Did Someone Say Flex?

teach dice ornament on table

Diversity is an attribute I take very seriously in my research, teaching and service.

I push myself to consider various perspectives on issues and ideas as I work. I rely on bias indicator reflections like Harvard University’s Project Implicit site and community activist training to grow my awareness of issues in diversity. While I find that many people are willing to join in the celebration and highlighting of differences, I also find that the real work requiring attention in higher education is in equity and authentic inclusion.

Most colleges and universities in the United States were designed to uphold the supremacy of wealthy men who were categorized as White and granted privileges as such.

The expectation was that those people would behave according to masculinity tropes and lord over the rest of the members of society. In many instances, this was seen as a divine right they had. It is impossible to correct that abhorrent legacy by simply supporting diversity. We must support justice, and justice is created when we connect diversity to equity and inclusion.

There are many complex issues that students of color and first-generation students face. As a person who fit that description when I entered my undergraduate years and someone who served as the director of two federal TRIO programs, I am aware of the issues from both perspectives.

I would arrange the issues in 3 general categories: 1- Community and sense of belonging, 2- Financial stability and literacy, and 3- Access to high-engagement learning opportunities.

Establishing community and a sense of belonging includes issues like meeting students’ basic needs (e.g. food security, physical safety, and companionship). Minoritized and first-generation students often face expectations to assimilate that challenge their senses of self or home and make it difficult to keep these needs met. They are expected to accept whatever food is offered, not notice the lack of people who look like them in positions of power or campus history and be focused on getting an education with social interaction as a byproduct of that. The simple fact is that while some learners will survive (meaning graduate) under these conditions, many will not and have not survived.

Our goal should be that students survive and thrive. Campuses that have majority culture roots must spend adequate resources delivering on these needs. They must do this very well during the first ten days after arrival on campus. And, they must keep that same energy for the years ahead.

Not every minoritized or first-generation student is dealing with financial instability, but a significant number are and they will be in cohorts with classmates and have friends who know financial strain as well. This means that a sense of belonging is affected by the financial stability and well-being of the collective group. For colleges and universities where there may also be wealthy students with legacy privileges, this can be quite a stark contrast.

Equity means committing to addressing that contrast as much as possible when it comes to financial resources. But, more importantly, it means financial literacy for all students. Getting students in vulnerable financial situations to know more about loan debt and credit ratings is a good start. But we must also teach students with financial means to recognize structural inequality and the ways in which upper classes have benefitted from the labor and subjugation of others. The cultivation of an environment where students understand these financial facts is imperative if we are to build a better future.

For me, teaching and learning are about co-creating goals with students. These goals are then connected to ingredients like particular narratives or data sets with enough meaningful context to create an experience. As teachers and learners, we need communal educational experiences that build on and affirm our interests. Like favorite foods or singers, they go on to become parts of larger menus or playlists. We figure out what pairs well. We bring voices together to tell a larger set of stories. Students, faculty and staff challenge each other to try new pairings, swap out some ingredients with others and help build a community with a broader palate for knowledge. And we engage in this broadening with the understanding that anything which does not support justice and equity in our world is a threat to all of us.

This is also part of my view of viable academic advising. Accreditation and competency requirements often dictate what a student must be able to do as a result of any given program’s success. Academic advising is about asking students to think about what a given program or path should be able to do for their gifts, skills, and talents. When I began serving as an advisor to undergraduates, I was trained to look at things like test scores, degree requirements, and grades. I often found myself hunting for deficits and trying to motivate students to address them. I quickly learned that academic advising requires an asset-based lens. We must be able to conduct conversations and audits that focus on students’ strengths. We must also remember that the journeys students embark on with us are not about instant gratification. They are about harvest and some seasons are longer than others. In this way, academic advising is its own curriculum on any campus. Like any curriculum it works best when we look carefully at aspects that are unstated or hidden and make them accessible to everyone we serve.

The stakes of our endeavors to provide equitable access to education are high. In some cases, we are talking about the vitality of entire families or communities of people. In all cases we are talking about the soundness of social justice. As educators, we must stay focused on this and use it to motivate us during difficult times.