Penn State’s Diversity Inspires a Thriving Community

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 a large, public, multi-campus, land-grant, research university, The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) attracts a range of students with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and goals. By supporting these students’ interests and aspirations and appreciating what each one brings to the table, the university creates an environment in which they all can thrive.

[Above: The Pasquerilla Spiritual Center-Eisenhower Chapel at Penn State]

“When you think about resources in a general sense, you think about water, vegetation, cattle, and other animals that we [use] for survival, but individuals who bring diversity to our planet are also a resource,” says Marcus Whitehurst, PhD, vice provost for educational equity at Penn State.

This take on diversity is a key part of the university’s new 2016-2020 strategic plan, which, unlike in prior years, features an embedded diversity framework. With “Fostering and Embracing a Diverse World” as one of six foundations, the plan will ultimately hold all 48 individual academic and administrative units at Penn State accountable for incorporating diversity in five thematic areas: Transforming Education, Enhancing Health, Stewarding Our Planet’s Resources,  Advancing the Arts and Humanities, and Driving Digital Innovation.

In addition, the plan identifies important pieces that must be in place for Penn State to pursue the aforementioned thematic priorities and to support its mission and vision. The supporting elements, which unit executives will also have to respond to, include Organizational Processes, Infrastructure and Support, and Constituent Outreach and Engagement.

“Every aspect of the university strategic plan has to focus on certain areas of diversity, and … we want to collectively ask every unit executive — all of our deans, vice presidents, and chancellors at all campuses — to respond to four different goals,” Whitehurst says.

These goals include creating a welcoming and inclusive campus climate, advancing and building a diverse student body, advancing and building a diverse workforce and management team, and developing a curriculum that fosters U.S. and international cultural competency. Whitehurst will conduct a mid-point review with unit heads in 2018 to ensure they are working toward the diversity goals via each thematic lens.

“Everyone has to respond to ‘how does diversity fit into these five thematic areas based on the goals?’” Whitehurst says. “Some of the goals may not fit into all of the thematic areas, but we want each of our unit executives to articulate what they did over the course of the five years to achieve [those].”

For example, when it comes to “Enhancing Health,” Whitehurst says incorporating diversity might include a focus on addressing with students the different health risks and disparities faced by diverse populations, such as women or the LGBTQ community; or, in regard to “Driving Digital Innovation,” working to ensure that students who come from low-income households have the same technological advantages as those from higher-income families.

Whitehurst believes that in order to fully prepare young people for both successful professional and personal lives, this type of thoughtful approach to diversity by colleges and universities is critical.

“If we are the institutions that are producing the next leaders, then we have to be strategic as to how we want to get there and how we want to develop the future graduates of our institutions to be mindful, exposed, and aware of differences that exist in our society from a diversity standpoint,” he says.

Diversity of Faith
A large part of Penn State’s diversity stems from its sizable, flourishing, and active religious and spiritual community, made up of nearly 60 student-created organizations comprising Catholics, Christians, Protestants, Muslims, Mormons, Hindus, Buddhists, Quakers, Pagans, Wiccans, and even atheists and agnostics.

Penn State students, faculty, and staff participate in the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Development’s Interfaith Fall Harvest Dinner.
Penn State students, faculty, and staff participate in the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Development’s Interfaith Fall Harvest Dinner.

Students and faculty of all faiths and beliefs can find solace, and a place to pray, in the University Park campus’s Center for Spiritual and Ethical Development (CSED). The center — the largest of its kind in the U.S. — has proper facilities and amenities for persons of all faiths to worship, including places for Muslim students to wash their feet and a room that faces Mecca.

CSED Director Robert Smith says that having a religious space of this size is impressive, especially for a public university.

According to Smith, much of the center’s work involves educating and increasing understanding and acceptance of religious groups and their beliefs on campus. Through collaborations with other university departments and offices, he and his staff have helped create meditation and spiritual spaces in buildings across campus, held discussions on topics such as religion in the workplace, educated food services on dietary restrictions for certain groups, provided religious calendars to professors and coaches to be aware of religious holidays, and more.

“We try to [increase] the literacy of religions and spiritual practices. That helps alleviate some of the questions and concerns people may have, or misunderstandings people may have,” Smith says. “… We’re trying to make it a nonthreatening environment for people to freely express themselves and practice their traditions.”

Another important part of creating a space for this diversity to thrive is facilitating interactions and discussions between diverse groups with conflicting beliefs and ideologies.

“We try to bring a lot of constituencies together, especially some that may have some difficult conversations,” Smith says. “So we might facilitate a get-together between [our conservative religious groups] and the LGBTQ community so that there’s a dialogue and an understanding that’s created.”

At the student level, many religious groups also work to increase knowledge and appreciation of diverse faiths. Smith says that beyond handing out fliers, these students are actively giving to and helping others.

“Our Muslim Student Association has a free-pizza Friday where they go around campus handing out pizza to other students,” he says. “We have New Life, one of our Christian Evangelical groups; they will stand outside, especially during the winter, and hand out hot chocolate and breakfast bars to students as they go to and from class. We have religious groups that help students move in when they arrive [or] that host English classes for ESL students.”

A Living-Learning Approach
Aware of the impact its diverse graduates will most likely have on the country — and the world — Penn State has specific initiatives in place to support the academic achievement of students studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The Millennium Scholars (MS) program, modeled after the successful Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, takes a cohort-based approach to encourage and hold students accountable. With a focus on recruiting and retaining high-achieving students from groups that are historically underrepresented in STEM fields, the program brings them together to live and work on campus in a “family-like” community.

