From Freshmen to Faculty, IU Bloomington Offers a Supportive Home for All

By  - 

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. 

At Indiana University (IU) Bloomington, those who call the campus home find a welcoming community and abundant academic, professional, and social supports. By ensuring access and opportunities for disadvantaged students and underrepresented faculty, the university strives to empower individuals to achieve their full potential.

To facilitate this work, in 1999, IU established the Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs (OVPDEMA). It focuses on cultivating a diverse, inclusive environment that supports equal access, participation, and representation on all IU campuses.

[Above: 2017 graduates of IU Bloomington]

Groups Scholars Program
Now in its 50th year, the Groups Scholars Program (Groups) at IU Bloomington has helped more than 12,000 Indiana residents overcome academic, economic, and social barriers that can prevent many students from succeeding in higher education.

Established in 1968 to address the lack of diversity among IU Bloomington’s student body, Groups now uses a statewide referral system to achieve its goal of attracting more first-generation underrepresented students to campus. Guidance counselors, teachers, and community leaders — known as Groups recommenders — identify high school seniors who have demonstrated resilience and determination in the face of hardships. Only those who meet certain income requirements, are Indiana residents, and have been identified by an official recommender can apply. This type of admissions structure has helped the program create a membership that is reflective of the state’s overall diversity, says Groups Director Mary Stephenson; participants are from urban and rural communities, multiple ethnic and racial groups, and varying academic backgrounds.

Mary Stephenson
Mary Stephenson

“We are primarily a need-based program, so while we look at grades, SAT scores, and community involvement, we also look for students who are going to persist despite obstacles,” Stephenson explains. To be considered, applicants must submit an essay detailing how they have overcome adversity. In addition to playing a role in the application process, the essays help Groups advisers understand potential scholars’ unique experiences — such as losing a family member, being the only person of color in their high school, or having immigrated to the U.S.

“College is already daunting, so we want to help those students who … may struggle with completing a degree because of other [life] circumstances,” says Stephenson. This support also includes financial assistance in the form of a four-year renewable scholarship as well as access to specially designed academic and personal support services for the duration of a student’s undergraduate career.

The 350 to 400 students accepted into Groups each year are introduced to college life through the six-week Summer Experience Program (SEP), during which they live on campus and complete a rigorous academic boot camp that includes lectures and introductory multidisciplinary coursework. Participants also learn about the many resources available through the Groups office, such as tutoring, counseling, and career preparation.

During SEP, students meet for the first time with their assigned Groups academic adviser, who assists them with tasks like enrolling in classes while also carefully tracking their progress. If a student’s grades slip or he or she misses multiple classes, an adviser intervenes by meeting with him or her to discuss why the student is struggling and how the program can help.

Stephenson says that Groups staff are experienced in helping participants overcome family and financial issues as well as other stressors that can impede their college completion. “Most of our students do really great, but there are always those who struggle, and we make it a priority to work closely with them,” she explains. “We can help with academics, but we know that often it’s not just about studying.”

In recent years, Groups has expanded to add in-house counseling services supported through a partnership with Counseling and Psychological Services. Additionally, peer advisers and Groups Ambassadors provide further support. The Groups Ambassadors Program was created at the suggestion of upperclassmen who wanted to give back to young scholars, Stephenson says. “We are a very supportive group because everyone knows what it’s like to face obstacles to success,” she says. “Seeing our students help each other to stay in school and reach graduation is proof of that.”

A recent report provides evidence of the program’s success: First-year retention rates for Groups participants was 93 percent in fall 2015 and 92 percent in fall 2016 — higher than IU Bloomington’s overall rate of 91 percent for both years. Such an accomplishment is impressive for underrepresented students — especially those who have faced added hardships — but is one that Stephenson says demonstrates the Groups’ spirit of resiliency.

Overseas Studies and Scholarship Program 
As a national leader in study abroad, IU Bloomington works to ensure that international learning experiences are available to and can be accessed by all. Launched in 2013, the Overseas Studies and Scholarship Program (OSSP) provides funded study abroad opportunities for underrepresented, first-generation, and low-income students — those who are often the least likely to participate in such experiences, says OSSP Director Ochmaa Escue.

OSSP participants visit the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during a 2017 study abroad trip.
OSSP participants visit the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during a 2017 study abroad trip.

“Part of our bicentennial strategic plan was to make IU a global university, and our commitment to diversify study abroad participation is part of that,” Escue explains. “We do this by increasing the number of study abroad scholarships available and by [creating] new program opportunities, especially for students with high financial need and from minority backgrounds.”

Participants in OVPDEMA’s 21st Century Scholars Program
Participants in OVPDEMA’s 21st Century Scholars Program

To qualify for this financial assistance, students must be enrolled in one of the other academic support programs administered by OVPDEMA, each of which focuses on a specific population. Groups participants, for instance, are eligible to apply, as are individuals enrolled in the 21st Century Scholars Program for low-income Indiana students and the Hudson and Holland Scholarship Program for those who are both high-achieving and underrepresented.

