Supporting students of color: Faculty share ideas to expand concept of equity

Laurie Elish-Piper
Laurie Elish-Piper

As the powerful messages from a panel of Black students concluded during the Jan. 7 all-college meeting, Dean Laurie Elish-Piper shifted the conversation to action.

“I’ve asked each department to share an initiative that directly relates to supporting students of color, broadening our students’ understanding of equity or broadening our students’ global view,” Elish-Piper said. “I’m hoping that what they share will inspire you to leave the meeting today thinking, ‘We could do something like that in our area.’ ”

Representatives from each of the college’s six departments described projects that are either ongoing or in development, from courses designed to accomplish those goals to experiential learning programs, student organizations and mentoring networks.

Laura Hedin, chair of the Department of Special and Early Education, talked about SESE 230: Exploring the Special Education Major.

Piloted in the fall of 2017, the course provides “supports for progressing through our program” and teaches students “to advocate for themselves, helping them to get to know their strengths as learners and as future professionals.”

Laura Hedin
Laura Hedin

“This was not specifically targeted for students of color, but we find that it helps them to locate the resources that students need to be successful,” Hedin said. “We also emphasize in that course making connections.”

Such connections are the product of one-on-one meetings between the students and “our most skilled professors and faculty members” who teach SESE 230, she said. Those personal chats help faculty to know the students as individuals, enabling them to make the right introductions.”

“If there is a specific faculty member who has the same kind of interests as the student, or if there is a special student organization that would support those students, the faculty can help to make those connections,” Hedin said. “We think this has a direct impact in helping our candidates to progress through those early undergraduate courses.”

Teresa Wasonga, a professor and NIU Presidential Engagement Professor in the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations, spoke about EPFE 201: Education as an Agent for Change.

“We attract students from almost every college on campus. You will have students from almost every background you can think of,” Wasonga said.

Teresa Wasonga
Teresa Wasonga

“It is diverse. It is inclusive. But it is also one of the most challenging classes to teach because, whichever way you look at it, you have a huge spectrum to think about in terms of the students, in terms of their backgrounds, in terms of the different colleges they come from.”

Class discussions can become “extremely intense,” Wasonga said, as students think critically and engage in dialogue about social issues at local and global levels, exploring strengths and weaknesses of U.S. democracy and institutions, immigration, the intersectionality of identities and more.

But, she added, those exchanges lead to “people really being able to understand each other: white, Black, poor, rich, having the opportunity to say who they are. They begin to have empathy for each other because they’re all in one space, even though they’re coming from very different places.”

David Nieto, an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, presented on the latest Educate Global experiential opportunity with La Universidad de Alcalá in Madrid.

Seventy students – 35 from each university – participated in three online, synchronous seminars last semester. They compared U.S. and Spanish educational systems, deliberated bilingual education and teaching in multicultural classrooms, examined multiculturalism and interculturality and joined in breakout sessions.

David Nieto
David Nieto

“The goal was that participants could have enriching discussions about different concepts around educational systems, both in the U.S. and Spain,” Nieto said. “We wanted to emphasize aspects of access, equity and justice, and help our students understand different approaches, different understandings and how we can learn from others and apply it to our own situations.”

Going virtual via Zoom, as the COVID-19 pandemic demanded, added a meaningful layer to the international collaboration.

“Online teaching can and must be culturally responsive,” Nieto said. “Especially in this space of social distancing, it’s almost essential that we build learning partnerships online so that we can challenge single perspectives about issues of race, ethnicity, language, gender and sexual orientation to foster respect and understanding.”

Three departments’ presentations focused on networking.

In the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment, the thriving Graduate Student Association provides a gathering place of diverse cultures and ethnic backgrounds.

“We meet monthly and discuss different initiatives and events, and how we can support our students professionally, academically and socially,” said Olha Ketsman, a clinical assistant professor and the group’s faculty adviser.

Among those initiatives are applications for official recognition and funding from the NIU Student Association as well as the organization of the annual graduate colloquium.

Olha Ketsman and Sena Bulak
Olha Ketsman and Sena Bulak

“Students are working collaboratively to write a proposal for funding, select a speaker from the field from around the country who they would like to bring to campus to interact with us,” Ketsman said. “It provides a great opportunity to bring a lot of students to campus, and it provides an opportunity for these interactions and exchange of diverse opinions.”

GSA President Sena Bulak, a Ph.D. student in Instructional Technology, said the group also publishes a monthly newsletter to keep members informed on recent and current research, noteworthy accomplishments and future events.

Bulak said the group is also improving its website while also incentivizing membership and active participation through giveaways that include everything from pens, mugs and T-shirts to headsets and external hard drives.

Faculty in the Department of Counseling and Higher Education, meanwhile, created Counselors of Color Community Connection to foster a relationship in which students feel that faculty care about their success as well as to offer holistic support for students of color and to gain insight regarding personal and professional supports to foster success and retention.

Dana Isawi and Jehan Hill
Dana Isawi and Jehan Hill

Counselors of Color originated from feedback generated during a focus group session led by Dana Isawi, an assistant professor of Counseling.

“A virtual meeting space was created in Teams for our faculty and students of color to meet twice a month, allowing students to have a special space for them in a system where they often feel invisible,” said Jehan Hill, who joined the department in August as an assistant professor.

“These meetings were not isolated to just the fall and spring semesters; they continued throughout the summer, which was invaluable as there was a need to process the devastating impact that COVID has had on Black and brown communities, and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” Hill added. “Having this brave space has allowed for a greater connection between our doctoral students, master students and faculty of color.”

“Some of our plans include inviting guest speakers and involving alumni of color,” Isawi said, “as well as to offer professional learning opportunities and social support to foster professional development for our students and to provide that sense of community.”

Establishing strong and nurturing connections between students and alumni of color is the goal of a project under development in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education.

Steve Howell and Jenn Jacobs
Steve Howell and Jenn Jacobs

Jenn Jacobs, assistant professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology, and Steve Howell, associate professor of Sport Management, hope to fully launch the mentoring program in February and improve retention of students of color in the process.

Recruitment of alumni already has begun.

“Dr. Jacobs and I have comprised a list of 25 or so potential mentors – specifically, alumni of color – from all of our different specializations within the department,” said Howell, who is also the acting associate chair. “These mentors would provide a wide array of support, networking, guidance and strategies for getting internships, how to get into graduate school and post-graduation career opportunities.”

Select students will receive emails this month inviting them to become “fellows” of the program, Howell said.

Those who participate will improve their academic achievement while they enhance their professional development, cultivate leadership skills, develop career-readiness and yield success, he added.

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