Marcus Whitehurst (center) with students in Penn State’s Millennium Scholars program
Marcus Whitehurst (center) with students in Penn State’s Millennium Scholars program

“This is very much a cohort model, so the students start their academic career all working together, taking the same classes — they have the same schedule every day — working through everything together,” says MS program Director Star Sharp. “… [They] work together with a common goal, a common experience, and that is something that is not typically done when it comes to academics.”

This goal is to earn a bachelor’s degree in STEM and then pursue a doctoral degree. Sharp believes that having this objective in mind from day one, as well as having the support of all their peers who are on the same path, helps students persist.

To prepare students for their studies and better orient them to college life, incoming Millennium Scholars must participate in a summer bridge program. During this rigorous six-week “boot camp,” students take foundational courses and workshops in STEM, cultural diversity, and communication; receive an intro to research at Penn State; learn important life skills such as how to manage time, solve problems, and study smart; and participate in cultural events, field trips to national labs, team-building exercises, community service, and social events.

“When students have the preparation of the summer bridge, getting through the fall is not so scary,” Sharp says. “Our [incoming] students typically look like sophomores because they’ve already taken seven credits of classes; they’ve already gone through their initial homesickness; they’ve already gone through how to do laundry, how to buy books, because they’ve done that throughout the summer. When they come back in the fall, they’re ready to go.”

Students are required to live on campus for at least their first three years at Penn State, and they all live in the same dorms together to provide support to each other. The freshmen and sophomores, in particular, need the upperclassmen there as role models, Sharp says.

“If everyone’s in the same space,” she says, “that allows [them] to see others who have the same goals, to see the juniors and seniors and how far they’ve come and say, ‘Wow, OK, what do I need to do to do that? I want to do that.’”

In addition to personalized attention in the form of academic coaching and advising and assistance with securing internships and research opportunities, all Millennium Scholars receive a minimum scholarship of $15,000, which is renewable for up to four years.

The MS program currently boasts 90 students, of whom 60 percent are underrepresented minorities. According to Sharp, the average GPA for cohort one, which will graduate in May 2017, is 3.7, and she says that many of these students have already taken the GRE or MCAT and are applying to graduate schools to study a range of disciplines — from engineering and material science to chemistry and molecular biology.

Inspiring Future Scientists
A similar initiative at Penn State aims to attract students to STEM fields at an even earlier age. The Finding Your Roots Curriculum Project — which was also piloted at the University of South Carolina — is a new summer camp that encourages middle school students, particularly those from underrepresented groups, to participate in STEM.

Middle school students participate in health and wellness research activities as part of Penn State’s 2016 Science-U Camp, part of the larger Finding Your Roots Curriculum Project.
Middle school students participate in health and wellness research activities as part of Penn State’s 2016 Science-U Camp, part of the larger Finding Your Roots Curriculum Project.

With a focus on biology and genetics, this two-week camp educates students on genealogy and DNA, as well as general health and wellness. Participants also have the opportunity to test their own DNA — collecting information on everything from hair and eye color to their ability to digest lactose — and research their personal genealogy.

“The approach that we took was to focus on … a couple of overarching questions, like ‘who are you genetically, genealogically, and intentionally,’ and ‘how do we use data to inform our decision making,’” says Elizabeth Wright, PhD, postdoctoral curriculum writer for the program.

Director of the project Nina Jablonski, PhD, suspected its emphasis on underrepresented groups and genealogy might provide a segue to discussions on race and biological differences.

“We saw the study of personal ancestry and genealogy as a perfect entry point to the study of evolution, human diversity, and a wide vista of phenomena related to human health, including diet and physical performance,” says Jablonski, who is also the Evan Pugh University Professor of Anthropology at Penn State.

“Races do not emerge naturally from the investigation of scientific data on human variation,” she adds. “… Race labeling is one of the most highly deleterious aspects of human society, especially because it can be predictive of outcome. Middle school kids are entering a world that is still highly racialized. If they can understand that races were created by bigoted people, and that they lack scientific validity, this may help them navigate the life and career challenges they’ll face.”

While covering this topic is not an intentional aspect of the camp, Wright says they wanted to be prepared should students bring it up.

Nina Jablonski, director of Finding Your Roots, assists a student with genealogical research during the camp.
Nina Jablonski, director of Finding Your Roots, assists a student with genealogical research during the camp.

“We didn’t want our instructors and mentors to be like, ‘I don’t know how to talk about this,’” she says. “I wanted them to [say], ‘Let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about [race] as a function of biology; let’s talk about it as a function of geographic migration.’ [It doesn’t] have anything to do with your worth as a human being.”

Guided by the additional purpose of increasing the representation of underrepresented groups in STEM fields, project staff will track participants for the next 10 years — from middle school into high school and college — to see whether they continue to seek out and engage in scientific experiences.

While two-thirds of the students in the project’s pilot year at Penn State were from groups underrepresented in science, Wright says she would like to do better next year, attracting young people of different socioeconomic statuses, those with a disability, individuals from the foster care system, and those with little to no interest in science.

“I’m not worried about the kids who are so excited about science it makes their teeth hurt,” she says. “I want the kids who are like, ‘meh,’ or ‘I hate science, science hates me; I’m doing this because my mom made me.’ Those are the great kids to whom you can say, ‘All right, I see that, now let’s see if we can’t flip that around.’”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. Penn State is a 2013, 2014, and 2015 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.