By Dr. Gretchen E. Mullin-Sawicki
I was really pleased to see that our regional accreditor, The New England Commission on Higher Education, had this year rewritten its standards for accreditation emphasizing the need for diversity and inclusion criteria. The change highlighted the important work that NHTI has been focusing on and provided even more justification that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is not simply adjunct or initiative-driven work but the framework for everything that we value.
Our 2020-2025 strategic plan establishes DEI as one of the four strategic pillars that support the ongoing daily work of the college. Our strategy includes integrating DEI into our curriculum, looking at our staffing outreach to increase diversity in candidate pools, prioritizing ongoing DEI professional development, and increasing our diversity programming. Our mission embraces DEI through our recognition that we must create a welcoming and caring culture at the college for everyone.
All of the strategies in the world cannot make students feel and know they are welcome on your campus without inclusion at its core. The art we hang, the programs we support, the clubs we fund, and the grants and scholarships we seek are meaningless without a commitment to welcoming and caring for our students each and every day.
Colleges are digging into diversity data to see where students can be better supported and developing welcoming strategies to support our diverse populations; however, the challenges are profound, especially in academic achievement levels. The Achieving the Dream organization helps colleges use data and strategy to remove barriers that create achievement gaps between our poor and white, Hispanic, and black students. Having worked with them extensively in the past, I have known the real struggles colleges have in finding solutions that will move the needle on these disappointing academic achievement gaps.
Colleges have tried inspirational mentoring programs, supported-cohort models, and co-requisite course strategies. We have tried targeted scholarship support, peer supporting, and event summer bridge programs. Yet, no one program addresses or is successful in meeting academic achievement gaps. A one size fits all approach to diversity work does not work. For, diversity is multiplicity in individuals; it is race, age, gender, sexual identity, physical challenges, economic, cultural and experiential—big issues with big complexities. It is work that must seek several solutions and ongoing solutions. And, in all of this work, we must create welcoming, flexible, practical, and nuanced programs and curriculum that appeal to many diverse groups and individuals – not just one.
We must also look at the internal factors of why our diverse students struggle more and how the mindset might contribute to these achievement gaps. In the literature I have read and the experiences I have had with students, one of the biggest factors is not academic ability but confidence levels that indicate whether or not a student will be successful. Students who have had significant socioeconomic disadvantages typically lack confidence in their academic abilities. Students who are confident take the opportunity to interact with professors; they are more likely to participate in extracurricular activities; they are more likely to do the work required to do well in classes; they find ways to overcome obstacles. Students who lack this confidence are less likely to do well in school because their motivation dwindles when they don’t believe in themselves. NHTI builds these confidence muscles by getting to know our students better and helping them to discover their own, unique abilities.
We know that diversity and equity help an organization by expanding creativity and problem-solving, improving decision-making, increasing profits and productivity, enhancing employee engagement and retention, and improving the reputation of the college – and we also know that DEI improves student success. It makes our students feel, know, believe, and trust they are truly welcome, they belong, and they can do college. It shifts mindsets to ones of confidence and clarity. This is our mission, purpose, and value.