Small Institutions Have Big Impact on Inclusion in Higher Education

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Students stroll the college’s campus in Swarthmore, Pa.

Much of the discussion around building better, more inclusive campus environments is focused on celebrating multiculturalism and supporting underrepresented students and faculty at large schools, where enrollment and employees number in the tens of thousands. However, 40 percent of undergraduates in the U.S. attend small colleges and universities — with fewer than 5,000 students — according to a 2016 report by The Washington Post. While an increasing number of small, private schools have closed in recent years due to rising tuition and declining enrollment, others thrive by offering individualized attention and support for students and honing a sense of community that is united toward the common goals of equity and inclusion in higher education and beyond.

[Above: Students stroll the Swarthmore College’s campus in Swarthmore, Pa.]

2017 Palo Alto University graduation
2017 Palo Alto University graduation

Palo Alto University
Palo Alto University (PAU), a school of 1,100 students in Palo Alto, California, is uniquely devoted to serving both diverse students and diverse communities. Approximately 35 percent of PAU students identity as people of color, and its PhD program trains roughly 6 percent of all Latino and 8 percent of all Asian American doctoral candidates in clinical psychology nationwide. The university offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in counseling and psychology, with a primary focus on improving mental health awareness and treatment for marginalized people.

In addition to several clinics devoted to serving specific diverse populations — such as the PAU La Clínica Latina and the Sexual and Gender Identities Clinic — PAU’s Center for Excellence in Diversity represents the university’s significant academic, financial, and service commitments to underserved, often-stigmatized populations.

Joyce Chu
Joyce Chu

Founded in 2010 by now-retired Professor Stanley Sue, PhD, the center is co-chaired by Professors Joyce Chu, PhD, and Alvin Thomas, PhD. “The center was founded with the mission of taking diversity education and training to the next level both internally and as a service to the surrounding community,” says Thomas. “It helps us continue the discussion around diversity in mental health so students are continuously seeing how diversity issues impact their training and eventual clinical practice, and it helps us continue making connections with the surrounding community.”

Alvin Thomas
Alvin Thomas

The center hosts a myriad of annual events designed to engage students, fellow researchers and practitioners, and community members in the effort to build awareness of and access to better mental health services for marginalized groups. An annual speaker series, for instance, invites leading national and international scholars to present their research in local venues — a tactic which expands the audience and attendance, says Chu.

“One of the really beneficial components of the speaker series is the fact that it is being done in the community as opposed to at the university itself, so we have actual practitioners at these meetings who can help students make those transitions between the research and what they’re hearing at the time,” she notes.

Topics covered in the speaker series have included how social activism affects psychology research, the impact of black role models on the family and society, a psychotherapy program for Asian American communities, and microagressions in the LGBTQ community.

“I think it gives [students] a kind of energy and focus around their own work,” says Thomas. “Students have commented that hearing these top researchers discuss the issues that matter most to them just gives a broader view of what is possible in terms of the impact they can make in this world.”

Rice University’s Black Student Association 2017 welcome event
Rice University’s Black Student Association 2017 welcome event

Rice University
When it comes to changing the face of higher education, Rice University (Rice) in Houston, Texas, home to nearly 4,000 undergraduate students, is in it for the long haul. Since 1992, the school has encouraged students — those who are underrepresented or who are passionate about diversity and social justice — to pursue careers in academia by offering funding and support through the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program (MMUF).

Roland Smith Jr.
Roland Smith Jr.

The university is one of 48 MMUF member institutions across the U.S.; the program was launched in 1988 by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which continues to fund MMUF today. “Having faculty members who are in tune with issues of inclusion is going to be more and more important as our society and our schools become more diverse,” says Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Roland Smith Jr., EdD. “[The foundation] has really made a long-term commitment to this program because they know there’s no quick fix to transform our institutions.”

Rice’s MMUF program accepts five new fellows annually; ideal candidates are nearing the end of their sophomore year, in good academic standing, are committed to multiculturalism and social justice, and have the potential to succeed in graduate studies. Students can apply for the program, and many are nominated by faculty members, says Smith.

“When a professor lets [a student] know they’re really good at research or they seem to have a knack for scholarship, that’s when we want to cultivate that kind of encouragement,” he explains. “MMUF is about building awareness of the possibilities for further study because a lot of students never even think about getting a PhD — it’s just not on their radar.”

