California State University Campuses Lead the Way in Innovative Inclusion Efforts

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SDSU students share a meal together. (photo: Sandy Huffaker Jr.)

With almost half a million students spread across 23 campuses in one of the nation’s most diverse states, it’s no surprise that the California State University (CSU) has the most ethnically and socioeconomically diverse student body in the U.S. In fact, 14 CSU campuses are designated as Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions, and all but two are Hispanic-Serving Institutions.

CSUN students work together in a STEM lab; the university has made a commitment to strengthen the STEM pipeline for underrepresented minority students.

Several CSU campuses go above and beyond, offering a variety of programs and services to support their diverse student bodies, which include a large number of underrepresented, low-income, and first-generation students.

California State University, East Bay: Empowering Students
California State University, East Bay (CSUEB) offers a plethora of academic programs to celebrate its dynamic student population. “We are always asking what we can do to incorporate new perspectives into our curriculum,” says University Diversity Officer Dianne Rush Woods, PhD.

The university’s GANAS and Sanofka programs provide opportunities for students who have transferred to CSUEB from a community college to participate in cohort-based learning communities. In Sankofa — a word from the Akan tribe in Ghana meaning “to go back to one’s roots” — African American students enroll in Afrocentric classes, while GANAS — the Spanish word for “will” or “desire” — allows Hispanic students to take Latino-themed courses. Both programs emphasize building community through shared identity, and students gain access to intensive advising and mentoring to ensure their academic success. The result of these programs, Rush Woods says, is improved retention and graduation rates for underrepresented participants.

Students in the GANAS program at CSUEB engage during a class.

CSUEB also has a required reading program for freshmen that focuses on marginalized identities. Authors whose books have been selected are invited to speak at the university’s annual Week of Inclusive Excellence. This year, José Ángel N., author of Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant, came to campus to discuss his experiences. “We have a lot of students who may be undocumented,” says Rush Woods, “and you could see certain [individuals’ faces] lighting up, … inspired by his story.”

She believes that creating opportunities such as this is what makes CSUEB’s diversity and inclusive efforts so successful. “We want to ensure that all students feel not only welcome here, but also empowered,” Rush Woods says.

California State University, Fresno: Enabling Difficult Dialogue
At California State University, Fresno (CSUF), inclusivity starts with conversation.

The university has created a campus culture that is welcoming of discussions around diversity, inclusion, and equity, but recognizes that such conversations are not always comfortable or easy, says Francine Oputa, PhD, the director of CSUF’s Cross Cultural and Gender Center.

CSUF has instituted several initiatives to enable students, faculty, and staff to have these sensitive conversations. One such program, Conversations on Inclusion, Respect, and Equity, gathers members of the campus community for a monthly discussion about diversity. It provides an opportunity for students to directly address the administration with any concerns they may have regarding inclusion on campus and offers a venue for open dialogue around current national and international issues regarding prejudice and equality.

As part of the National Coalition Building Institute — a leadership development organization dedicated to eliminating racism — CSUF also hosts workshops in which participants learn how to reduce prejudice through conversation. “It’s an opportunity to have dialogues in an environment that is welcoming and safe, but [it] also really gets to the heart of the matter,” says Oputa. “It teaches us not only to look at our own prejudices — and how to reduce them — but also how to interrupt and stop prejudice when we see it happening.”

California State University, Northridge: Building Communication
Leadership at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) knows communication is key to ensuring the success of a diverse student body. That is why the university charges members of its Commission on Diversity and Inclusion with engaging various student and community populations in a “continuous feedback loop,” says Chief Diversity Officer Raji A. Rhys, PhD. This approach informs the university of what inclusive measures are working successfully and what areas may still need to be addressed.

CSUN also builds positive communication with students via the intervention program Matador Momentum, which emphasizes the importance of using intentional language to empower students and change cultural mindsets. “Some of the words used to describe and stereotype students become self-fulfilling prophecies,” Rhys says. “So for example, instead of calling students ‘at risk,’ we use [a phrase] like ‘opportunity gap.’”

The program also hosts panels of upperclassmen from underrepresented backgrounds who share stories of their own academic struggles and successes. Rhys says that CSUN has found that when freshman students attend these panels, they push themselves harder and their GPAs rise. “When a student hears the success story of someone who happens to be from the same background as them, it lets them know that they too can make it,” she says.

California State University San Marcos: Collaborative Support
With a majority-minority student population, California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) focuses its efforts on ensuring the inclusion of the diverse populations that make up this group.

“The idea that promoting diversity needs to be everybody’s job is really built into the culture here,” says CSUSM Chief Diversity Officer Joe-Joe McManus, PhD. “It is a very collaborative and cooperative campus.”

SDSU students share a meal together. (photo: Sandy Huffaker Jr.)

For example, the university has interdepartmental task forces to help understand how to best serve specific student populations. Recently, CSUSM created a task force focused on supporting undocumented students, who are now facing the increased threat of deportation. “Students, faculty, and staff are involved in the process of figuring out what resources are really needed,” says McManus. “We as a university work hard to listen to these students and operationalize the solutions that will serve them in the best possible way.”

CSUSM also places a high priority on listening to and working with the diverse populations of the local community. In addition to hosting and participating in a number of local events, the university has staff members dedicated to ensuring that it is addressing the needs of San Marcos residents; these personnel include a community outreach and communications liaison and a tribal liaison.

San Diego State University: Cultural Identity
Located within 30 miles of the Mexico-U.S. border, San Diego State University (SDSU) touts the importance and benefits of global diversity. With a student body that runs the gamut of ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic diversity, the university encourages students to explore their identities across borders, says SDSU Chief Diversity Officer Aaron Bruce, PhD.

One way the university encourages such exploration is by making study abroad a required component of 32 of its degree programs. Students must pay for their own travel and tuition, but the university offers financial aid and scholarships to help them cover these costs. “Whether you spend a year overseas or do a one-week service project, you’re still developing those essential global competencies,” says Bruce.

Understanding that every student’s study abroad experience will have unique benefits and challenges, SDSU focuses on supporting them during their time abroad through the lenses of their different identities. For instance, Bruce teaches a course in the Dominican Republic every summer that, although open to anyone, was originally designed to provide African American male students a global frame of reference for their identity and to empower them to be global citizens and leaders.

“The students come back confident and inspired to share their stories,” Bruce says. “That’s why we emphasize study abroad as a high-impact practice — it contributes to student success and opens them up to diversity in a very important way.”●

Mariah Bohanon is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. SDSU is a 2013 through 2016 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient. CSUEB, CSUF, and CSUSM are 2014 through 2016 HEED Award recipients. CSUN is a 2016 HEED Award recipient.