Kennesaw State Develops Successful Students Via Exposure to Diverse Cultures

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. 


As both a result of and a reaction to a growing multicultural community on campus, Kennesaw State University (KSU) has focused its efforts on ensuring safe spaces and cross-cultural education for its diverse students in order to enhance their success.

Members of the diversity leadership team at KSU (photo courtesy of Kennesaw State University Photography)

“Diversity is part of KSU simply because of our rapidly changing demographics,” Chief Diversity Officer Erik Malewski, PhD, says of the 53-year-old public university. “We are not even who we were five years ago. We’re asking ourselves what this increase in diversity means and how to use it as an asset.”

[Above: Kennesaw Hall on KSU’s campus in Georgia (photo courtesy of Kennesaw State University Photography)]

A member of the University System of Georgia, KSU is the third-largest university in the state and one of the 50 largest public institutions in the country. With approximately 35,000 students — undergraduate and graduate — the university views diversity and inclusion as a collective effort.

“We work off of the philosophy that diversity is everybody’s business,” says Nayasia Coleman, co-chair of the Presidential Commission on GLBTIQ Initiatives. “It’s part of our legacy.”

KSU students study in the campus’s GLBTIQ Resource Center (photo courtesy of Kennesaw State University Photography)

A Welcoming Place
Coleman, who is also the program coordinator for GLBTIQ Student Programs, says the university has had some form of an on-campus LGBTQ organization since 1991. Today, the administration continues to show its support for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer students through a variety of initiatives. One way KSU demonstrates this commitment is through its Safe Space Initiative, a voluntary program that trains faculty, staff, and administrators on how to make their classroom or office an inclusive space for LGBTQ individuals.

Aimed at creating awareness of the issues faced by this community, the training teaches how to differentiate between terms such as “gender expression” and “sexual identity,” as well as how to identify individual perceptions of bias, Coleman says. Participants also discover what LGBTQ resources are available on campus to help direct students. Those who complete the training are listed as an ally on KSU’s website and receive a sticker to post in their classroom or office, indicating that it is a safe space for this community. KSU also offers a version of the program for students, and since the start of the 2016-2017 academic year, 245 have participated.

“The initiative puts it out there that Kennesaw is a safe space, and it [tells] our students who they can go to about certain issues,” says Coleman.

LGBTQ students also find an inclusive place in the university’s Stonewall Housing, a residential community on campus for students who want to live in an LGBTQ-affirming environment. “It’s specifically geared toward individuals who [want to live in a community that celebrates] LGBTQ identities and fosters learning, understanding, and a sense of community,” Coleman says. “For a lot of LGBTQ students who come to college, one of the major reasons for their anxiety is the fear of being paired with a roommate who is not going to be OK with their identity.”

Understanding the impact a living situation like this can have on the ability to retain students, KSU launched Stonewall in 2014. Coleman, citing research, says that feelings of isolation by LGBTQ students largely contribute to their decisions to leave their current college or university.

“If they can’t be comfortable in their own skin at home, how do you expect a student to be able to perform at their highest capacity? That’s really the foundation of Stonewall — we are ensuring that these students have a place they can go to that is theirs, where they can be comfortable,” Coleman says, adding that KSU hopes to eventually expand Stonewall to comprise an entire floor of a residence hall.

KSU’s all-encompassing approach to inclusion has also meant creating more gender-neutral facilities on campus, along with a map to help students find these. Currently, 16 such restrooms and one such locker room exist on campus, and the university has committed to including a single-user, gender-neutral restroom in every new building it constructs.

Additionally, updating the university’s database to ensure that transgender students are being called by their preferred name — as well as providing training around the importance of this step — has been a priority for KSU over the last year.

Students serve food to members of the KSU campus community during an international event. (photo courtesy of Kennesaw State University Photography)

An International Community
KSU places great emphasis on ensuring that international students have access to the services and support necessary to focus on their academic and professional goals. Catherine Odera, assistant director of multicultural student affairs for international student programs, and her colleagues take a holistic approach to meeting the needs of the campus’s international student body, which numbers around 800.

With Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in mind, her office focuses on guiding these students through three critical stages: adjustment, integration, and engagement.

