As a public research university with seven regional campuses in Northeast Ohio and a student enrollment of more than 40,000, Kent State University has a vast footprint. Yet even as the university manages this sizable network, it remains focused on the details. This means ensuring support services tailored to the unique needs of its diverse student population.
“When [people] are empowered and feel like they can be their best selves in an environment, they’re going to be more likely … to [be retained], to persist, and to graduate,” says Dana Lawless-Andric, MEd, associate vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Kent State. “It’s also the right thing to do.”
Managed by the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DDEI) — led by Vice President for DDEI Alfreda Brown, EdD — student support services encompass everything from the LGBTQ Student Center to the Office of Sexual and Relationship Violence Support Services. These and other entities provide resources, programming, and education to help all students feel welcome and succeed at Kent State.
With a mission to cultivate a sense of belonging and cultural affirmation for students — particularly those who are African American, Native American, Hispanic, Latinx, or multiracial — the Student Multicultural Center (SMC) at Kent State offers a variety of programming and events to discuss, celebrate, and increase awareness of different racial and ethnic groups.
One such event, Soup and Substance 2.0 is an educational series held twice a semester where participants enjoy soup together and engage in dialogue meant to foster greater understanding of and appreciation for diversity. This year included a “Power of …” series: Power of Words: What’s up my N*gga, which discussed who can use the word, reasons for using it, and taking power away from the word; Power of Images: Chief Wahoo and the Native American Culture, featuring an elder from the community who led a conversation about native experiences and images such as offensive mascots; and Power of Images: Colorism in the Latinx Community, which discussed differences among Hispanic communities.
“For the Latinx community, black and white is a very different conversation based on what country you are from,” explains Talea Drummer-Ferrell, PhD, director of the center.
Another SMC initiative, Academic S.T.A.R.S. (Students Achieving and Reaching Success) is a six-week transition program for select first-year incoming students of color. It aims to set these individuals up for success at Kent State and provide opportunities for cultural exploration and enrichment. For the first five weeks of this summer program, students take two college-credit classes — College Writing I and Black Experience I — and participate in other academic activities. During week six, participants engage in a Cultural Rites of Passage designed to connect them to “their culture and ancestors in a way that a book never could,” says Drummer-Ferrell.
“This program really creates a family among the students who participate, and it not only helps them get connected to campus, academic expectations, and resources, but it also allows them to connect to their cultural heritage,” she says. “When they have had this experience and they see the path that their ancestors have walked to get them to where they are right now, they almost feel this accountability to see things through, to do better, to succeed.”
A focus on women’s health, well-being, and advancement drives the Women’s Center’s efforts to advocate for and educate not only female students at Kent State, but also faculty and staff. Established 20 years ago, the center ensures access to information and services on a multitude of topics and issues, including mental health, feminism, leadership, gender equity, work-life balance, pregnancy and motherhood.
“Our key goals are to empower female-identifying students to pursue and achieve their potential in the higher education setting, foster community and collaboration among those with diverse experiences and aspirations, and facilitate dialogue and impact change that actively resists racism, sexism, and homophobia,” explains Cassie Pegg-Kirby, director of the center.
The Women’s Center achieves these goals via four focus areas: Care, Connect, Challenge, and Celebrate. “With Care, we meet each individual where they are and help them find the resources and support to be successful,” says Pegg-Kirby. “Some of the specific things we offer include a pantry, a career closet [where women can receive gently used professional clothing for free], and family-friendly study hours for single parents.” Staff also connect women with resources and opportunities, such as counseling and mentorship; work to challenge the status quo by raising awareness, as well as challenge women to be their best selves; and celebrate their successes overcoming obstacles and inequities.
Additionally, the Women’s Center Mentorship Program prepares female students to achieve both their academic and career goals. Through this yearlong initiative, students are paired with a faculty or staff member of their choice who provides encouragement and insight into careers. Mentors meet individually with their mentees at least once a month as well as attend group meetings with them.
“The students receive support in creating and meeting goals and solving problems that interfere with their success at school or work,” says Pegg-Kirby.
While the program is open to all female and female-identifying students, it targets those from underrepresented groups. The center emphasizes the importance of women’s intersecting identities in other ways as well, such as through a series it hosted this spring called “Where Do Black Women Go?” with sessions focused on mental health; general health, well-being, stereotypes, and stigma; and code-switching (the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation) and authenticity.