Students in the program are required to create and conduct individual research projects during their junior and senior years. The projects are completed under the guidance of a faculty mentor who can also help with navigating the complicated process of professionally presenting and submitting research to scholarly conferences and journals. The fellows are provided stipends, so they can spend time on their projects and reduce the need for employment. There are weekly meetings with Smith — which typically consist of on-campus group dinners — where the fellows discuss their plans for the future, diversity and inclusion issues affecting higher education, and more. Graduate students will sometimes attend these dinners to provide advice, and the university brings MMUF alumni to campus several times a year to speak with the fellows about their personal postgraduate and career experiences.

While Rice wants to encourage each participant to eventually earn a doctorate and become a professor or professional researcher, Smith says he understands if a fellow decides an academic career just isn’t for him or her. Some alumni go on to have successful careers in fields such as business or law, while others may decide to enroll in PhD or master’s programs after exploring other career options.

Those who choose to pursue higher degrees upon graduating from college receive ongoing support from MMUF, including partial student loan forgiveness, dissertation writing retreats, and — for those who eventually secure jobs as junior faculty members — career enhancement and research support.

“[MMUF] goes all the way from undergrad through tenure,” says Smith, adding that one Rice MMUF graduate is now a tenured history professor with the university. Currently, 27 Rice MMUF alumni hold faculty positions at schools across the country, Smith says. He recently heard from one alumnus who now works at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“He sent me a letter just saying that he had made a donation to Rice in my honor, and I was so surprised, but that’s the kind of relationship we develop with these students,” says. “We’ve made a long-term commitment to them, and that’s really the heart of this program.”

A Kwanzaa celebration at Swarthmore’s Upper Tarble All Campus Space

Swarthmore College
With an enrollment of roughly 1,500 students, Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, is a community dedicated to “breaking down barriers and divides between populations on campus,” says T. Shá Duncan Smith, associate dean for diversity, inclusion, and community development.

As co-chair of the Self-Study Action Committee, Smith helps coordinate and oversee many of the school’s efforts to achieve this mission. Launched in 2016, the committee utilizes community engagement strategies to ensure all faculty, staff, and students have a say in how to make Swarthmore a supportive and welcoming environment for everyone. Idea boxes, where anyone can submit anonymous concerns regarding campus climate or provide suggestions for improvement, are located in multiple locations across campus, and monthly committee meetings are open to the public. Known as Community Conversations, these meetings allow for transparency in administrative efforts towards diversity and inclusion and open dialogue among different stakeholders. Each Community Conversation includes updates on the progress of different departments and groups who are charged with meeting specific equity and inclusion goals.

“One of the goals the [Self-Study Action Committee] has really drilled down is having inclusive pronouns on campus and in the classroom,” Smith says. “At each Community Conversation, a subcommittee gives updates on how they are working to make this happen, [such as] updating our online system so students can enter their preferred pronouns and have that information included on class rosters.”

Community Conversations also include discussion, presentations, and training regarding issues of equality and social justice on campus and in society. “We [recently] had a dialogue and some role-playing activities on how to be more inclusive with pronouns in your day-to-day life,” says Smith, adding that the discussions — like the work of the committee itself — are focused on concrete steps for creating change. “We also recently had a discussion on [the #metoo movement] and gave tips for developing the skills set to start changing organizational culture around sexual harassment and the culture in general around sexual harassment and assault.”

The Self-Study Action Committee is also starting to focus on a fairly innovative concept in the studious world of higher education — how to promote the value of “joy and play” on campus. “One of our great Community Conversations was on this topic of how to introduce joy and play to our environment and how that fits with having an inclusive community,” Smith explains.

Ranking third on U.S. News and World Report’s list of national liberal arts colleges, Swarthmore is a place where high-achieving students and faculty have rigorous schedules dedicated to their individual areas of study and extracurricular interests. As on many campuses, this creates a silo effect where individuals with different backgrounds, majors, and sociocultural identities have few chances to interact.

“We’ve had a lot of feedback from students, faculty, and staff that in terms of improving campus climate what they would really like is the opportunity to spend more time engaging with other groups,” says Smith. “So, we’ve been looking at how do we help [the campus] take a pause, walk away from work for a little bit, and engage in something that’s both good for self-care and for building community.”

Smith emphasizes that small actions can be taken to increase this culture of shared joy and play. Recently, she says, the campus interfaith center and the campus arboretum hosted an event that allowed all students to participate in and learn about Tu BiShvat, a Jewish holiday celebrating the blooming of trees and the start of spring. Participants went on a group nature walk where they learned about plant life and about Jewish spiritual teachings regarding nature.

“It incorporated academics and learning, but also explored other cultures while taking a time out from work and studying for a couple hours of joy and play,” she says.●

Mariah Bohanon is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in out April 2018 issue.