DePaul strengthens efforts to cultivate sense of belonging for diverse students

Denise Mattson
March 02, 2017

Now that top administrators have reviewed DePaul's results from a national survey of student perceptions on diversity, the university is developing responses as it continues to improve the campus experience for students of color.

DePaul participated in the Higher Education Research Institute's Diverse Learning Environments survey, which was administered at 30 colleges and universities in 2016. A key finding was although overall students' perceptions of diversity are positive, satisfaction declined for students as their diverse characteristics increased, and was lowest for black students. Diverse characteristics included ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, political ideology, disability status, age, languages spoken and family income. The survey was sent to 8,000 randomly selected students - a standard university practice to prevent students from getting inundated with too many surveys. Of those 8,000 students, 5,000 were undergraduate and 3,000 were graduate students.

DePaul's Institutional Research and Market Analytics analyzed the results to offer a better understanding of how DePaul students perceive diversity, the nature of their diversity experiences and actions, as well as how the university promotes diversity. The survey also helps to establish a current baseline for how DePaul is addressing discrimination and racism across all demographics of its student body, according to Elizabeth Ortiz, vice president of the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity. "This helps us pinpoint where we need to focus our training and intervention.  It's an opportunity to educate, discuss and improve our cultural competencies," she says.

Katie Brick, director of Religious Diversity, agrees. "Through data, this survey brings to life what we heard students telling us," she says. "Data can move you to action. We should be asking ourselves 'what am I doing to make all students feel that they belong?'"

Understanding campus climate is an important component in DePaul's Action Plan on Speech and Race and supports the overarching Vision 2018 strategic goal of fostering diversity and inclusion.

Ortiz's next step is to share detailed findings with the President's Diversity Council and ask council members to formulate recommendations to respond and improve.

The survey reported positive correlations between students' perceptions of diversity issues if they engaged in such behaviors as sharing a meal or had intellectual discussions with someone unlike themselves. Similarly, students had better perceptions of diversity if they recognized biases in their thinking or critically evaluated their personal position on an issue. Furthermore, students who avoided language that reinforced negative stereotypes or participated in a coalition of different groups to address social issues were more likely to have positive perceptions of diversity issues.  

However, most students reported they seldom participate in diversity-related activities. The IRMA analysis recommended that expanding experiences between students of differing characteristics and participation in activities focused on diversity could be beneficial in improving overall campus climate.

Brick and Kim Everett, director of Multicultural Student Success, have been leading a team of Student Affairs colleagues interested in advancing Vision 2018's diversity and inclusion goal. They found the results instructive, and the division is planning marketing campaigns to raise awareness about opportunities that enable students to have positive interactions with people different from themselves.

Brick indicates the top goal for Student Affairs is to engage more students in campus activities. "We're asking ourselves 'who is coming to our events? Is it always the same people? How can we involve other students?'"

Everett says beyond marketing, it is important that the opportunities DePaul sponsors are useful to students. "We're helping students find their voice so they can tell us whether these are indeed the resources they need," she notes.

Everett says her office reaches out to every freshman who is either first-generation, eligible for a Pell grant or a student of color to offer participation in the STARS peer mentor program, which supports students through their first year. About 400 students accept the offer annually. In later years, these students can join Women Empowered or the Men of Color program for additional mentorship, much of which is career-focused.

"Until diverse groups reach a critical mass among faculty, staff and students, the sense of being the other may be a lived experience for diverse students," Ortiz says. "Until those numbers increase, we need to work on removing barriers for these students."

The latest Diverse Learning Environments survey is now underway and available until April 30. DePaul sent 8,000 randomly selected students an email with an individualized link to the survey on Feb. 23. Faculty and staff are asked to encourage students to check their email accounts to see if they were selected.

Brick says, "We were told that students who already might feel a lower sense of belonging at DePaul are less likely to take a survey like this, so we need to make it clear that we are paying attention and encourage them to share their perspectives with us."

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