“Before you even ask them to get engaged on campus, they must be taken care of,” Odera says. “[This includes] housing, picking them up from the airport, and connecting them with professors. The next thing is integration; so once they feel safe on campus, we want them to get out of their comfort zones and interact with other students. … The last piece is engagement — this is when they take leadership of organizations or they [begin to] present outside of the classroom.”

When international students’ needs are met and their issues and concerns addressed, Odera says they are more likely to engage in the classroom. To get them to this point, KSU provides them with in-depth information about what it means to study in the U.S., including a briefing on citations and plagiarism, and access to the English as a Second Language (ESL) Center, where they can work closely with tutors to improve their English speaking and writing skills.

To address their social needs and concerns, the university offers a peer-to-peer tutoring program. Odera says this contact with their U.S. peers helps them overcome feelings of isolation and expand their social circle beyond just students from their home countries.

The Global Village, a student gathering space, provides another opportunity for international and domestic students to engage. It is here that the International Student Association hosts its Breaking Barriers series, an event that allows students to come together and engage in dialogue around global issues, such as human trafficking, gender equality, or racial injustice.

Odera says the series helps expose attendees to current issues that “have global significance.” Additionally, she believes it’s critical for domestic students to have these discussions with individuals of different cultures and nationalities. “The conversation is so much bigger than just international students, bigger than just American students; it’s a global world, and these are issues that have a ripple effect,” she says.

Furthermore, KSU serves ESL members of the local community through its Intensive English Program (IEP). Director of IEP Murali Venugopalan, PhD, says the program aims to improve individuals’ English language skills in reading, writing, listening, speaking, and vocabulary and grammar to prepare them to succeed at U.S. colleges and universities.

IEP participants also gain access to workshops centered on study skills, résumé building, and test anxiety, as well as individualized tutoring. Additionally, Venugopalan says the program helps instill greater cultural understanding because of the diversity of its participants, who come from all countries and speak a variety of languages.

A secondary focus of the program is on recruiting these individuals to KSU. By offering assistance with visas and immigration and the college application and registration processes, as well as connecting them with cultural activities to broaden their learning experience, IEP staff hope participating students will continue their education at KSU.

According to Venugopalan, approximately 10 percent of IEP students end up matriculating to the university, but a new pathways program is being developed to increase this percentage. “Overall, the IEP serves to further diversify the average KSU classroom,” says Venugopalan, “as students from numerous cultural backgrounds matriculate to the university.”

Cross-Cultural Engagement 
As part of its mission, KSU promotes global understanding and engaged citizenship, which means not only bringing international students to campus, but also sending domestic scholars abroad.

More than 80 opportunities exist for students to engage in exchanges, faculty-led programs, internships, research, and teaching abroad in 30-plus countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Central and South America. During the 2015-2016 academic year, more than 800 students participated in such programs at KSU.

A new program, Around the World in 80 Days (AW80) offers a comprehensive way for students to gain this cross-cultural, international experience. A semester-long study abroad program, AW80 — which is only in its second semester — takes participants to four countries across four continents, where they spend 22 days each. In each country, students take a class and participate in related experiential learning activities and local excursions.

Students on KSU’s campus (photo courtesy of Kennesaw State University Photography)

Iyonka Strawn-Valcy, director of education abroad and exchange programs at KSU, says courses are modified to take full advantage of the international setting. “Faculty are encouraged to utilize the site as a stage for the course and take the local context into consideration when developing [it],” she says.

The fall 2016 iteration included Italy, Morocco, Australia, and Cuba, and 11 students participated. Strawn-Valcy says she hopes to have 16 in the next cohort.

To further emphasize the importance of international education, KSU offers a Global Education Certification (GEC) for students who have completed global coursework, participated in an education abroad program, and demonstrated proficiency in a foreign language. The students are recognized at a ceremony, and the certification is noted on their transcripts.

“The GEC indicates that students have completed a breadth of coursework contributing to their career trajectories from a cross-cultural and multicultural perspective,” says Strawn-Valcy. “It enhances and diversifies their résumés and endorses the global perspective, knowledge, and … intercultural competence they have developed.”

“Higher education is about more than teaching students the skills to succeed in their professional lives; it is also about helping them become more complete individuals and better global citizens,” she adds, echoing the campus-wide sentiment regarding the value of diversity and inclusion.●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. Kennesaw State University is a 2015 and 2016 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.