Oklahoma State Serves as Role Model in Continuous Effort to Improve Campus Environment

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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. 

Oklahoma State University (OSU) in Stillwater, Okla., has made rapid progress in its effort to provide all students access to a high-quality education. In the span of seven years, from 2009 to 2016, the university managed to increase its undergraduate minority enrollment by a full 96 percent — a feat which Jason F. Kirksey, PhD, vice president for institutional diversity, attributes to a campus-wide commitment to “change not just the look, but the feel of the institution.”

[Above: Students on OSU’s campus in Stillwater]

Jason F. Kirksey
Jason F. Kirksey

“We talk a lot about diversity and inclusion as not just the exception, but the expectation here at OSU,” says Kirksey. “We call our campus community the OSU family, and that’s the type of environment we strive to create — one where we look after, take care of, and support one another.”

Today, OSU is recognized as a leader in creating inclusive learning environments. Since 2010, the university has been the leading public land-grant institution for graduating Native American students, and in 2014, it was designated a Minority-Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education. Kirksey says that while the university community is certainly proud of such accomplishments, it “recognizes that there is still more work to be done.”

Oklahoma Louis Stokes Alliancefor Minority Participation 
To help underrepresented minority students thrive, OSU has developed multiple programs and offers a plethora of resources to support them on campus. The Division of Institutional Diversity (DID) has four departments that oversee these efforts as they relate to employment, multicultural affairs, student support services, and the Oklahoma Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (OK-LSAMP). A national program designed to increase the number of minority scholars in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), LSAMP is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

OSU has served as the lead institution for OK-LSAMP’s consortium, which consists of 11 colleges and universities, since the program began in 1994. In this role, the university is responsible for overseeing the distribution of $3.4 million and charting each institution’s progress toward increasing minority participation in STEM.

As part of this effort, OSU facilitates opportunities to help advance OK-LSAMP’s mission to prepare minority students for the world of advanced STEM scholarship. The university’s annual OK-LSAMP Annual Research Symposium, for instance, helps them gain experience presenting their work in a professional conference setting.

Staff and administrators from OSU’s Division of Institutional Diversity, including Jason Kirksey (far left) and Jovette Dew (second from right), with three of the winners of the OSU Alumni Association’s 2017 Outstanding Senior Award
Staff and administrators from OSU’s Division of Institutional Diversity, including Jason Kirksey (far left) and Jovette Dew (second from right), with three of the winners of the OSU Alumni Association’s 2017 Outstanding Senior Award

All OK-LSAMP participants are required to conduct formal research, explains Kirksey, which can include leading their own project or assisting on faculty research. At the symposium, students have the opportunity to exhibit their work through poster or oral presentations to faculty and staff from other alliance schools as well as industry and graduate school representatives. In addition, they hear about the experiences of STEM leaders and participate in trainings and workshops covering topics such as research ethics and applying to graduate programs. Now in its 23rd year, the symposium typically features the work of more than 100 OK-LSAMP scholars.

In addition to presenting research at a professional conference, OK-LSAMP provides opportunities for minority students to participate in international research experiences. OK-LSAMP scholars at OSU, for example, are able to participate in a six-month research program in a national laboratory in France. “This really is a unique program in terms of the benefits to our students,” Kirksey says. “As an undergraduate, being able to be in the lab, conduct actual research, and work with internationally renowned scholars makes for a competitive graduate school application, to say the least.” OSU students who have participated in these experiences have gone on to present at international research conferences, publish their work in national journals, and gain acceptance into elite graduate programs such as the Mayo Clinic Graduate School, Kirksey says.

OSU’s efforts also include hosting summer programs for minority high school and incoming first-year students interested in majoring in STEM disciplines, partnering with community and tribal colleges to recruit individuals into the program, and collaborating with organizations like the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science to provide additional programming focused on supporting those interested in STEM. Under OSU’s leadership, OK-LSAMP has had a positive effect on minority participation in these disciplines. In its 23-year history, the program has resulted in a 385 percent increase in undergraduate enrollment in STEM across all 11 alliance schools, according to an OK-LSAMP report.

