Dr. Cherly Gary-Furdge is a Professor of Criminal Justice and Sociology at North Central Texas College
A few years into my higher education career, a young Hispanic woman walked into my office in tears. Despite being a young faculty member, I did not hesitate to ask her what was wrong. She looked at me and said she felt like a failure because the scores on her TSI exam were so low that she would have to take all remedial courses. I asked, “Is that a feeling or a reality? How does this make you a failure?” She was surprised by my response, and I told her that this was just a small hurdle to cross and she would cross it, and not to let a test score define her. I asked her what her end goal was and she said she wanted to be a lawyer.
We continued the conversation by working to get her registered for classes and find tools to help with standardized test-taking strategies. The conversation went on for more than an hour, but the young lady left with a smile and the motivation to conquer her dreams. At the time, she was a first-generation college student—and today I’m proud to report that she’s an attorney.
Why Is This Story Important?
When the student left, I literally cried. Even after making her feel better, my heart ached because so many students run into this same roadblock of, “I can’t do this”—and some are even told they can’t. How often do our students run into barriers in our educational system that cause them to feel this way? Many K-12 schools and higher education institutions are aggressively having the conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and that’s great. But what’s more impactful is putting into action those things DEI seeks to address.
Throughout my years as an educator, I’ve heard many colleagues say that the students enrolling today aren’t ready for college. Could it be that we—the college faculty and staff—are the ones who aren’t ready for the students? Ask yourself, what have you done in your school/institution to ensure you’re ready for the student population you’re serving? I’m referencing both schools and higher education institutions, because the issues I’m discussing are common in K-12 as well as colleges and universities.
I remember sitting in a division meeting with my faculty and one professor stated the students in his class couldn’t write. I asked him why in that case, he was giving so many multiple-choice exams. When we identify a weakness that our student population is experiencing, it should be our goal as educators to address it. I can hear the response now: “but I’m not an English teacher!” You don’t have to be. Give the assignments and advise the students to use the writing lab.
Implementing assignments that are more pleasant for you may be setting the students up for failure in that area. In order for a higher education institution to become a student-ready college, everyone who has contact with the students must work with them to overcome weaknesses and barriers. This doesn’t mean you need to lower your standards for certain students, but you should take the time to individually address their needs to help them be successful. A little more time and work is required to do this—but it’s worth it.
Understanding Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
To understand how to incorporate DEI, we must understand the following:
- Diversity is a Fact
- Equity is a State
- Inclusion is an Act
It’s a fact that we live in a very diverse world and that schools and higher education institutions have diverse populations of students, faculty and staff. There’s evidence that inequities and a lack of fairness and justice for some students exist. The reason I mention fairness and justice together is because to provide justice you must be fair in your policies that aim to redress racial inequity. In other words, you must make data-driven decisions to remove barriers.
Once you’ve identified the inequities, the next step is to be inclusive. As faculty members, oftentimes we write our syllabi to fit our lives rather than developing a syllabus for the students. What we don’t understand is by doing this, we’re creating possible barriers for our students. My faculty and I laugh because at every division meeting I say, “If your syllabus looks exactly the same as it did two years ago, you have not allowed yourself to grow.”
The reality is we’re not just teachers, we’re also learners. If we’re going to be student-ready, we must position ourselves for continuous growth, become comfortable with being uncomfortable and start addressing the inequities that exist among our students. To do this we must create our own professional development by reading or listening to books that will help us understand people from diverse backgrounds. There’s a plethora of videos available online—YouTube is a great place to start. If we want our students to succeed, we must set time aside to educate ourselves so we understand the barriers that are preventing them from succeeding.
What Does Change Look Like?
During the spring semester, one of my faculty members met with me to discuss a student who was struggling in her class. She saw that the student knew the information, but a language barrier was causing her to struggle. I asked her how she wanted to address the situation. Once she explained her plan—which caused her to deviate from her syllabus—I quickly gave my stamp of approval. I told her how much I appreciated her identifying the student’s struggle and for being willing to go that extra mile to ensure she was successful in the class.
This was huge. Many of us see our students struggle, and sometimes our attitude is, “well, we’re preparing them for the workplace.” But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that everyone can use a little grace now and then.
Breaking Down Barriers to Student Success
As I close, there are a few things I would like to ask you:
- Are you constantly educating yourself to ensure you can address barriers your students face?
- Do you intentionally seek to address those barriers each day, semester or year?
- Are you educating yourself about diversity, equity and inclusion?
- Are you preparing your institution to be a student-ready college?
If you’re not doing all the above, it’s possible that you’re not only blocking some students from succeeding but also committing microaggressions unintentionally. And when acts of microaggression occur—intentional or unintentional—students are likely to simply give up.
My final question to you is, are those the results you want? If not, then here are some things I recommend as next steps:
- Find books that will help you identify inequities students face in education.
- Have a conversation with your students about what they need from you to succeed.
- Create dialogue among your colleagues about diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- Be more intentional about considering barriers students face when preparing classes.
When all of us across our institutions prioritize DEI, including how we approach it at an individual level, we become better prepared to empower our students.