Created with a similar purpose in mind, the LGBTQ Student Center offers support services for gender and sexual minority communities at Kent State. However, it also facilitates educational opportunities for the entire campus community to increase awareness of and respect for these populations.
“We do a lot of training and education; we offer a safe space training curriculum, and we have Trans 101. We also do a lot of class presentations, working a lot with Greek life, large and small groups,” says Ken Ditlevson, director of the center. “[We let] people know how to show respect [to] the LGBTQ community, what definitions are related to the different identities, and what pronouns mean — a lot of different components.”
Ditlevson and his staff also provide emotional support and crisis intervention — for example, if an LGBTQ student is experiencing issues with a roommate or is being harassed. “If someone [has] problems on campus, we can advocate on their behalf by reaching out to resident services for a roommate change or reaching out directly to the faculty or staff member who might be involved,” Ditlevson says.
An emergency fund made possible through donations from faculty, staff, alumni, and community members allows the center to also provide financial assistance to students in need who may no longer be accepted by their family. “It’s like the Kent State family wrapping its arms around the student who may have been cut off from their family — so this is their new family,” says Ditlevson.
Furthermore, the center’s Quest (Queers United to Encourage and Support Transition) Mentorship Program connects LGBTQ students at Kent State with professionals — most of whom are also LGBTQ — who support the mentees through their career-exploration process. The center pairs individuals through “speed-matching,” a three-minute experience during which students meet every mentor and identify their top three choices based on whom they felt they most connected with. Once paired, mentors are required to communicate at least once a month with their mentees. Additionally, the LGBTQ Student Center hosts monthly career-sharing sessions led by the mentors.
“If students go to the monthly meeting, they hear from three mentors what their career path and trajectory have been like and receive feedback on [supportive and non-supportive careers and companies]. They also talk about workplace attire and how to present things in their résumé that might be related to the LGBTQ community, whether [they] disclose it or not,” Ditlevson says. “Students really benefit from having this person in their corner for a full year.”
Sexual and Relationship Violence
The Office of Sexual and Relationship Violence Support Services (SRVSS) ensures an additional layer of support for Kent State students. Through a variety of services and educational programming, it strives to help individuals who have been the victim of sexual violence and increase campus awareness around issues such as consent, healthy relationships, bystander intervention, and more.
The office provides “a safe place for anyone impacted by sexual and relationship violence to come and get support, understand their rights and options, and connect with resources that help them heal and be successful as a student at Kent State,” says Jennifer O’Connell, director of SRVSS. “We help to normalize the reaction [they] may be experiencing so that they can begin to heal from the harm that was committed against them as well as take back control of their life.”
SRVSS hosts workshops and other activities for members of the campus community to get involved in — as O’Connell describes it — “changing the culture at Kent State.” An example of this is Green Dot Bystander Intervention.
Launched at Kent State in 2014, Green Dot is a national program focused on increasing bystander action to prevent power-based personal violence. “There are interactive workshops for people to learn bystander skills and understand the impact they have on creating a safe community. We have over 20 educators across campus who help provide education,” O’Connell says. “Additionally, Green Dot provides messaging across the campus that Kent State does not tolerate violence and that we all play a role in keeping our university community safe.”
While each office under the DDEI Student Support Services umbrella separately addresses the needs of its unique constituents, Lawless-Andric says that having all of these entities under one roof enables them to collectively address areas of overlap. “It has allowed us to not only cross collaborate, but also problem solve together and support each other in working through things that are at times very challenging,” she explains, “[as well as] come up with much more creative ways to engage diversity across those areas while not diluting the importance of each of those communities.” For example, in April, SRVSS and the LGBTQ Student Center hosted a roundtable discussion focused on the experiences of queer populations that have been the victims of sexual violence.
In addition to helping Kent State leverage existing resources, this coming together has helped DDEI create a seamless experience for students in need.
“There is so much more value and impact that comes when we are very intentional and collaborative in this way,” says Lawless-Andric, “and I think it’s what can make diversity work far more powerful on campuses.”●
Alexandra Vollman is the editor in chief of INSIGHT Into Diversity. Kent State University is a 2013-2017 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient and a two-time INSIGHT Into Diversity Diversity Champion. This article was published in our June 2018 issue.