While OSSP scholarships are highly competitive, Escue says her office prioritizes students who have limited experience traveling abroad and who have received little to no financial assistance from other sources — such as scholarships from the study abroad office or outside organizations. Approximately 80 to 90 individuals receive awards ranging from $250 to $4,000 each year.

IU Bloomington staff help students register for free passports at the on-campus Passport Caravan event.
IU Bloomington staff help students register for free passports at the on-campus Passport Caravan event.

Through the OVPDEMA Embrace Diversity Share Cultures Study Abroad Fair, OSSP also helps IU students connect with overseas and international program resources, explore a wide range of travel opportunities, and attend panel sessions to learn about different aspects of study abroad from fellow students and IU faculty. In addition, in collaboration with the Council on International Education Exchange, OSSP has hosted a Passport Caravan event designed to expose more first-generation, minority, and low-income students to international experiences; more than 280 IU Bloomington students were able to obtain a passport at the event at no cost.

Escue’s office also partners with faculty members from across the university to develop and teach custom study abroad programs focused on issues related to social justice, diversity, and equality. OSSP typically offers two custom study abroad courses a year, which each accept up to 18 students. While these are interdisciplinary in nature, they tend to focus on a topic such as racial identity or preserving cultural heritage — subjects that Escue says may be especially poignant for disadvantaged and minority students.

“The selection process is competitive because we make sure the programs are very affordable by providing automatic scholarships that cover most of the costs,” she explains. “We also keep the classes small to have a high teacher-to-student ratio, because many of [the students] have never been to another country … before, and it can be intimidating.”

Students at the IU homecoming parade in October
Students at the IU homecoming parade in October

Support for Underrepresented Faculty
IU Bloomington is dedicated to creating opportunities for groups that have been historically excluded from academia. Deans, department chairs, and faculty members across campus have partnered with OVPDEMA to implement the “vigorous, intentional” methods necessary to increase the recruitment and retention of these individuals, says John Nieto-Phillips, PhD, associate vice president of OVPDEMA and vice provost for diversity and inclusion.

Rather than simply issuing broad suggestions or requirements for increasing the recruitment, retention, and promotion of faculty members from underrepresented populations, OVPDEMA personally assists academic units in these areas. “We work very closely with our deans and department chairs because we know creating a supportive environment really begins at the departmental and school levels,” Nieto-Phillips says. Overseeing these efforts are Dionne Danns, PhD, associate vice provost for institutional diversity, and Stephanie Li, PhD, associate vice provost for faculty development and diversity.

Danns’ role is to work with individual IU Bloomington schools and colleges to craft unique diversity plans that “require them to think deeply about what diversity means to their larger mission,” says Nieto-Phillips. Danns assists the deans and faculty of each college with setting goals — specifically those related to increasing the number of underrepresented faculty members — and then helps them develop and implement strategies to achieve these. The result is a kind of “road map” that provides measurable steps for schools and departments, Nieto-Phillips says. The plans also foster ongoing collaboration between individual departments and OVPDEMA, as they must be reviewed and updated annually.

Groups Scholars Program graduating seniors are honored at its 2017 year-end celebration.
Groups Scholars Program graduating seniors are honored at its 2017 year-end celebration.

In her role, Li works with department officials and hiring committees to facilitate the recruitment of underrepresented faculty. Every fall, OVPDEMA hosts campus-wide workshops to educate hiring committees about issues such as diversifying the applicant pool and overcoming implicit bias in the interview process. But the training doesn’t stop there.

Li also works individually with departments to develop additional strategies for ensuring the inclusion of current and prospective underrepresented faculty. These include meeting directly with job applicants to introduce them to resources on campus and in the community that relate to their personal interests and identities, explains Nieto-Phillips. “One thing [OVPDEMA] really wants to do for diverse faculty is get them engaged in the community,” he says.

Personally, he says that being able to connect with others who share a similar background and interests.— via the campus’s La Casa Latino Cultural Center — was essential to his own transition to IU Bloomington. “It’s important that all faculty members feel a sense of belonging and inclusion, so we want them to be aware that there are resources, cultural centers, and service opportunities that can connect them to communities and causes that matter to them,” Nieto-Phillips says.

OVPDEMA’s efforts appear to be having a significant impact. In fall 2016, 13 percent of IU Bloomington’s newly hired tenure-track faculty were members of underrepresented populations. That same year, the university made it a requirement for all academic hiring committees to attend OVPDEMA’s hiring workshop. By fall 2017, the number of underrepresented tenure-track faculty had increased to 23 percent — growth that Nieto-Phillips says represents hiring committees’ diligence in applying the workshop’s teachings.

By focusing its efforts on students and faculty alike, IU Bloomington has created a campus community where all individuals, particularly those who may otherwise be disadvantaged or excluded in higher education, are empowered and poised for success.

Mariah Bohanon is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. Indiana University Bloomington is a 2015-2017 HEED Award recipient and a 2017 Diversity Champion. This article was published in our March 2018 issue.