During lunch, small groups of students, faculty and administrators discussed how the research could inform change at UD.
Keeley Powell, director of recruitment and diversity in the University's Office of Graduate and Professional Education, said she grew up in a mostly white community, where she and her family felt racial hostility. UD has the highest amount of diversity she has lived in, she said.
In departments and classes where diversity is low, minority students sometimes feel they are expected to represent the views of their entire race or population. In departments with greater diversity, students said they felt recognized and respected more for themselves than as a representative of a color or race.
René Díaz, who works for UD Cooperative Extension in Sussex County and is pursuing his doctorate in education, said how a person chooses to respond to racist statements or situations is important. He said he has used such experiences as added motivation to excel in his studies and work and prove the naysayers wrong.
"I was poor, a minority, from a single-parent home," he said. "I found a way to use it as motivation rather than as people looking down on me."
Efforts to smooth the transition to college and build opportunities for first-generation and at-risk students are essential but can have unintended consequences, some said.
The University's Associate in Arts Program, for example, is meant to help Delaware residents get into UD and prepare for future studies and a bachelor's degree.
The two-year program can make students feel like second-class citizens, some said. Stronger ties to the main campus and clear messages about the value of the program to students and the University are important, they said.
Potential curriculum change must be part of the discussion, too, said Avron Abraham, director of UD's Center for Academic Success.
"We talk a lot about culture and the values of the institution, but we can't forget about curriculum," he said. "Students may not be ready for the things we want them to be ready for, and we can lose a diamond in the rough."
Historically, the expectation was that students would emerge from high school with the tools to succeed in higher education. That is changing, he said, and if they arrive without those tools, the gap between the student's preparation and regular class work can be too great. There must be options.
"There is the expectation for institutions like ours to make that [readiness] happen," he said. "So don't ignore curriculum when we're thinking about a culture that is supportive. Are you prepared to take calculus? If you fail in those first three weeks, you're history."
That scenario -- where university goals and expectations meet the realities of under-preparation -- is a "critical juncture," Mendoza-Denton said. He sees UD's Associate in Arts Program as important to unlocking the promise of diversity.
"The program is considered a pathway towards the University, but there are those in positions of power who see those programs as a back-entry door, that 'these people don't really belong' and have assumptions about native intelligence," Mendoza-Denton said. "On top of that, you have the whole layer of under-prepared and under-represented scholars. You have to have programs to address the perception of inability."
Dynamics of change
The dynamics of such change are difficult, the researchers said. Messages that dismiss a person as incapable -- "you're either smart or you're not" -- can make students think continuing their studies is futile.
"I stay up really late and work really hard because kids are walking around in that kind of toxic belief system," Walton said.
Fryberg said the Washington study showed it was important to reassure students that their schools' ratings were not a reflection of their capabilities, but of a system that needed significant attention.
Adopting a "growth mindset," which sees people not as fixed entities but as works in progress, also was important to changing how people viewed themselves and others.
UD has much work ahead to address graduation rates and achievement gaps, Jones said.
"How can we do better?" he said. "What does it mean to be a good student? A good person? These are important, difficult things."
The series continues in April with a visit from William Sedlacek, professor emeritus of education at the University of Maryland. And work groups will begin to develop a proposal for action, Jones said.
"This has to live," he said.
Article by Beth Miller
Photos by Ambre Alexander Payne