What if you were given the opportunity to understand things in a way you had never understood them?
What if you could explore in depth what it may be like to be another person, with a different ethnicity, gender or age, or a disability? And then, once you had a broader understanding, what if you could use it to make changes?
Those are some of the principles behind Missouri State’s new Student Diversity in Leadership Institute, or SDLI.
More than discussion: Institute leads to action
The SDLI’s first cohort was a select group of student leaders from around campus. Program administrators hope to expand participation for the next round this fall.
Students in the SDLI attend regular sessions throughout the semester. They discuss topics including culture, race, disabilities, gender, sexual diversity, religion, power and privilege.
They hear from faculty members and thought leaders from campus and beyond.
Bears who participate are expected to leave the institute ready to lead diversity efforts within their organizations.
“It’s our job as student leaders on campus to fight for what’s right. I am truly changed from this.” Michael Chapman
They also take everything they have learned to create a final project.
In this presentation, students introduce their organization, explain its current diversity climate and outline challenges related to increasing diversity and inclusion. The students then present concrete ideas for improvements.
The institute is led by Dr. Rabekah Stewart, assistant vice president for student affairs-multicultural services. Stewart said the first participants all had a common drive: “I think we can make some change here, and I want to be a part of that.”
First cohort shares their ideas
The first cohort of the SDLI started Jan. 14, 2021. The 10 student participants gave their final presentations March 29 in the Union Club.
Here’s just a bit of what they learned, and what they plan to do:
David Bippes is president of the on-campus ministry Icthus. He wants all students to be able to show up to study the Bible “and be accepted no matter who they are.” His group currently meets in two houses, but “neither are accessible to those with disabilities. It’s a conversation we will have.” In addition, he questioned why many Bible study groups are divided by gender. “It’s an easy default when you need smaller groups. But we want better, more effective, productive ways to divide into groups.”
Michael Chapman is in many groups, including Student Government Association. His presentation focused on how to get a more diverse SGA cabinet. He proposed new avenues of recruitment, including more accessible applications. Overall, he said, SGA must show diverse students that they matter. “We want to listen to student voices and take actions that students can see. We need to advocate for diversity in every sense of the word.”
Sarah Crain served as president for two years for MSU’s NAMI on Campus club. NAMI stands for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She analyzed the demographics of her club and found “most of our members are white women.” She examined how diverse populations intersect with mental health care. “Through this institute, I can feel a shift in the climate of our organization.” They are implementing changes to reach out. “It’s time to do something — are we advocating in an equitable way?”
Isabel Donovan is president of La Barraca, a Spanish-language club. Her research showed the club is 85% white, and mostly women. She has set a goal to recruit members of different backgrounds through new engagement methods. “I have found a place at MSU where I can be myself. … I want all students to be able to do the same. Gracias!”
Abby Falgout is the president of Alpha Sigma Alpha sorority. She’s interested in how the Panhellenic community can increase diversity, equity and inclusivity. Right now, she said, most women in sororities at MSU come from upper socio-economic classes, white is the largest represented race, there is little to no LGBTQ+ membership and anyone with a disability may struggle to be involved — for example, only one MSU house has an elevator. “I don’t have the answers to all these questions, but I do have some ideas.” She proposed taking steps to making events and recruitment universally accessible, collaborating with traditionally African-American NPHC organizations and other ways to eliminate barriers to inclusion.
“Before this, I really didn’t think of diversity expanded beyond religion and race. I learned a lot and saw a lot of different perspectives.” Reese Jazenboski
Madison Gosch-Morris is the diversity and inclusion chair for Delta Zeta sorority. Among her research, she explored autism in sorority life. For instance, the traditional recruitment doesn’t leave “much room for diversity at all. There’s a constant sensory overload.” She proposed options of different spaces for people who request them. “In many cases, we’re fighting processes that have been in place for 100+ years. It’s about stepping over that boundary.”
Reese Jazenboski is the social media chair for Freudenberger House council, and a member of Bears L.E.A.D. (Leadership, Empowerment, Achievement and Diversity). She talked about requesting disability accommodations and how to avoid excluding those with disabilities. For instance, in her social media materials, “I learned to use large text and contrasting colors” for those with vision impairments. She also proposed holding events and meetings in accessible areas.
Kayla Lane is the service chair for the National Residence Hall Honorary, or NRHH. That group recognizes leaders in the residence hall community. She explored how NRHH can be more accessible. “We have done donations and street-cleaning, but those require objects and money, or to be physically able.” Instead, she will plan other types of service events that can include more people. She also proposed using Zoom meetings for those with mobility issues, and closed-captioning meetings for the hearing-impaired.
Drew Minnis is the vice president of operations for Delta Sigma Phi fraternity. They were chartered in 2020, and face a challenge from being new: “We don’t have a chapter house.” That means they meet in places where it may be hard to include people with physical disabilities. He wants a welcoming environment for all. “We are creating a new chair position for diversity and inclusion — and we’ll need to devote enough time to it to be successful.”
Zoe Rico-Beaubien is a member of Bears L.E.A.D. (Leadership, Empowerment, Achievement and Diversity). She talked about her experience being a person of color on a campus that is predominantly white. “It can be harder when no one looks like you or understands what you’re going through.” She’s committed to making sure Bears L.E.A.D. rebrands their social media presence and on-campus presence to “take active steps to fulfill our promise.”
President Smart: This feedback is “an opportunity for us”
President Clif Smart attended the final presentations, and made some closing remarks to the students.
He thanked them for promoting civility and a welcoming environment for all types of students at Missouri State.
“There’s an opportunity for us to make progress,” he said, “because people like you speak up.”