What Works: Creating Diverse and Inclusive Graduate Campuses

May 20, 2020

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By Karen P. DePauw

The National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan interviewed a number of academic diversity officers (ADOs) to learn more about how they view their role. Results from this study were published last fall. In this new blog series, ADOs and other senior leaders discuss the role, the challenges ADOs face, and the opportunities these positions bring to college and university campuses.

Diversity is a frequent topic of conversation within graduate schools and across a broad range of graduate and professional programs. These conversations are essential, and leaders in graduate schools are trying to learn from each other what works. There is no handbook for the best way to increase diversity and foster inclusion on campus. But it is achievable, and programs that have done it well are ready and willing to share their secrets, because they know the benefits of creating inclusive campuses extend well beyond our institutional walls into communities and society as a whole.

To create affirming and inclusive environments for all students, graduate schools must create programs where everyone feels responsibility for diversity and inclusion. While we want to welcome students from a range of geographic, educational, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, we often struggle to foster a truly diverse and inclusive experience through the entire student lifecycle, from recruitment and admissions through retention and completion. The challenge is substantial, but fortunately there are steps we can take, especially intentional changes in admissions processes and transparency about the barriers to increasing the number of applicants and welcoming individuals of diverse backgrounds.

Students enjoying a welcome back barbecue at the Graduate Life Center. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech Graduate School.

With inclusion as a top priority, it’s imperative for us to inspire students, faculty, and administrators to assume responsibility for operating and taking part in inclusive programs. In the current graduate education system, we often rely on inclusion committees, or folks who study the importance of inclusion, to create these programs instead of involving the broader graduate school and programs. Graduate deans should assume a leadership role and actively engage in creating and sustaining diverse and inclusive environments for graduate education. Inclusion must become more than checking a box: We should be driving the creation of intersectional classrooms, implementing inclusive pedagogy, and fostering nurturing environments.

Diversity and inclusion at Virginia Tech

While serving as vice president and dean of graduate education at Virginia Tech, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate closely with fellow faculty and administrators with the goal of driving diversity in our graduate school programs. My role has been a privilege for many reasons, especially because the vision of those I work with so closely aligns with my personal commitment of building an inclusive educational community here at Virginia Tech. We’ve taken several important steps to diversify our campus, including the following:

Office of Recruitment, Diversity and Inclusion

Our first milestone was the creation of an Office of Recruitment, Diversity and Inclusion, an effort to support our students as they become comfortable with the life changes that come with graduate school. This office has allowed us to dedicate people, resources, and time to achieve our inclusion and diversity goals, motivate and encourage our students to foster a welcoming community, and retain our students throughout their education. Creating this department was an obvious step for us to move, as an organization, beyond talking to implementing solutions.

Students participate in the Graduate School's Communicating Science course, taught by Patty Raun. Students use theater training techniques to improve their communications skills relating their research to non-field-specific audiences. Improv, communicate
A Communicating Science class taught by Dr. Carolyn Kroehler. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech Graduate School.

Transformative Graduate Education Initiative

Truly changing the graduate school experience is a crucial step in better preparing our students for life and work after graduation through an understanding of the diverse society into which they will enter or return. The Virginia Tech graduate education experience must be meaningful and pertinent, as the responsibility of a graduate school is to educate the next generations of professionals. We developed a university-wide program known as the Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative to change how we prepare the next generations, with one of the primary commitments of the program being a pledge to diversity, inclusivity, and civic engagement. TGE is working to provide academics from all backgrounds the opportunity to explore interdisciplinary pedagogies while in their programs, with the goal of inspiring students to correlate their academic pursuits with community service, civic participation, and ethical change.

Holistic admissions

A key step we’ve taken in our admissions process is to implement holistic evaluation into our programs to ensure that we consider students’ educational, social, and cultural backgrounds in addition to their GPAs and test scores. We modified our application forms so that admissions committees incorporate a range of applicant attributes—such as communications skills, teamwork, and integrity—and made it possible to filter the applications to include these criteria. Each department is trained in how to holistically review applicant files. This training includes how to evaluate each piece of evidence, such as standardized measures of graduate readiness, like the GRE General Test, measures of academic achievement like GPAs, and more subjective evidence.

Holistic file review requires that we look at all available information to get a full picture of a student’s capabilities. This is why our application instructions request applicants to submit information about their knowledge, skills, and abilities, which gives them the opportunity to advocate for their strengths in writing in addition to quantitative evidence. The process invites applicants to share information about service to their community, their personal or professional ethics, previous research, and any barriers they overcame. Through this holistic admission process, we can not only effectively gauge a student’s graduate readiness and academic achievements, but also their experiences, skills, and personal attributes, which are important indicators of degree completion and research productivity.

Graduate Life Center

While the holistic evaluation of applicants helps us enroll students from diverse backgrounds, ensuring retention is another critical piece. In addition to our emphasis on transforming graduate education through our TGE initiative, we created what is now a nationally recognized Graduate Life Center (GLC). A key aspect of retaining students is creating “a space and place” where students can feel welcome, access support services, and ultimately succeed in their academic program. The GLC serves as more than an academic facility: It strengthens the welcoming environment we provide for our students—a space and place for graduate education. The center was developed to focus on the unique needs of graduate students. For example, we offer support resources for partners/spouses and child care options, because graduate students often bring partners and families with them. We also offer career services, counseling, and student support services, including assistance for international students. In addition, we created an Office of the Graduate Student Ombudsperson and launched an initiative on disrupting academic bullying.

Inclusion and diversity requirement

In 2018, the Virginia Tech Commission on Graduate Studies and Policies approved a proposed requirement for the graduate school that centered on inclusion and diversity. Moving forward, all degree-seeking students at the institution must partake in inclusion and diversity educational programs. In addition, each department or program must prepare a plan to meet specific benchmarks outlined in the requirement and submit it for approval by the graduate school.

While Virginia Tech continues to make progress by implementing bold solutions, we still have progress to make. For graduate programs to drive inclusion and diversity on campuses, there’s a period of introspection and critical conversation that we all must take part in. We must focus on inclusion because if we are truly inclusive, we will be diverse. If we focus only on diversity, we can fall short on creating and sustaining inclusion. As I said, there is no handbook for how to achieve inclusion and diversity goals, so we encourage our peers to share their success stories so we can learn from each other. Our collective efforts must be bold and will require leadership and action from graduate school administrators and faculty to truly build an affirming, welcoming, and diverse institution.

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