Change at UD
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
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
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
"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.