Retention Initiative for Student Excellence
The Diversity Academic Support (DAS) department serves as one of the student support services units of DID. In addition to federally funded TRiO programs like Upward Bound and Student Support Services, DAS oversees several programs and initiatives unique to OSU that align with its mission to “provide resources and opportunities for academic, social, and emotional growth” for disadvantaged students.

Jovette Dew
Jovette Dew

One such program, the Retention Initiative for Student Excellence (RISE), helps underrepresented students transition to college and persist to graduation by providing a strong foundation of academic and social support, says Jovette Dew, PhD, director of DAS. RISE accepts 65 incoming freshmen who are either first-generation, low-income, or from a minority group — many of whom come from underserved urban high schools. “In RISE, we are looking for students who have overcome adversity in their lives, have high GPAs, and are determined to succeed,” explains Dew. To apply, students must submit an essay detailing how they have overcome obstacles in life to achieve academic success.

Being a member of RISE means having a cohort of peers with whom they can identify, which Dew believes can be particularly powerful for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds who are transitioning to college. “The main thing is to get these students connected and to keep them engaged while they’re here at OSU,” says Dew. “Being in RISE means they’re getting to know people who have gone through some of the same things in life and are also doing all of the same activities and [engaging in the same] experiences with them here on campus.”

For the duration of their first year, RISE provides opportunities for participants to engage in academic, social, and community service work together, with the goal of creating strong ties with each other, DAS staff, and the broader campus community. RISE students are required to attend campus and cultural events each semester, which serves the dual purpose of providing a social activity and encouraging campus engagement, Dew says. Participants must also complete community service projects each semester, typically in one of Stillwater’s underserved neighborhoods.

“We want these young individuals to become leaders,” says Dew, “not only for themselves but also for the community we live in.”

Perhaps most important, though, is the sense of accountability to one another and the support from DAS staff that come with being part of the RISE program. “When students feel discouraged, we remind them of their [application] essay and the fact that they’ve already overcome something difficult to get here,” Dew says. “Sometimes students aren’t encouraged at home, or sometimes they think they can’t have a certain major, like finance or civil engineering, if no one in their family does that. We are here to encourage them and tell them they can.”

According to Dew, DAS takes into account the fact that many RISE participants are likely to face obstacles when it comes to persisting in school. Thus, they are required to attend monthly workshops focused on dealing with issues like stress, finances, time management, and other challenges affecting retention.

To ensure their academic success, DAS requires RISE students to log 10 hours of study time per week, and staff educate them on how to use campus resources for help, such as the OSU Writing Center and the Mathematics Learning Resource Center. “We’re trying to get them indoctrinated into a culture of studying and doing their homework consistently,” Dew says. One goal of RISE is to have every participant complete his or her first year with a minimum 3.2 GPA. By committing to these efforts, Dew says that students develop high expectations for themselves, confidence in their academic abilities, and a strong work ethic — all of which improve their chances of reaching graduation.

In 12 years, 492 students have participated in RISE. A large part of the reason for the continued support of its private sponsor, the Phillips 66 Company, is its effectiveness. According to Dew, the program has achieved an 86 percent retention rate — a figure well above the national average of 60.6 percent, as reported by the National Student Clearinghouse.

Center for Sovereign Nations 
Located in a state that is home to 39 tribal nations, OSU considers service to Oklahoma’s Native American population an integral part of its mission as a public land-grant institution. Making up 11 percent of the total undergraduate student population, Native Americans comprise the largest minority group at OSU. To better serve these individuals, the university offers affiliation groups and cultural activities, scholarships and grants, and since 2015, the Center for Sovereign Nations (CSN), which was designed specifically to meet their needs.

