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.
Collaborative and comprehensive. Those are the words Renisha Gibbs, assistant vice president for human resources and finance and administration chief of staff at Florida State University (FSU), uses to describe the university’s effort to create an engaged and inclusive campus environment.
[Above: Florida State University President John Thrasher (center), Chair of the University Board of Trustees Edward Burr (left), and Vice President for Student Affairs Mary Coburn (right) with members of FSU’s Student Diversity and Inclusion Council, including student and chair of the council’s executive committee Inam Sakinah (bottom right)]
“We have worked hard over the last couple of years to move diversity from being one person’s responsibility — not just being the HR or EEO office’s, the provost’s, or the president’s responsibility — to fully engage the entire university community,” says Gibbs, who also serves as FSU’s chief diversity officer. “It is everyone’s responsibility.”
Last spring, at the behest of some students, FSU created the Student Diversity and Inclusion Council — modeled after the President’s Diversity and Inclusion Council, led by Gibbs — to increase student involvement in diversity work. Made up of leaders from a range of diverse student groups, the council has worked hard since the end of the spring 2016 semester to develop initiatives aimed at changing the conversation around diversity and inclusion on campus.
“We wanted to find a way to make [diversity and inclusion] relevant to everyone because it is relevant to everyone,” says Inam Sakinah, chair of the Student Diversity and Inclusion Council’s executive committee and a junior at FSU. “It’s not just a statistic. It is a tool and a vehicle for the success of all students.”
The council begins its work this fall with a campaign titled “Power of We” and a slogan that proclaims, “Our differences make a difference.” The campaign includes a variety of initiatives; the first one Sakinah refers to as “chalkboard conversations.”
“We’re going to have chalkboards installed in public spaces on campus, [which will say], ‘Diversity is …’ and ‘Inclusion is …’. Students walking by will have the opportunity to share their definitions of diversity and inclusion,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to have a really organic dialogue.”
The Longest Table, another of the council’s diversity initiatives, will also invite students to share their perspectives. A table with seating for 100 to 150 people will be set up on campus, on a date still to be determined, to encourage students to sit and “engage in conversations across difference,” says Sakinah. “It’s an authentic embodiment of what diversity means — the idea that we can all engage, regardless of who we are, in a conversation.”
The council is planning subsequent efforts, including a public service announcement at the FSU vs. Clemson football game and an initiative called Conversation X, that Sakinah hopes will go one step further to spur action by students.
“We are trying to move away from just talking about diversity, from just celebrating our differences, from accepting our differences, and from embracing our differences,” she says, “and really move toward ‘how do we leverage our differences, and how do we build the capacity to engage across differences’ — because at the end of the day, that is what matters. It’s a skill set, it’s a tool, it’s a vehicle for doing better — for being better.”
Brandon Bowden, EdD, assistant vice president for student affairs, does his part to ensure the inclusion of students, specifically black men, on FSU’s campus. Through the Black Male Initiative (BMI), he helps these students make the transition into both the campus and broader Tallahassee community.
Developed two years ago in response to a drop in African American male enrollment at FSU, the initiative uses mentoring, educational and social workshops, community service projects, and academic advising to integrate these men into campus life and help them succeed. “We try to figure out what is going to be that piece that makes them feel connected,” says Bowden, who believes that mentoring plays a key role.
Bowden and his staff take a tailored approach to mentoring, taking time to get to know each individual and his interests before pairing him with a faculty member or professional in the community. BMI students also have access to an advisory board made up of faculty and staff whom they can go to if they have questions about financial aid, are having difficulties in class, or need mental health services.
Additionally, BMI hosts workshops on topics such as public speaking as well as an annual retreat that gives participants time to get to know the other men and to reflect. They also have the opportunity to learn valuable leadership skills in BMI’s newly developed Black Male Leadership course.
In its first two years, the initiative had 70 and 50 participants, respectively; this year, 59 men are participating. In the future, Bowden says he would like to institute cohorts to provide increased peer-to-peer support and collect more quantitative data to assess its effectiveness. Yet, even without that information, he is sure of the need for such a program.
“It’s a very large university, and our black student population is between 8 and 10 percent, so many of [these] students feel isolated — especially our men of color,” Bowden says. “[BMI] gives them the feeling that they can all be part of the larger university.”
Admissions and Aid
The Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement (CARE) provides first-generation and socioeconomically disadvantaged students a pathway into FSU. Applicants who identify with either of these groups can be admitted to the university through CARE regardless of past academic performance — including GPA — or whether they meet FSU’s academic standards.
Once admitted, “CARE students” receive support from the center for the duration of their academic career, starting with the summer bridge program, says CARE Director Tadarrayl Starke. This experience exposes them to coursework, tutoring, and junior and senior role models who help them acclimate to college life prior to the start of the fall semester.
Come the fall, CARE staff help these students navigate the college experience and FSU’s campus by assisting them with financial aid paperwork, registering for classes, tutoring and academic advising, and applying for scholarships and grants. CARE students are eligible for FSU’s first-generation grant of up to $3,000 per year, which Starke says tends to cover nearly 75 percent of their total cost of attendance.
In addition, the center helps them overcome some of the unique challenges they face, such as “imposter syndrome” — the feeling that they don’t deserve to be where they are. “We have students who feel guilty that they are here and that their family [members] … are not in college or didn’t have the opportunity,” he says. “So we work with them to help them to realize that this is a great opportunity, but it’s not something they should feel guilty about.”
Because the majority of CARE students have little to no experience — direct or indirect — with higher education, the center requires that they engage in various aspects of campus life. These experiences include supplemental education — internships, studying abroad, or research, for example — and small group experiences such as workshops or academic activities.
The most critical aspect in supporting these students, however, is making sure they feel welcome “from the very first day they set foot on campus,” Starke says.
Since 2000, more than 5,300 students have entered FSU through CARE. According to Starke, the 2008 cohort of students had a six-year graduation rate of 81 percent and a retention rate of 83 percent — both 2 percent higher than that of the overall university.
“We know that if we surround [these students] with the right support,” Starke says, “they will thrive.”
By making diversity and inclusion everyone’s responsibility, FSU has been able to make continuous improvements in both areas. In fact, it has begun the process to become an affiliate of the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI), a nonprofit dedicated to improving inclusion and eliminating racism, and is working toward its goal of becoming “the most veteran-friendly campus in the nation,” according to Gibbs, who credits the entire campus community for this work.
“It is about working hard to get everyone engaged in this conversation, taking the appropriate steps forward, and recognizing that the kind of cultural change and the kind of campus we are trying to create doesn’t happen overnight,” she says. “It takes sustained effort.”●
Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. Florida State University is a 2014, 2015, and 2016 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.