Collective Action and Responsibility Guide Kent State’s Efforts to Create a Campus That Is Welcoming to All

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Diversity Champions exemplify an unyielding commitment to diversity and inclusion throughout their campus communities, across academic programs, and at the highest administrative levels. INSIGHT Into Diversity selected institutions that rank in the top tier of past Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award recipients. 

Kent State University (KSU) has proven itself to be an institution dedicated to supporting individuals who have historically been overlooked in higher education. By committing time, resources, and energy to serving these populations, KSU has created a campus where all students and employees can feel they truly belong.

[Above: Risman Plaza on the campus of Kent State in Ohio]

Alfreda Brown

Paramount to this success is the university’s recognition that this work is a universal effort, which is why the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) partners with a variety of departments across KSU — and even other institutions — to achieve its goals. “Everything we do is strategic and intentional,” says Alfreda Brown, EdD, vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion. “A campus of our size is going to have many diversity efforts, but ours are extensive, cooperative, and work across campus.”

Expanding Strategic Support
Two years ago, the university requested that Dana Lawless-Andric, associate vice president for DEI, and N.J. Akbar, university college assistant dean, create a plan for increasing graduation rates for underrepresented students — no easy feat for a school with more than 23,000 undergraduates. The plan, which came to be known as Dynamic Engagement and Education of Diverse Students (DEEDS), was designed to unite the entire campus community to support first-generation and low-income students as well as students of color, says Lawless-Andric.

“We were tasked with looking at how we as a university can be more strategic in connecting those dots between the differentials of retention, persistence, and graduation rates,” she says.

Incoming freshmen participate in the Kupita/Transiciones summer orientation program at KSU.

As a first step, Akbar and Lawless-Andric identified five key components to help underrepresented students reach graduation: institutional commitment, cultural affirmation, a sense of belonging, academic success, and professional pathways. Under their guidance, KSU created five subcommittees — consisting of faculty and staff from across the university — tasked with “identifying opportunities in each of those areas to strengthen, add, or elevate programs, initiatives, and efforts” in order to eliminate disparities in graduation rates, explains Lawless-Andric.

The DEEDS subcommittees quickly recognized that one longstanding KSU program exhibited great potential to elevate the university’s efforts to support students of color. Kupita/Transiciones (kupita means “to pass through” in Swahili) is an event designed to give first-year students of color “a holistic welcome to Kent State that connects them to their culture, as well as to the academic and other transitional needs of first-year students,” Lawless-Andric says.

Kupita/Transiciones students participate in a multicultural talent show.

A long-established tradition at KSU, Kupita/Transiciones brings approximately 300 incoming freshmen of color to campus each August to discover academic resources and tools, learn about and celebrate their heritage, and connect with the campus community. Up until last year, the event took the form of a four-day orientation. The subcommittees, however, recognized that this one-time event could be expanded to provide ongoing support for these students throughout their first year, thereby strengthening their chances for success and, ultimately, their ability to graduate.

Under DEEDS, Kupita/Transiciones was expanded to include a first-year mentorship program. “One thing we’ve found is that mentoring is a really strong relationship component for our students of color,” says Lawless-Andric. “So we elevated that program by securing the resources to pay upperclassmen mentors to touch [base] with first-year student mentees throughout the academic year.”

Many of the students selected to be mentors are former program participants themselves, she says. They help guide their mentees through the Kupita/Transiciones orientation and meet with them three times each month thereafter. Mentors are also assigned a faculty or staff adviser whom they can go to for guidance. “It’s a three-tier program that really invests in students in a very holistic way,” explains Lawless-Andric.

The expanded program just concluded its pilot year, and Lawless-Andric says it has already proven successful in helping first-year students of color feel supported by and connected to KSU. She believes this demonstrates that the DEEDS strategy is already having an impact. “I’m excited about this high level of commitment to our students of color and [those] from many backgrounds,” she says. “We are very proud of [these efforts].”

Partnering with MSIs
Beyond developing internal initiatives to support KSU students, the university is working with outside experts to learn how to best create and support a diverse learning community. One way KSU achieves this objective is by partnering with Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), including those that serve African American, Hispanic, and Native American students, says Ruth Washington, PhD, executive director for faculty and graduate student retention, inclusion, and success.

Joanne Dowdy leads a class in teaching, learning, and curriculum studies.

