Research Aims to Improve Experiences of Marginalized Groups

As the national conversation on race and diversity continues to expand and diverge, colleges and universities are beginning to support scholarship in these areas to better understand the experiences of marginalized groups on their campuses and to support them.

Through a variety of diversity-focused research grants and awards, institutions are encouraging faculty to engage, discuss, and study diverse populations. The following are some examples of individuals who have studied or are currently studying diversity and inclusion across a range of fields and populations — from students with disabilities’ experience with online education to racial issues in America.

Diversity in Medical Education
At the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education at The City University of New York (CUNY), a focus on the underserved has always been essential to the school’s mission. According to Kaliris Y. Salas-Ramirez, PhD, Sophie Davis was founded to provide a home for people who “wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to go to medical school.”

So when the administration decided to apply to become an independent medical school, Salas-Ramirez wanted to ensure that Sophie Davis remained true to its roots. In 2015, she received a $5,000 grant from CUNY’s Diversity Projects Development Fund — which Dean of CUNY School of Medicine Maurizio Trevisan matched — to engage the campus community in dialogue around the importance of diversity in medical education.

“The goal was to start these very complex conversations about race, gender, privilege, and the intersection of all of those within the healthcare setting for people who play different roles in medical education, in addition to future physicians,” she says. “In 2006, Sophie Davis graduated roughly 10 percent of the black male physicians [in the U.S.], and now that the country is going through a shortage of black male physicians and physicians of color in general, we thought it was important to have an open and honest conversation about what that looks like for students today.”

To address these topics, as well as reports of low morale among minority faculty, Salas-Ramirez and several of her colleagues planned a speaker series to provide insight into current issues and give faculty and staff a platform to voice their concerns and desires.

Held throughout the spring 2016 semester, the speaker series featured sessions for students, as well as faculty and staff. Professionals and experts across the higher education and healthcare sectors discussed topics ranging from caring for LGBTQ patients to privilege and microaggressions. In addition, Marc Nivet, the former chief diversity officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges, hosted a session in which he addressed the importance of Sophie Davis maintaining its mission and remaining a “role model” in medical education.

Salas-Ramirez says she was surprised by faculty and staff members’ reactions to the sessions. “What was really eye-opening was how thirsty people were to have these conversations in a very open forum,” she says. “[I heard many] positive remarks, like ‘I’ve been waiting for this conversation for years,’ ‘When is the next one?’ and ‘What can we do to continue to move this forward?’ I was surprised because we have this mission, and I feel like we talk about it all the time, but I think the faculty and staff don’t necessarily get that opportunity.”

While this project was only the beginning, Salas-Ramirez says she hopes these discussions spark scholarship around diversity and inclusion in medical education, as well as provide insight into how to better support their students. Currently, she and her colleagues are working to create partnerships with local institutions to move the conversation forward.

Students with Disabilities
Inspired by previous research she’d done on the experiences of students with learning disabilities in distance education, Amy Catalano, a curriculum materials librarian and associate professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., applied for and received her second Faculty Diversity Research and Curriculum Development (FDRCD) Grant of $2,500 from the university. From her previous research, in which she gathered feedback from students on their experiences in an online class, she’d developed a set of guidelines on how to create courses using the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a structure for developing instruction to meet the diverse needs of all learners.

This time, Catalano and her colleague Stephen Forker, a high school special education teacher and a doctoral student in Hofstra’s educational leadership program, set out to determine where, if at all, learning breaks down for these students in online classes.

With the help of the university’s disability office, they were able to identify students who had a learning disability and had taken an online course. From there, last spring they interviewed — either by phone or in person — 30 students, as well as four special education professors. “We asked them about their experiences with technology in general and why they took an online course, where it worked for them and where it didn’t,” Catalano says. “We came in with the assumption that … learning broke down for them, but we totally dismissed that notion.”

Instead, Catalano and Forker discovered that problems typically originated with the professors, and that in fact, distance education can work quite well for students with certain types of learning disabilities — if the courses are well designed. “We found that often online learning was facilitative of success if the instructor was responsive,” says Catalano.

“If instructors cared enough to try to make their courses accessible or even just be present in them, as opposed to posting information and checking out, … [they] had a good chance of doing a really good job with students with learning disabilities,” she adds.

Their research revealed that students performed better in classes that were more organized and had set deadlines, as well as those in which faculty presented materials and resources in multiple formats. For instance, rather than just posting videotaped lectures, instructors included captions in videos and provided a transcript. Not surprisingly, Catalano and Forker found that the best professors tended to be those with an emphasis in special education.

Catalano says that while courses designed with UDL in mind are helpful for students with disabilities, in reality, they benefit all learners. In addition, the majority of students they interviewed reported more positive experiences when they were able to “interact with the materials in the way that they wanted to” — for example, having the ability to fast-forward or rewind, she says.

The results of their research will be used to inform the work of a university-wide task force created to address issues faced by students with disabilities. But in the meantime, Catalano says students and faculty both have work to do.

“Some students have to advocate more for themselves,” she says. “They have to make sure … they talk to [their] professors about what their needs are because the professors can’t possibly read their minds. But [faculty] also have to be aware of the needs of their individual students.”

