Innovations 2008 Conference Highlights Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Themes

DENVER, Colo. — Last week, 2,100 community college faculty, administrators and advocates gathered in the mile high city for the League for Innovation in the Community College’s Innovations 2008 Conference, hosted by the Community College of Denver. Conference sessions were broken down in eight tracks focusing on topics like “Learning and Teaching” and “Leadership and Organization.” One of the tracks was also dedicated to “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.”

In his opening keynote, Valencia Community College President Sanford C. Shugart addressed the perception among many community college educators that some students just can’t learn, and are in community colleges to go through a sifting process determining who can and can’t keep up with college-level work.

Shugart said Valencia launched a learning initiative that was founded on the notion that even the most underprepared and underprivileged students can thrive and succeed in college, given the right circumstances.

“We changed our belief about students. We decided to believe anyone can learn anything under the right conditions. We believe that our institutions are organized around the assumption that lots of people can’t do the work, and they shouldn’t be here, but it’s hard to know which ones they are, so lets give them a chance and then we’ll know. It’s a sifting function,” Shugart said.

After having studied the issue of whether the most disadvantaged students can actually thrive in college-level mathematics courses, for instance, Shugart said “the truth is, none of those that we’re sifting out are incapable of learning everything we have to teach them — that’s the truth.

“Under the right conditions, if you’re not brain damaged, you can learn anything. A tiny fraction of people have the damage, and even they will surprise you. The brain is an amazing thing.”

Also during the opening session, Dr. Christine Johnson McPhail, professor and graduate coordinator in the Community College Leadership Program at Morgan State University and former president of Cypress College in Cypress, Calif., was awarded the ETS 2008 Terry O’Banion Prize for Teaching and Learning.

“It’s not an award that I take lightly. I’ve dedicated the award to all of the believers in the community college mission, people who believe that it’s not just enough to have open doors for the community college but we must also keep our minds open to what we need to do to continue to make community college education meaningful for the people that we serve,” McPhail said.

In one riveting session held on the diversity track, Dr. Serena St. Clair, who serves as faculty coordinator for pathways and articulation within the Instructional Services Division of Rogue Community College in Medford, Ore., hosted a roundtable discussion on “The Journey of Developing Multicultural Competence: Living Experiences Shared.”

In her presentation, St. Clair discussion some of the themes within her recently completed doctoral dissertation in which she explores the oft-difficult task of implementing effective institutional diversity training initiatives.

I really think that the term “diversity training” is a misnomer. Really, it’s an educational process,” St. Clair said. “And I think one of the things that’s failed in diversity training is that we’ve done a lot of one-day gatherings … and that what I came to realize in my own work and in my reading is that it’s much more of an internal journey.

“And so I made a decision to look at what is that journey of developing multicultural competence, and I wanted to target student affairs professionals because often diversity trainings fall into a students services or student affairs side of the house,” she added.

St. Clair related some of her experiences hosting diversity training exercises, and found that some participants got emotional when coming to grips with their own self-identity questions and how they fit in a multicultural context. Particularly, St. Clair says getting White participants in a diversity training context to understand what their culture is, amid a group of other more defined identities such as being African or Mexican, is a challenge.

“Even if you’re a White, middle-class dominant majority person, you have a cultural heritage that you have to own. That was the thing I found out when I did a lot of diversity work, was that people who came from Iowa said, ‘I have no culture, I’m from Iowa.’ There’s an Iowan culture,” St. Clair said. “It’s really about understanding our cultural heritage and identity, and then it’s also about understanding the contemporary struggles of marginalized groups.”

The League for Innovation in the Community College will host several more events throughout the year, including the Learning College Summit from June 8-11 in Overland Park, Kansas, and the Conference on Information Technology from Oct. 19-22 in Salt Lake City, Utah. For more information, visit the League on the Web at www.league.org.

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