts. Princeton University’s Graduate Program in Public Affairs and Public Policy, affiliated with the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, has implemented a DEI program since fall 2017. The school’s plan centers around building awareness and understanding of DEI issues. Some ways the school did this was by creating a Diversity and Inclusion Standing Committee, focused on monitoring “DEI in graduate admissions, curricular offerings, student support services, and public affairs programming.” The school has also organized workshops covering DEI topics including the impact of bias and microaggressions, being an ally, overcoming racism, etc. In addition to building awareness among the school’s population, the school has also incorporated events into their plan, “with the aim of providing a learning environment that is welcoming and supportive for all.”


Student Fly-In and Diversity Programs


A number of colleges and universities across the country hold what are known as fly-in programs every spring for high school seniors. While these programs are open to any students, they are traditionally geared toward students from underrepresented backgrounds or, in the case of Williams College’s Windows on Williams program, “high-achieving students who couldn’t otherwise afford to visit Williams”. These programs are a way to not only introduce prospective applicants to a school’s campus community, but in the case of diverse students, building a sense of community for those who need mentoring and support in the application process. Programming is also generally tailored towards supporting, “first-generation and underrepresented students”, as is the case with Emory University’s Cultural Overnight Recruitment Experience (CORE). While some programs have shifted virtually in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, fly-in programs are traditionally 2-3 day long overnight programs where students are able to visit campus at no cost to them or their families. In these programs, students are able to sit-in on classes at the college, learn more about diversity and community on campus, and connect with current students and faculty members. Visits are of no cost to students and at most colleges, such as Tufts University, students’ application fees will be waived as well. While these are only a few of the many fly-in programs available to high school seniors, the main principle remains the same, giving students of diverse backgrounds an opportunity to visit the school and build a community before students have even applied.


On-Campus Identity Centers


If you walk around any given college campus, odds are you will bump into some sort of student identity center. These places on campus provide a safe space for students to find a sense of community among a predominantly white population. While identity centers tend to operate on their own, some schools, such as Tufts University, group them under a division focused on student diversity and inclusion. Examples of these centers include LGBTQ centers, International centers for non-U.S. students, and racial/ethnic identity centers. These centers generally hold events and offer advising opportunities for students to connect with others on campus. Further adding to a sense of community, some schools, like Tufts, also have special interest housing affiliated with identity centers on campus, giving students another space to meet diverse people at a predominantly white institution. Residents of special interest housing also often host events for the campus community as a whole. In the case of special interest housing focused on racial/ethnic identity, these events are a way to not only meet more people, but to show members of the community about a new culture or traditions.


Conclusion


For many students of diverse backgrounds, finding a sense of belonging and community at a predominantly white institution can be a challenge. Not only can it give students a feeling of isolation on campus, but it can also adversely affect their academic performance. Because of this, many schools have implemented DEI plans to help members of the campus community better understand the importance of diversity and inclusion. Some schools also help students build a sense of community through high school fly-in programs, with identity centers on campus providing further opportunities for diverse students to connect with others in a more comfortable setting.


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