LGBT Health Outcomes

Hofstra University student assistants on Christina Ventura-DiPersia’s LGBT health project (left to right) Franklin DeDominicis, Rebecca Worley, Daniel Spier, and Brian Clancy
Hofstra University student assistants on Christina Ventura-DiPersia’s LGBT health project (left to right) Franklin DeDominicis, Rebecca Worley, Daniel Spier, and Brian Clancy

A research coordinator and assistant professor in the Northwell School of Graduate Nursing and Physician Assistant Studies at Hofstra University, Christina Ventura-DiPersia has been involved in sexual health research for years and has a particular interest in sexual identity research.

“One thing that really sticks out to me and has always bothered me is how health research talks about LGBT people as a risk group. They say people who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual are at risk for X, Y, and Z, and they never discuss the nuances of that,” Ventura-DiPersia says.

Thanks to a $5,000 LGBTQQIA Research Initiative Award from the university, which she received in March, she is studying the effects that being “out” have on LGBT students’ health outcomes.

With the help of five student assistants, Ventura-DiPersia hopes to determine whether LGBT students’ openness with their gender and sexual identity changes from campus to home; whether this openness varies based on whom they are around; and whether their sexual identity and degree of openness about it correlate with healthcare access and certain high-risk behaviors, such as smoking or drinking. “So, for example,” she says, “if you are open about your sexual identity on campus, does that have anything to do with you accessing certain healthcare services that you’re not going to access when you’re home from break [where] you’re not open about who you are?”

Through a series of town-hall events, Ventura-DiPersia and her staff reached out to the campus community for input on the project and the types of questions to include, and not include, on a survey, which went live the last weekend of October and will conclude in mid-December. Any student — at Hofstra, as well as other colleges in the surrounding counties of Nassau and Suffolk — who identifies as LGBT is eligible to take the online survey, which asks questions related to sexual identity and openness, engagement in risk behaviors, and the use of healthcare-related services.

As a second component of the project, Ventura-DiPersia will interview a different set of students for a more intimate glimpse into what life is like as an “out” college student.

“When you’re out, accepted, and in a safe area, I think you are more likely to be comfortable and less likely to be stressed,” she says. “And I’m assuming that being out and being accepted is going to be correlated with reduced [engagement in] high-risk behaviors. I’m not sure how it relates to healthcare service access; I think that’s going to be really complex.”

While the results of her research won’t be released until mid-December, Ventura-DiPersia believes that beyond revealing the impact of LGBT students’ openness on their health behaviors, the project will “do wonders in illustrating the complexity of what being out as a college student means.” And she hopes her research will inspire future projects on a much larger scale.

Race in America
In 2014, Lindsay Hoffman, an associate professor and the associate director of the Center for Political Communication at the University of Delaware (UD), was approached by the university’s vice provost for diversity, Carol Henderson. She asked whether Hoffman, who teaches a rotating-topics class called “National Agenda” that typically focuses on politics, would be interested in tackling issues around race or diversity.

University of Delaware students in Lindsay Hoffman’s class “National Agenda: Race in America” with Black Lives Matter activists Netta Elzie and DeRay Mckesson
University of Delaware students in Lindsay Hoffman’s class “National Agenda: Race in America” with Black Lives Matter activists Netta Elzie and DeRay Mckesson

Since 2015 wasn’t an election year, and in light of the racial unrest occurring in Ferguson, Mo., at the time, Hoffman agreed to take on the topic of “Race in America” for the fall semester. In addition to receiving a 2014-2015 Diversity Research Grant from UD, she secured funding from other campus programs and departments to develop and launch the three-part project, which included a speaker series, film series, and campus racial climate survey.

Speakers included prominent journalists, civil rights activists, authors, a criminal justice expert, and a political cartoonist. The film series featured four movies that explored topics related to race and racism, civil rights, and community violence. Open to and attended by all campus groups as well as the public, these events, Hoffman says, were intended, and worked well, to initiate a discussion on issues of race on campus and in the wider world.

“I think it had an impact at that time because so many students were hearing about Black Lives Matter, and all these other issues, but they didn’t understand what it was or how to talk about it,” she says. “I found they were really … hesitant to have a conversation, and what this speaker series and film series did was allow a safe space for them to have a dialogue.”

With encouragement from UD’s Center for the Study of Diversity, Hoffman and her students seized this opportunity to gather data concerning the racial climate on campus. Students researched what other universities had done to examine race and diversity on their campuses and put together a list of 20 questions regarding individuals’ perceptions of the campus climate and experiences with racism. Of the 7,000 students, faculty, staff, and administrators they contacted, nearly 20 percent responded.

What they found was eye-opening but not surprising, Hoffman says. When it came to rating UD on its handling of issues of diversity and inclusion, as well as its promotion of those areas, African American members of the campus community rated the university far lower than white individuals and those of other races. Furthermore, white respondents, when asked to estimate the size of the African American student population, gave answers of up to 20 percent, when the actual percentage is closer to 5, according to Hoffman.

“That’s just kind of one of those unique findings that I hadn’t really thought about, but it clearly suggests that people aren’t looking around them and seeing the reality, which is a predominantly white campus,” Hoffman says. “[The results were] eye-opening for the university community, to be able to see that these things are happening. A lot of faculty and administrators, I think, weren’t aware of the extent to which many of our students were experiencing racism and discrimination on this campus.”

Although somewhat dismayed with the results of the survey, Hoffman says that it provided data that the Center for the Study of Diversity can use to support arguments for the need for institutional change. Hoffman also presented the results to the College of Arts and Science’s Committee to Develop a Strategic Plan on Diversity, on which she serves, and her department’s diversity committee, which she chairs. Both committees have since developed initiatives in response.●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.