Rochester Institute of Technology’s Individualized Approach to Building 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. 

At Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in New York, the belief that diversity enriches the learning experience for all drives the university’s commitment to recruit and support underrepresented groups on campus.

[Above: Students in RIT’s Native American Future Stewards Program participate in the 2015 Day of Service at Ganondagan State Historic Site.]

“[We] believe diversity and inclusion are inextricably bound to our organizational pursuit of excellence,” says Kevin McDonald, EdD, JD, vice president and associate provost for diversity and inclusion at RIT. “In order to graduate our students to operate as effective citizens in a global marketplace, it’s imperative that the compositional diversity of our faculty, staff, and students represents our nation and our world.”

Kevin McDonald (right) shakes hands with students in the Native American Future Stewards Program (FSP) at the 2015 Native American Graduation Dinner and Honor Ceremony
Kevin McDonald (right) shakes hands with students in the Native American Future Stewards Program (FSP) at the 2015 Native American Graduation Dinner and Honor Ceremony

RIT prides itself on being a place where diverse and multicultural students live and work together, better preparing them for the opportunities and challenges they’ll face in an increasingly diverse world. It does this by focusing not just on the needs of the overall campus, but on individual groups as well.

Empowering DIVAS
Determined Individuals Victoriously Achieving Success, known as DIVAS, is an initiative developed in 2011 to recruit and provide social and academic support to a small group of multicultural female students majoring in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) disciplines. Women — who are largely underrepresented in STEM professions — comprise only 35 percent of the student population at RIT.

“The DIVAS program was designed to achieve two interconnected objectives: to foster a support network for incoming multicultural women at RIT and to increase the retention of female students through mentorship, personal development, and academic progress,” says Candice P. Baldwin, PhD, senior director for academic success at RIT and founder of the DIVAS initiative.

The program seeks to address any feelings of inferiority, insecurity, and isolation these women might feel, which Baldwin believes is the result of being in a male-dominated environment. Through DIVAS, she says female students begin to see their true value and are able to accomplish more as a result.

Student members of the DIVAS initiative at RIT
Student members of the DIVAS initiative at RIT

“DIVAS was established so that women will build more confidence in themselves, feel more empowered, and in turn, empower others and have more trusting relationships,” Baldwin says. “At RIT, where men outnumber women, this is extremely important.”

All female students are eligible to apply to the program, and those from racial and ethnic minorities are highly encouraged to do so. However, because of its focus on developing a tight-knit community, no more than 20 women are allowed to participate at a given time, Baldwin says. Once a student becomes a “DIVA,” she remains one through graduation.

DIVAS are exposed to a variety of wellness, leadership and personal development, educational, community service, and social activities. They also gain access to personalized coaching from community mentors in their field. These professionals provide advice and guidance to help students define their career goals, overcome personal obstacles, and achieve success.

Furthermore, DIVAS have the opportunity to mentor other young women at RIT. These mentors are paired with first-year students, to whom they provide academic and emotional support by serving as a peer adviser, role model, advocate, and confidant, Baldwin says.

“A lack of positive role models, particularly for multicultural women, is a significant problem throughout academia,” she says. “[DIVAS members] realize it is important to support and uplift other women because they see the benefit it has had in their own lives through the program.”

Students attend a variety of seminars and workshops focused on topics such as financial literacy and women’s health, among others. And leadership opportunities allow DIVAS to plan, attend, and even speak at events, which Baldwin says helps build their confidence.

“They don’t often see themselves as leaders, but through exposure, hands-on experiences, and understanding their strengths, they are more willing to seek out leadership opportunities,” she says.

Through the initiative, Baldwin says students hold each other accountable for adhering to DIVAS guiding principles and core values. If they notice a member who is struggling, they offer encouragement and connect her with someone who can help.

Baldwin believes that this accountability is the main reason for the program’s 100 percent graduation rate. But the success of these women is also witnessed in their professional lives. According to Baldwin, every DIVAS graduate has either gone on to receive an advanced degree or secured a full-time position in her field of study.

