This post marks the start of our Top Five series, designed to provide practical advice on areas of interest and challenge in higher education. Today, we speak with Jamila Lee-Johnson and Walter Parrish, doctoral candidates at University of Wisconsin-Madison in Educational Leadership, about best practices for attracting a diverse population of student leaders on your campus. 

What sorts of experiences did you have as student leaders that led you to want to continue working with college students?
 Jamila:
Like many other student affairs professionals, I was the over-involved student.  I was President of the Student Government, a member of the Honors program on my campus, an orientation guide and involved in numerous other positions on campus.  I did not fully understand what I wanted to do until I started working under the Vice –President of Student Affairs at Morehouse College during my junior and senior year, I loved being on a college campus, and I love helping others get to college, I felt like I was in my element.  I loved my college experience, and I wanted to help others get that same feeling I have and still have when I talk about my undergraduate experience, because my college experience definetly had a major impact on who I am today as an African American woman.

Walter: I was heavily involved since my first year of college. I created and developed a hip-hop dance organization, actively involved with the Black Student Union and diversity trainings, worked at the credit union on campus, student center, and in housing as a RA, etc. As I progressed in my college career and became more involved and engaged, I noticed my peers approached me for advice more frequently on how to operate their organizations, interpret policies, and navigate collegiate issues. It felt good assisting my colleagues and I wanted to provide students with the same excitement around campus engagement; it had a positive impact on our overall learning and development.

Jamila, having attended a historically black college (Clark Atlanta University), do you see any notable differences between your experience and that which your students have had?

Jamila:  Yes, I do.   I think one thing HBCUs do is cultivating leaders and allow students to feel empowered from Day 1. I think about when I first got to Clark Atlanta (CAU), I remember being inducted in into my freshman class, I remember thinking I belong here. At CAU, I was encouraged to be myself, start organizations, and just be involved not only on campus, but also in the community that surrounds Clark Atlanta.  What I have found is that when many students of color are at PWIs they often find themselves having to assimilate to the dominant white culture on campus.  I think that PWIs have more resources than HBCUs but often do not seek to see to learn what students of color may need in terms of providing support and for them to have a positive experience on campus.  When programs are created for students of color, they are often overlooked and do not have the proper tools in order to help the program maintain sustainability.  I also think that with universities facing budget problems, they will cut off programs that are meant for students of color. Which will often leave students not feeling like they can be apart of the campus of the college they attend.

I’ve often spoken to professionals that are concerned that their offerings don’t attract student leaders of color or other diverse backgrounds- are there notable mistakes that we make when framing these epxeriences that excludes underrepresented students?

Walter: I think the biggest mistake is not asking students what they want. As student affairs professionals, we often assume what our students need and desire. That is not the most effective way to engage underrepresented students (or anyone, honestly). Secondly, think about who is coordinating the initiatives and who participates. Programming is often sustained year after year with little to no modification or consideration for who participates (and who does not), why they participate, and what learning occurs. Due to the sometimes, hectic and demanding nature of our functional areas, assessment gets dropped or diminished. Yet, it is so crucial to our work. Also, if professionals want to attract and engage different populations of students, we need new faces at the planning tables to provide fresh perspectives and ideas. Not the same staff, planning the same events, every year. And if offices or campuses lack different perspectives and various identities at the professional level, that is also a problematic.

Now I want to get to our Top Five, in which you pose five points or tips for those looking to create a more inclusive and fruitful leadership experience for students of color or other underrepresented populations.

Point/Tip One: Diversify your staff.

This is particularly important at PWIs. Many, but not all, students of color and other underrepresented populations get excited to see faculty and staff who look like them and/or those who genuinely seek to understand students. Students of color, much like small children, are good at detecting faux-allies. Though, this does not mean that all students of color will connect with professionals of color. Additionally, this does not imply campuses should only hire professionals of color to exclusively work with underrepresented populations.

Point/Tip Two: Talk to your students.

If students of color are not engaged in programs and activities, perhaps they are simply not interested in the topic(s) or do not view them as relevant. So, ask yourselves, “why?” Then, ask them! The best way to understand students is to talk to them. Seek to understand, before being understood.

Point/Tip Three: Diversify programming and initiatives.

Our jobs are to holistically develop students. Not one particular population, but students of various and multiple identities. When we do not value the existing diversity on campus, we prevent students from engaging with each other and send them off ill prepared to partake in a pluralistic society. Simply because a campus is composed of majority White students does not suggest every experience should attract or cater to only White students. Stated differently, experiences at PWIs should attract students of multiple identities and not perpetuate the habit of conforming and assimilating to the majority, as most students of color endure. Yes, senior administrators are concerned with budgets, attendance numbers, and return-on-investments. Therefore, conscious and intentional planning is required.

Point/Tip Four: Help students understand the relevancy of campus engagement.

One reason students of color may not engage with the campus community is because they do not see the experiences as applicable or significant to their present and future. Campus engagement allows students to hone skills such as communication, organization, leadership, networking, and other learning outcomes that are transferable to the workplace. Discuss post-graduation possibilities and how to best gain (and communicate) the necessary skills to begin a successful career.

Point/Tip Five:  Make underrepresented students feel like they belong.

This is probably the most complex tip because it varies between individual. The unfortunate reality is underrepresented students (not all) tend to feel disconnected or have a low sense of belongingness. Professionals should be cognizant of verbal and non-verbal communications, understand their own privileges, and sincerely seek to gain a better understanding of the experiences of underrepresented and marginalized students.  Remember, all students have equal ownership of the space. It is our job, as professionals, to create and facilitate inclusive communities.

If you had to distill all of this into one suggestion for professionals seeking to create a more inclusive environment for attracting and engaging student leaders, what would you suggest?

Jamila: I would tell them to not just look at what the numbers are saying, but actually go out and talk to the students. Not just student leaders, but students who may not be as involved as other students who are repeatedly called on to represent all students of color.  Talk to students of color staff, and they maybe able to provide input on what is needed to engaged students.

Walter: Have sincere conversations with your students and speak up for them when their voices cannot be heard. Imagine being an underrepresented student on campus. What would you want and how would you want administrators to address and advocate for your needs?

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