Inspiring Leadership with Diversity, Inclusion & Cultural Competence

Back to School?

By Leah Smiley, CDE

 

My children went back to school on July 30th.

My youngest daughter and son are polar opposites. She loves school and can’t wait to compete with the other students for the top honors. I have to remind my daughter to tone down her rhetoric, because everyone is not used to a smart, confident and beautiful little black girl proclaiming her greatness like Muhammad Ali. She is very intelligent and talented in art. My son…well, let’s just say that he just recently stopped telling me that Kindergarten’s day is too long, and he hasn’t cried for two mornings straight!

Over the weekend, I saw quite a few families packing up for college. One dad, in particular, stood out. He appeared very excited to take his son to school. This image reminded me that there are many first-generation college students entering school this fall. In 2010, 25% of all American undergraduate students at 4-year colleges and universities came from families in which neither parent had attended a community college or 4-year college. An additional 25% of undergraduate students indicated their parents had some college experience, but no bachelor’s degree (National Center for Education Statistics, 2010).

The New York Times recently ran an article entitled “Who Gets to Graduate?” In it, author Paul Tough asserts, “When you look at the national statistics on college graduation rates, there are two big trends that stand out right away. The first is that there are a whole lot of students who make it to college – who show up on campus and enroll in classes – but never get their degrees. More than 40 percent of American students who start at four-year colleges haven’t earned a degree after six years. If you include community-college students in the tabulation, the dropout rate is more than half, worse than any other country except Hungary.

The second trend is that whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor – how much money his or her parents make. To put it in blunt terms: Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t.”

Traditional “bridge” programs tend to focus on academic deficits, remedial coursework, and study skills training. However, within recent years, more institutions are developing innovative approaches to address the economic disadvantages.

For example, author Wray Herbert notes in a HuffPost Blog on “What’s a GPA?” that “Nicole Stephens and Mesmin Destin of Northwestern and MarYam Hamedani of Stanford have devised a novel intervention that — instead of playing down social background — encourages disadvantaged college freshmen to explore the ways in which their social backgrounds are shaping their college experience and limiting their opportunity. The idea is that learning about class differences, and why they matter, can empower students with strategies for success.” The intervention uses group dialogue to challenge students in their approach to learning, asking for help, and overcoming setbacks.

Economic status is a dimension of diversity that is often neglected in favor of race alone. But the ability to create effective diversity and inclusion interventions on college campuses may entail broadening the definition of diversity, and expanding its scope among all students. What will it mean to your office? What will it mean for your students? I sense that “back to school” can open up a whole new avenue of opportunity, and achievement, for everyone.

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Leah Smiley is the President of the Society for Diversity, the #1 and largest professional association for diversity and inclusion. For more information about the Society for Diversity, log onto http://www.societyfordiversity.org.

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