Reciprocity for Native Communities
With a dual focus on recruiting members of Native communities and promoting cultural awareness, RIT created the Native American Future Stewards Program (FSP).

Native Americans perform at the 2015 Imagine RIT festival.
Native Americans perform at the 2015 Imagine RIT festival.

Founders Jason Younker, PhD, and Paul Shipman, PhD, developed the initiative with the original purpose of supporting Native students — including Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and First Nations — on RIT’s campus. However, it has since expanded to focus on three key goals: recruit, retain, and return.

In addition to recruiting and retaining Native students by providing academic support — in the form of mentoring, research opportunities, and professional development workshops — the program emphasizes the importance of these students returning to their tribal communities to put into practice the knowledge and skills they gain at RIT.

“We believe reciprocity plays an important role in developing and maintaining relationships; RIT benefits from members of tribal communities becoming part of the campus community and therefore has a responsibility to help them return and benefit their home nation,” says FSP Program Manager Nicole Scott.

Through the development of the Native American Advisory Council, a collaboration between RIT and members of the Haudenosaunee Grand Council (Seneca, Onondaga, Tuscarora, Mohawk, Oneida, and Cayuga tribes), strategies are consistently being developed for recruiting and ensuring the success of Native students at the university.

Another partnership with Ganondagan State Historic Site focuses on providing community service opportunities, programming, and events that encourage both Native students and others to learn about and celebrate Native American history and culture. Scott says that for students who have been disconnected from their Native roots, this program helps them re-engage with their heritage.

“Because the U.S. has employed a number of policies to separate and assimilate Native communities, many students lack significant knowledge of their Native culture and are uncertain how to reconnect,” says FSP Director Jeffrey Burnette, PhD. “Our belief is that helping students find their place within the Native American community and making the return of Native scholars a priority helps make them more confident and more likely to succeed.”

Getting to Know First-Generation Students
First-generation students make up 20 percent of the total student population at RIT, according to Bernadette Lynch, director of the I’m First program at the university.

The I’m First program exists to address the many challenges faced by students who are the first in their family to go to college, many of whom have little familiarity with higher education.

“While our students may have extremely supportive parents, they may not have the contextual information to help their sons and daughters through the collegiate experience,” Lynch says. “We aim to provide that, as well as connect students with appropriate resources.”

Lynch says she and other program staff meet one on one with first-generation students as freshmen to get an idea of their background and experiences, interests and major, family situation, and academic and professional goals. Advisers then meet individually with their students at the start of every semester — throughout their entire college experience — and check in on them continually to ensure their progress.

Beyond a variety of support structures, I’m First hosts monthly First Talks events, featuring speakers — also the first in their family to attend college — who discuss issues related to first-generation students and the challenges they face.

Mentor Ebony Miller, interim director of the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship at RIT, with her mentee Brianna Jones, a senior information technology major and first-generation student at RIT
Mentor Ebony Miller, interim director of the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship at RIT, with her mentee Brianna Jones, a senior information technology major and first-generation student at RIT

“It’s a way for our first-generation students to get more exposure to topics that are important, as well as meet and connect with others,” says Lynch. “[Also], we open the talks to the entire RIT community, which helps raise awareness of first-generation students and their experiences.”

RIT added an additional layer of support to the program this year focused on mentoring. Overall, Lynch says 173 students have gone through the program, and she hopes it will help attract more first-generation students to the campus.

Through these programs and more, McDonald believes RIT is not only better preparing its students, but also building a sense of community — giving students the sense that faculty and staff “really care.”

“It takes a commitment that recognizes that access alone has never been enough and that our students’ ability to succeed is directly correlated [with] their self-efficacy, sense of community, and belief in themselves,” McDonald says. “It’s definitely a shared responsibility — not accomplished by any one office or person, but through the collective will of [our] campus community.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. RIT is a 2014 and 2015 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient. Kevin McDonald is a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board.