Oklahoma State Takes Top-Down Approach to Building an Inclusive Campus Community

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HEED_logo2016For diversity and inclusion efforts to be successful, they need to be all-encompassing and campuswide, according to Oklahoma State University (OSU). As such, the university has relied on administrative leadership to guide the development of diversity and inclusion programming that spans the entire campus and engages its members at all levels of the university community.

“We’ve been fortunate to have a great leader in our president, who has a strong commitment to diversity,” Vice President of Institutional Diversity and Chief Diversity Officer Jason F. Kirksey, PhD, says of OSU President V. Burns Hargis. “It starts at the top and permeates down.”

Chief Diversity Officer Jason F. Kirksey (left) and OSU President V. Burns Hargis accept OSU’s fifth Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity Publisher Lenore Pearlstein in September (photo courtesy of Gary Lawson/Oklahoma State University Marketing).
Chief Diversity Officer Jason F. Kirksey (left) and OSU President V. Burns Hargis accept OSU’s fifth Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity Publisher Lenore Pearlstein in September (photo courtesy of Gary Lawson/Oklahoma State University Marketing).

This structure has helped OSU increase the overall number of undergraduate students of color by 89 percent, improve the representation of minority and biracial faculty by 40 percent, and increase the number of first-year undergraduate students of color 140 percent in just six years.

Although these statistics are impressive, what matters more to OSU is the success of its students, from the day they walk on campus until they graduate and enter the workforce. OSU’s Division of Institutional Diversity has implemented several initiatives focused on mentorship, training, and preparation to help ensure that all students have the opportunity to reach their full potential by starting on the path to success early.

All freshmen are encouraged to apply for the Retention Initiative for Student Excellence (RISE), a program created to help them address academic challenges and successfully navigate their courses and coursework. RISE requires applicants to answer essay questions about personal obstacles and achievements. Students’ responses help program coordinators determine who has the resolve to complete program requirements.

[Top: RISE students at Oklahoma State University]

The yearlong initiative uses study group sessions, tutoring, leadership opportunities, and mentorship to help students become fully acclimated to college life. Participants must maintain a 3.0 GPA throughout their first year and are required to complete community service projects and weekly study sessions, as well as attend monthly workshops and at least one on-campus cultural event hosted by a racial or ethnic group different from their own.

“We help students adapt to a new way of life and a new culture,” says Jovette Dew, PhD, director of RISE and Diversity Academic Support at OSU. “Now that they are on their own, it’s important to have people helping [them] get connected and learn valuable skills.”

Dew says that the goal of RISE is not only to ensure that students are successful in school, but that they also know how to conduct themselves in the professional world.

With the help of Program Coordinator Angela Vivar, Dew and other RISE staff teach participants critical soft skills, including how to write a résumé, stand out in interviews, and make a positive first impression. Specifically, one of the program’s monthly workshops helps students hone their interpersonal skills, focusing on firm handshakes, eye contact in interviews, presentations in meetings, and even items to order during lunch interviews.

“We focus on end results,” Kirksey adds. “We are exposing students to habits that will help them land the careers or the internships they want.”

Tiffany Thurmond, an OSU senior studying marketing and business management, says that when she was a freshman, the program pushed her out of her comfort zone, helping her land an internship at ConocoPhillips, one of the largest energy companies in the world.

“RISE helped me make my résumé shine and set me up with mock interviews, which gave me more confidence,” Thurmond says.

When she was in the program three years ago, it was composed of about 50 students. For the 2016-2017 academic year, nearly 100 students applied; of those, 83 have signed the RISE “contract,” committing themselves to upholding program standards and participating in all activities for the year. While this growth is stretching RISE staff, Dew believes it’s a good problem to have.

Expanded Diversity Efforts

Although only a select number of students are admitted to RISE, OSU offers alternative options to assist underrepresented students, including multiple levels of mentorship: upper classmen who mentor incoming freshmen, and faculty and staff who mentor students at any level. Kirksey says that it’s important for these students to have someone they can talk to, and OSU tries to match them with mentors who have had similar life experiences.

“I grew up poor in inner-city Denver, and I bring that experience with me,” he says. “Being able to relate to students, especially underrepresented minorities, at that level makes the advice and conversations genuine, and the shared experiences create a sense of validity and comfort.”

Faculty-focused diversity efforts are another key component of OSU’s success. Each year, faculty are encouraged to participate in the Provost Diversity Initiative, which brings together professors from across disciplines to discuss issues and ways of addressing them. Through the program, faculty meet three to four times a year for seminars and workshops during which they work to identify strategies for integrating diversity into the curriculum and solving problems as they arise.

Matt Liao, an OSU senior studying mechanical engineering, says that one of the most effective tactics he’s seen from faculty has been assigning more group projects, which helps expose students to diverse groups.

“They put people of different backgrounds together so we learn how to work with people from different cultures in a professional setting,” Liao says. “It’s helped me learn how to communicate better and be more understanding.”

Another indication of OSU’s diversity efforts is its Native American student population, which hovers around 6 percent — a fairly large group compared with that at other colleges and universities nationwide. With 39 tribal nations in Oklahoma, OSU is serious about the inclusion of Native American students, Kirksey says.

“We have made it our mission to improve the quality of education for the state and the world — and it shows; we’ve graduated more Native Americans than any other institution in the nation,” he says.

As part of its effort to ensure that all native students feel welcome on campus, the university launched the Center for Sovereign Nations in 2015. Its mission is to help foster understanding of and respect for native tribes through education on tribal sovereignty, provide a network of resources for native students to learn about their heritage, and connect OSU faculty and staff with leaders of the state’s sovereign tribes to help build an inclusive campus environment.

By taking a proactive approach to improving diversity and inclusion, OSU has seen positive results. Kirksey largely credits this success to a team of dedicated leaders; however, he says that continued improvement will take the work of the entire campus.

“We all have to be on board to make the community and university system better,” he says. “There is heavy lifting to do yet, and we all have to do the work.”●

Madeline Szrom is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.