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Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Efforts Persist at Universities Despite the Pandemic

December 10, 2020 Leadership
By Dom Nicastro

When Bevlee Watford started as a freshman at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Va., she was the only engineering student on her floor.

“Everybody else was studying something else,” said Watford, now associate dean for equity and engagement and the executive director of the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity at the university. “It was very challenging. I had nobody I could commiserate with or talk to about engineering.”

In her present role at the university, Watford, a Black woman, aims to ensure all incoming, current and future students feel like they have people to talk to. And it’s not just fostering connections between those with the same majors.

The goal is simple. Make all students, regardless of race or gender, feel welcome and in a position to thrive in their chosen degree paths. In particular, she wants to help underrepresented students achieve their educational and professional goals. She's not a bad role model, either. Three years ago, Watford became the first African-American female president of the American Society for Engineering Education.

But, 2020 is 2020. COVID-19 made everything more challenging, and that includes the mission of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). This is especially true for colleges and universities whose traditional on-campus model has been blown apart.

Even before COVID-19, colleges needed help with DEI. Now this?

“The pandemic has made things challenging,” Watford said. “I’ve had Zoom calls with students telling them our job is to be here for them. Our job is to get them out of school. Our job is to help them earn their degree, whatever degree they want to earn. That's what we're here for. They have my email because I sent them a personal invitation to these Zoom welcome receptions. I tell them all they have to do is let me know how we can help.”

Building a community that embraces the values of diversity, equity and inclusion and belonging within the limitations created by COVID is critical to organizations today. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May sparked global calls for social justice and ignited many efforts in the workplace to stimulate, start and strengthen workplace DEI initiatives. 

Related Article: Two Nonprofits Breaking Down Barriers for Underrepresented Communities in Tech

Looking Beyond Raw Numbers

Bevlee Watford headshot
Bevlee Watford

Those roots can often begin in higher education. At Virginia Tech, for instance, its InclusiveVT programs continue to operate despite the onset of the pandemic. As of fall 2020, Virginia Tech’s race/ethnicity statistics are:

Engineering/University

  • American Indian or Alaskan Native: 10/36
  • Asian: 1,297/3,325
  • Black or African American: 380/1,458
  • Hispanics of any race: 716/2,318
  • Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander: 11/35
  • White: 5,331/18,834
  • Two or more races: 451/1,516
  • Not reported: 249/759
  • Nonresident alien: 913/1,739
  • Total: 9,358/30,020

Numbers are critical, Watford said, and it goes beyond raw ethnicity data. She's focused on retention rates, graduation rates and other data that measure success for students from underrepresented backgrounds. And all students, for that matter.

But building communities is also critical. Try doing that on the internet. That's the hand COVID-19 dealt to leaders like Watford.

Turning to Zoom for Inclusion

Without opportunities to bring students together in the same room, Watford and staff held multiple Zoom welcome receptions in the summer. They held one in conjunction with the National Society of Black Engineers for incoming Black freshmen, one with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers for Latino and Hispanic students and another for the Society of Women Engineers, among other efforts. But the fact is community-building for underrepresented students never ends.

“A lot of places have the same types of things, but these are the things that we do to try build community among the groups, and let them know that there are people here that support them,” Watford said. “We spent time on the Zoom calls telling them who we are so they could see our faces.”

Those Zoom welcome receptions included chat-room breakouts of five students/faculty members to catch up on a more intimate level.

“We created those chat rooms and randomly threw five people into each chat room to just meet and greet and say hi,” Watford said. “That was great. They had a chance to be paired with four other students, and we were talking about where they're from and what they want to study. Each chat lasted about five minutes before we went off into another one and met more new people. It actually worked out pretty well.”

Related Article: How Companies Can Bake Diversity and Inclusion Into Their DNA

Building DEI Online Even Before COVID-19

headshot of Annabelle Goodwin
Annabelle Goodwin
Annabelle Goodwin knows well the challenge of building a diverse culture in a university through virtual circles. She is the director of equity and inclusion/faculty at La Jolla, Calif.-based Northcentral University, a 13,000-student (average age of 43) online university. They’ve been building diversity and inclusion practices virtually long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have been making steady improvements in creating an inclusive culture at Northcentral University for several years,” said Goodwin, who happened to earn a PhD at Virginia Tech. “Learning how to create an inclusive culture is a value of ours, and we recognize that doing so with a diverse and geographically dispersed community requires intention, commitment and creativity.”

Access to the university through open enrollment is part of their mission, and it also requires them to be thoughtful about how they are being inclusive and equitable in their practices, Goodwin said. She co-chairs the University Diversity Committee, composed of employees from across the university, aiming for representation across all units and academic disciplines.

“We facilitate a bidirectional influence where each member is encouraged to bring information from their functional area to the committee while also bringing lessons learned from the committee back to their functional areas,” Goodwin said. “We have designed specific task forces within the committee with the same practices in mind and we have learned that sharing the responsibility across committee members and throughout the university keeps our work more inclusive. We overtly state that we do not believe that a diverse and inclusive culture can exist if the work of diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice is relegated to one person or one office.”

Student Participation Encouraged

In addition to having an inclusive steering committee, Northcentral also took steps to share key items from its strategic plan with faculty and students. Nearly 33% of students are Black, 32% White, 8% Hispanic/Latino, 3% two or more races, 2% Asian, 1% American Indian or Alaskan Native, 1% Pacific Islander and 20% unreported.

“We provided them an opportunity to comment on mission, vision and values in writing and through focus groups,” Goodwin said. “We then took this feedback and used it to assist us with drafting revisions that truly reflected our community members.”

The university also completed a climate survey of both students and employees. Through this process, officials developed representative task forces through the University Diversity Committee, responsible for coming up with recommendations following an environmental scan and review of the literature identifying promising practices. “These recommendations will then be shared with the larger university so that enacting inclusive practices is a systemic and shared responsibility,” Goodwin said.

Related Article: Embrace Diversity and Inclusion for an Improved Employee Experience

Focusing on Outreach, Not Just Recruiting

While the pandemic slowed things down, nothing is being permanently sidelined at Virginia Tech. The peer mentoring program, for instance, has spanned decades. It’s a way to not just build culture but also build community, Watford said. Upperclassmen mentor freshmen.

“And I should say most of our programs are targeted at freshmen, trying to get them acclimated and adjusted to Virginia Tech,” Watford said. “Typically after that if we can get them through the freshman year they're pretty much good to go.”

Watford also inherited a middle school summer camp and has started a girls' camp. All of these programs and other offerings for pre-college age students are in the name of community building, not just for recruitment purposes for Virginia Tech. The university also works with federal officials to run a program called “Tech Girls,” for girls from the North African region to learn about computer science and technology.

“We literally will have 1,000 or more pre-college students here during the summer learning, and you know that's where it starts,” Watford said. “You've got to get the kids in the pipeline, so that they understand what engineering is so that then they can make that choice when they get to the point where they can make a choice.”

The university also runs programs that connect female engineering students with one another. There are similar programs for men. "They can be spread all over the place where they literally might not ever meet another one female engineering student," Watford said. "When I was in school I was the only engineer on my floor, and it can be isolating.”

Isolation is something Watford is watching closely given how lonely living through a pandemic can be for students.

“This year is challenging because of the whole situation that we're in,” she said. “So we've got to figure out a way to build community the way we always have without seeing people in person. The students have to meet each other when they're not going out anywhere. That's something that we're really concerned about. We want to interact with them and have them help us understand what they need and what we can be providing for them.”

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