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Local Universities Helping to Advance Equity and Inclusion Across Academia

In the wise words of Mahatma Gandhi, “No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.” This sentiment includes academia, which does not have the best history of inclusion.

To acknowledge the mistakes of the past while working toward a more equitable future for all is on the agenda for most colleges and universities these days. Pittsburgh-region institutions of higher education are no exception, with many of them hiring diversity and inclusion officers to help tackle this monumental task.

It is hardly a secret that higher education is a pathway to social mobility in the United States. Over the last 50 years, racial and ethnic disparities in higher education enrollment and attainment have grown throughout the U.S. Locally, colleges and universities are prioritizing not only encouraging diversity in their student populations but are also going the extra mile to ensure that ethnic minorities are successful once they are on board.

At La Roche University, there is a strategy designed to enroll students from diverse religious, ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds. In July 2020, the university’s Executive Director for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer, Sarah White, was appointed to a cabinet-level position. Additionally, the Office of Accessibility Services joined her department.

“This first year of transition has been about gaining a full understanding of our current campus climate and encouraging dialogue across differences,” she said

A campus survey gathered feedback to assess the experiences of the campus community. “While the feedback has been quite favorable overall, we firmly believe that diversity, equity, and inclusion is not a final destination, but a continuous journey,” said White.

She added that the admissions teams take multiple approaches to achieve diversity goals. “La Roche’s small size allows for personal and individualized attention to all students, and we consistently attract a large number of first-generation college students,” she explained. “We have dedicated recruitment efforts in targeted geographic areas including the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and a portion of Texas.”

La Roche is consistently recognized for the large percentage of international students it has in its student body; typically, 15 to 20 percent of the total student population each year consists of international students.

“Several of our admissions counselors are bilingual or proficient in Spanish. La Roche is also a preferred partner with the Pittsburgh Promise, with a dedicated admissions counselor for the Pittsburgh Public Schools,” said White, adding that the university routinely offers scholarships to graduates.

Once students are enrolled at La Roche, they are not left to navigate the experience alone. The university offers several student programs to support and retain students from minoritized populations.

“Black Student Achievement is an organization that provides support and a sense of community for Black students, and it is a safe space for addressing issues that impact their experiences on and off campus. Additional inclusion and affinity groups include the African Cultures Club, Saudi Club, Asian Club, Gay Straight Alliance, GLOBE, and MOSAIC,” said White.

La Roche has taken it one step further by using an early alert system designed to identify and support students who are struggling academically or emotionally.

Robert Morris University (RMU) is recognized as one of the most diverse and inclusive institutions in Pennsylvania.

“First and foremost, we endeavor to make a college degree affordable and accessible to everyone,” said Jonathan Potts, vice president of public relations and marketing. “We offer several scholarship programs tailored specifically for underrepresented students, including, most recently, the Next Century Scholars Program, funded with a $3 million gift from Netflix founder Reed Hastings.”

RMU has also established robust relationships with schools and school districts that enroll a high number of underrepresented students so they can build strong K-12 pipelines. The university recently launched its Center for Equity and Professional Advancement, which will help enroll more students of diverse backgrounds and support them once enrolled, Potts said.

To help students succeed at the university, RMU’s Multicultural Student Services promotes inclusion and engagement for underrepresented student populations. Through programs and culturally relevant events, RMU empowers students in their identities, builds community, and helps diverse groups of students find their individual and collective voices.

The efforts do not stop there. RMU also launched an internal Anti-Racism Task Force to help the university make informed decisions for strategic planning that will enable RMU to better support its diverse student population, faculty, staff and administration. “This is just the beginning of intentional work to help the university continue to grow in its diversity,” said Potts.

Another local university is also taking steps to address structural inequality. Bill Campbell, vice president of communications and marketing at Chatham University, said diversity and inclusion is a core value at Chatham. Like La Roche, Chatham University acknowledges that building a more just and inclusive campus culture is an ongoing process.

Chatham’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion provides an affirming and supportive environment for all students, said Campbell. Through events, programs, student support and more, the goal is to build and sustain a diverse campus culture dedicated to promoting multicultural education and student success and retention.

One of Chatham’s mentorship programs aimed at increasing the academic success, professionalism and leadership skills of its students of color is called R.I.S.E. (Retain. Involve. Strengthen. Excel.) Chatham alumnus Shamin Mason, ’13,

created R.I.S.E. in 2012. The year-long program pairs students with a mentor, institutional support, and a series of cocurricular programs designed to help them grow and succeed.

Campbell said the university-wide Diversity and Inclusion Council at Chatham promotes dialogue, education, research, self-reflection, and engagement to build a diverse and inclusive campus community. The council consists of faculty, staff and students and is a catalyst for creating an environment centered on acceptance, mutual respect and personal responsibility.

Staff members at Chatham, La Roche, and RMU receive diversity and inclusion training as part of the goal to create an inclusive culture. All three hold several events throughout the year focused on cultural and diversity issues.

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