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North Hills Monthly

Local Schools Focusing on Recruiting, Retaining Diverse Student Population

Sep 30, 2018 05:56PM ● By Kathleen Ganster

First-year students prepare to present their class resolutions during Thiel College’s opening convocation ceremony. The annual tradition welcomes the first-year students into the Thiel College community. Photo courtesy Thiel College

The faces that one sees in the student populations of local schools, colleges and universities have become more diverse in the past few decades, and this is a welcome change for these institutions. As schools have evolved to become more inclusive, how are they not only attracting those from various backgrounds, but ensuring that they feel both welcomed and included on campus?

Sewickley Academy works intentionally to both recruit and retain a diverse student population, according to Director of Equity, Inclusion and Service Learning LaVern Burton. “It is important that we have a school population that is representative of our wider community,” she said.

The admission office recruits students through various school fairs in the region, and partners with programs including Fund for Advancement of Minorities through Education (FAME) and various charter schools. It also works with Breakthrough Pittsburgh, an affiliate academic enrichment program committed to supporting high-potential, academically motivated, and under-resourced students to help them succeed in high school programs and attend a four-year college. The school's marketing pieces are intentionally reflective of the diversity within the community so that prospective families can identify with the student body. 

 Once students are enrolled, Sewickley Academy has numerous programs and services in place to help students succeed. These include transition teams for new students and families, and 48 student-led clubs, including the Islamic Culture Club, the Christian Fellowship Club, the Refugee Awareness Club, and the Pride Club, which are all geared towards supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“The Student Diversity Leadership Club (SDLC) provides student-leaders an opportunity to work toward the goal of helping students understand and learn about differences and encourages them to lean into difficult conversations,” Burton said. 

The club’s events include a cultural awareness night in partnership with the other clubs on campus, and SDLC also works with younger students at assemblies, and leads a regional diversity conference with students from other schools in the region. 

Sewickley Academy has also established an Equity and Inclusion Center, an area specifically designed to be welcoming to all students and to provide space for meetings, workshops and other community building activities. 

“It’s meaningful to have a space that is accessible and available to everyone,” Burton said. 

Burton also participates in the Southwestern PA Diversity Practitioners Cohort, a local group of school practitioners who meet once a month to see what others are doing in their schools in order to help their students collectively, she said. 

"We have to assist all students–we should not assume that they have the skills to overcome regional challenges all on their own,” she explained. "It is a continuous journey and we are moving in the right direction."  

At Thiel College, Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion Anthony Jones said that their efforts begin at the recruitment stage. 

“Honesty is key in terms of fit for the students we recruit; being honest with students academically and socially is a significant factor in retention,” he explained. “Our institution is challenging academically, and we do not want to fail to retain students because they were not prepared for the rigor. We also do not want to fail to retain students because they were expecting a social life that was more than our area could provide.”

Since Thiel recognizes that students must have both academic and social support systems for success, they have programs in place that focus on both aspects. The college works to equip faculty and staff so that they can best provide student support. 

“Titles do not matter as we are all committed to helping guide our students to succeed,” said Jones. “We provide support emotionally, physically and mentally through our Wellness and Counseling Center, and we provide tutoring through our Student Learning Center with personal sessions to support our students.” 

Jones also works with the college’s Human Resources Office to identify and implement more inclusive hiring practices for faculty and staff, and he works to help provide cultural competence efforts through training. 

Jones is also involved in other institutional initiatives including an All-Campus Retreat Session where he introduces the framework for initiatives the college will be working on throughout the year, and he serves on the Diversity & Inclusion Advisory Board and the MLK Planning Committee. 

“You must mold the campus environment to be inclusive, and be upfront about what will not be accepted as a member of the campus community,” Jones said. “Having those conversations on the front end, and then reinforcing those conversations through continued cultural competency training, needs to take place for faculty, staff and students in a way that is guaranteed to reach every person on campus multiple times a year.”

Jones also works closely with student groups and organizations with missions related to diversity—such as the LGBTQ+ Student Organization and the Organization of Black Collegians (OBC)—to help support their activities and develop their leaders. He recently met with LGBTQ+ leaders to discuss recent gender-inclusive housing options and gender-neutral and/or family restrooms on campus, and spoke with the OBC about strengthening their presence on campus and in the community.

Jones said that at Thiel, increasing diversity is a continuous process. “Campus climate surveys and Town Hall meetings should be done yearly to access campus inclusivity,” he said. 

Eighteen percent of La Roche College’s student population is made up of international students, and programming at the college assists students from all backgrounds, including the diverse international population, to feel included.

“The college always focuses on maintaining a high number of international students, and there are also intentional efforts to recruit from various territories like Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands,” said Candace Okello, director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

“We focus on identity development, critical dialogues around social justice issues, inclusivity, and highlighting and celebrating cultural traditions,” she continued. “For students, it is affirming for them to see themselves in programs because it says that we see them. I want them to know that who they are matters; how they identify matters, their experiences matter, and that we care about the issues that concern them. This, I believe, helps students feel a sense of belonging and better connects them so that they not only want to participate in the programs, but lead them.”

La Roche’s retention efforts include hosting organizations that offer programming and providing safe, inclusive places. 

“These are designed to be places where students can be in community with others who share their identity, where storytelling happens, and where relationships are developed,” said Okello. “Feeling connected, in general, is critical to retention.”

Okello also works with students to help them understand fellow classmates’ backgrounds. “I do cultural competency trainings with student leaders, facilitate social justice programs and engage students in cross-cultural dialogues,” she said. “During these sessions, students are asked to be reflective about their own identities, perspectives and world views, and how those connect to their leadership and ability to communicate across differences to build community beyond what’s familiar.”