Elizabeth Mee Payne
Mee Payne

“The center started with our president, Burns Hargis, who had a vision for focused service to the 39 nations in Oklahoma,” says Elizabeth Mee Payne, JD, who serves as director of CSN and helped establish the partnerships with tribal nations that led to its founding. “We had this idea that, as a land-grant institution, we should ask the nations how we could best serve them, so that we could better understand their vision for educating their citizens.” In consultation with tribal leadership, OSU created the center with a threefold mission: to promote tribal sovereignty, create partnerships between the tribal nations and the university, and help Native American students succeed.

To achieve these goals, the center employs 18 Native American student leaders who provide assistance with academics, navigating campus resources, and any other issues a student may face, says Payne. “The center is a point of connection,” she says. “Most of what we do amplifies the rich set of resources that the university has but with an added sense of community and [the benefit of] having a home base.”

OSU administrators and staff in the Center for Sovereign Nations celebrate the center’s second anniversary on the lawn of the Life Sciences East Building in August 2017.
OSU administrators and staff in the Center for Sovereign Nations celebrate the center’s second anniversary on the lawn of the Life Sciences East Building in August 2017.

Providing a place where students can find a sense of belonging, Payne says, is a top priority for the tribal nations — which also help fund the center — and the student leaders who work there. “One of the most differentiating aspects of our center is that it is truly student-led. [They] determine the best way to serve their peers,” she says. This includes providing exemplary service to make every visitor to the center feel at home on campus. When students come in seeking assistance, for example, student leaders will often escort them to the proper office or department that can meet their needs.

“Something we realize is that students, particularly native students, don’t do well if they don’t have a sense of family on campus,” says Mason Two Crow, a recent OSU graduate and former CSN employee. “So we always try to start with making every visitor feel welcome.”

Noah Berryhill, a senior engineering major and CSN employee, believes that having a space on campus where Native American students can congregate positively affects their retention. “A big reason that people leave school is because they don’t feel like they have a niche there,” he explains, adding that many students from tribal nations are first-generation and from very rural areas. “Having the center gives you a home away from home. It gives you people you can relate to.”

Included among CSN’s services is supplemental academic advising, which is provided by center staff using the university’s online advising system. “If a student comes in and is having trouble getting into a class or has questions about course options, we can look at the system and reach out to other primary advisers as well as faculty to work out something that’s in that individual’s best interest,” says Payne. “That’s only possible because faculty and staff greatly support it and are willing to help us help our students.”

Similarly, she says, CSN recently developed a partnership with the College of Engineering to offer tutoring services for the many Native American students who major in this discipline. This is fitting as OSU is the leading school in the U.S. for graduating Native American engineers, and one-third of the students who work in the center are engineering majors.

“Having tutoring within [CSN] greatly helped my GPA and took off a load of stress,” says Berryhill. “It’s also gotten a lot more native engineering majors to come to the center, which has helped us make more connections with native students.”

The center also provides information and opportunities to celebrate native students’ shared heritage as well as their individual tribal cultures. CSN’s website, social media, and emails all provide information on campus affiliation groups and cultural events such as tournaments for stickball, a traditional Native American sport, and even alert students when representatives from their home nations will be visiting campus.

Payne says CSN invites all OSU students to come to the center to learn about tribal sovereignty — each of the tribal nations is legally a separate nation with its own governance, culture, and history. “Many of [these tribal nations] choose to use their resources to send their students here, and we feel like their sovereignty is something that should be recognized and respected,” she says. In its efforts to educate on and promote public awareness of the different nations, OSU hosts its Sovereignty Speaks monthly speakers’ series, a powwow, and stickball games.

Such conscientious efforts to support underrepresented groups demonstrate OSU’s institutional commitment to diversity that Kirksey says has been a key factor in the university’s overall success. He attributes much of this progress to senior leaders being attuned to students’ needs. “As far as our president and our provost,” says Kirksey, “these diversity efforts wouldn’t happen without them and their commitment to truly making a difference in the lives of students.”●

Mariah Bohanon is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. Oklahoma State University is a 2012-2017 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.