Faculty members at KSU and partnering MSIs are encouraged to collaborate on programs and projects — for example, presenting at each other’s departmental events, seminars, and symposia. Washington says that such collaboration serves to benefit both institutions by bringing a wider range of knowledge and viewpoints to each one’s scholarship.

Similarly, colleges and departments across KSU often invite faculty from partnering MSIs to share research and methodology for creating diverse learning environments. “There are skill sets, specifically in teaching, that faculty from MSIs can bring to Kent State faculty to promote inclusivity in the classroom,” Washington explains. Because MSIs are acutely focused on the needs of their diverse student populations, she says they are often the forerunners in understanding and implementing best practices for supporting these individuals.

For example, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have long applied the growth mindset theory to bolster students’ perceptions of themselves and their academic abilities, Washington says. This theory states that students who believe they are intelligent and capable of academic achievement will put more effort into their schoolwork, compared with students who believe they are not intellectually capable, according to researcher Carol Dweck. “At an HBCU, you learn that your brain is just as good as anybody else’s and that you’re just as talented as the next person,” says Washington.

She says that providing opportunities for instructors at a predominantly white institution like KSU to learn about and implement the components of this theory from HBCU faculty helps KSU be proactive in supporting underrepresented students.

Similarly, the university collaborates with MSIs to encourage minority students to pursue graduate studies. Because many of the institutions that work with KSU are small, their graduate programs aren’t as extensive as KSU’s. “These partnering institutions want to see their students go on to get higher degrees, so we work together on these efforts,” says Washington. Through a variety of on-campus events, including a graduate recruitment weekend and a summer undergraduate research program, students from the MSIs visit KSU, learn about graduate programs, and meet with faculty members and graduate students who work and study in their field of interest.

“It gives them a glimpse into what Kent State has to offer in graduate studies and lets them start forming networks and bonds with our faculty and students. Our [hope is that] they will choose Kent State for their graduate degree,” Washington says, adding that encouraging these students to pursue advanced degrees not only benefits those individuals, but also the campus community as a whole. “We know that having diverse faculty and graduate students will make us a better institution.”

KSU students volunteer for the 4th Annual Tee Up for Scholarships Golf Outing to raise money for underrepresented students.

Supporting Faculty and Graduate Students of Color
To support the success of diverse professors and graduate students, KSU hosts introductory workshops for new and returning faculty members from diverse backgrounds at the start of each academic year. These cover topics such as the reappointment process, work-life balance, and securing funding for research.

“There are additional challenges that faculty of color face as they become part of the academy, so we want to give them strategies and techniques for success,” explains Washington. Some of these struggles, she says, include a culture that propagates a sense of isolation and exclusion in decision-making processes, inherent unconscious biases, a lack of a critical mass of individuals who share common cultural experiences, and a disproportionately large number of underrepresented students seeking them out for advising, mentoring, and guidance, among other challenges.

DEI hosts a similar workshop for administrators, deans, and department heads to better understand how to support underrepresented faculty. “These workshops are very important because they give us the chance to speak not only with our faculty, but also our deans and chairs,” says Washington, adding that the session emphasizes the importance of making information accessible. “One of the main strategies discussed is that promotion and tenure policies should always be transparent, clear, and accessible, as should information on work-life balance, right down to the location of lactation rooms on campus.”

The introductory workshop for faculty enables DEI to foster a community of diverse professors, says Washington, which allows for ongoing learning opportunities throughout the school year. She meets regularly with underrepresented faculty to discuss their accomplishments and career success, as well as to address any problems they are having via training and strategizing. For example, she meets with female faculty in STEM “to talk about concerns and issues and to try to get an understanding of what [they] need,” she explains. “We also talk about relevant issues like how to say no to being on committees, because we’ve found that women serve on an abundance of committees compared to their male colleagues.”

By being proactive and staying engaged with underrepresented faculty members, DEI is able to support their personal career success as well as ensure that they feel a sense of place at the university — both of which help with their retention. “It’s good to show diverse faculty that we see them and care about them,” says Washington. “That’s what every faculty member wants to experience.”

This attitude aligns with DEI’s mission to lead Kent State’s efforts to increase diverse representation, create and sustain equality of opportunity, and intentionally foster an inclusive, equitable environment. “Our goal is to ensure that we are a campus where every person feels welcome,” says Brown. “It all comes back to our core values as a university and the value of a diverse culture — one that encourages freedom of expression and demonstrates respect and kindness in everything we do.”●

Mariah Bohanon is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. Kent State University is a 2013-2016 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.