Student-organized forums on how to strengthen student engagement and learning about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in new student orientation.
Problems and Purpose
A course on Dialogue and Deliberation organized campus forums for Santa Clara University (SCU) students to give their input on redesigning material about DEI in new student orientation. The forum informed leaders of the campus Office for Multicultural Learning, which designs the DEI component of orientation.
Background History and Context
Like many universities, Santa Clara University (SCU) orients new students to campus life and values through a year-long program. Over the past decade, SCU has redesigned its orientation, called “Being a Bronco,” to devote greater attention to preparing students to create a diverse, equitable, and inclusive campus community. Orientation now addresses issues such as social identity, privilege, stereotypes, community values, forms of oppression, and other topics. Students encounter this material in a mix of online modules and small group, face-to-face discussions that use an Intergroup Dialogue approach.
SCU’s Office for Multicultural Learning, which coordinates the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) material in student orientation, sought student feedback on how to strengthen student engagement and learning about these issues.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The forums were organized as a whole-class project in a course on Dialogue and Deliberation. SCU’s Office for Multicultural Learning (OML) served as the lead advisor on the project, providing background information, definitions of key terms and policies, and the overarching questions to ask students who participated in the forums.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Participants were recruited via emails and text messages to:
- Students’ social networks and student organizations.
- Professors in multiple departments, which included ideas for extra credit reflections tailored to their courses that professors could offer students for participating.
- Department Managers, who agreed to distribute an invitation to their majors.
- All Communication professors.
Students recruited a total of 40 participants to take part in one of 10 small group discussions of about 3-6 students per group, held at different times over 2 days on Zoom. Given the sensitivity of the topic, participants were given the option to discuss Being a Bronco in an affinity group based on shared identity characteristics of their choice. Over half of students (57.4 percent) chose to join a mixed group. Almost a quarter requested a similar gender group, and all but one of them identified as female. Smaller percentages asked to speak in similar racial/ethnic groups, similar sexual orientation groups, or similar economic status groups.
Methods and Tools Used
The hourlong discussions employed an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) format. Many approaches to organizational change focus initial attention on diagnosing past problems, and can therefore become mired in them. In contrast, AI seeks to identify an organization’s “greatest assets, capacities, capabilities, resources, and strengths – to create new possibilities for change, action, and innovation.” While this approach does not minimize problems and provides space to address them, it moves participants to discover past successes as well, and then to dream and design the future they desire. Student organizers and OML felt that Appreciative Inquiry could be a valuable complement to many other forums that necessarily focus on identifying problems of DEI on campus.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The discussions sought to gather student input in response to three main questions:
- What would increase student engagement?
- What should students learn and what are the best ways to introduce these topics?
- Which topics should be addressed in the online components and which need to be addressed in face-to-face discussions?
The forums also gathered information about what students felt is working well now in Being a Bronco. The full agenda is included in the attached report.
Student organizers facilitated all discussions and took notes on participants’ comments, without attribution. Students were trained to facilitate and take notes by exploring deliberation strategies and role-playing scenarios during class in the weeks leading up to the forum. The facilitators guided discussions, encouraging students to consider all perspectives, and enforcing the communication agreements. Facilitators drew on the facilitation guide used in Being a Bronco and other background readings to develop a unique Facilitator’s Guide. All discussions were held on Zoom during remote learning due to COVID-19, lasting about an hour and followed by a closing survey.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
After analyzing the surveys and evaluating the forum in the attached report, students in the course presented their findings at a meeting with leaders from the Office for Multicultural Learning and Office of Student Life. OML leaders drew on the student input to plan changes to Being a Bronco, and invited students in the course to facilitate the program’s small-group discussions the following academic year.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The attached report made multiple findings and recommendations.
Best Experiences of Diversity at SCU: In response to a request to identify the best experience they have had at SCU in a diverse and inclusive group, students especially mentioned experiences in classes, clubs and campus jobs, residence life, and student orientations (for first-generation college students, transfer students, and four-year students).
Visions of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: When asked what a future SCU that is fully diverse, equitable, and inclusive would look like, students envisioned a campus in which people of different cultures intermixed while respecting their differences. In this future SCU, attention to DEI issues would not wither away, but increase, with greater acknowledgement of their importance, more open and frequent discussions of these issues, and ongoing conversations that would continue beyond first year orientation. SCU would have a more diverse student body, faculty, and staff. Student organizations and clubs -- some organized around common identities that provide programming attended by all students, and others in which students of all identities felt comfortable joining and participating -- would be key hubs for supporting DEI. DEI themes would be addressed across the curriculum by a wide range of faculty members. At the same time, SCU and individuals would be held accountable for fulfilling the promise of DEI or violating it.
Existing Strengths: Students identified several things that worked well in the current version of orientation, which they felt ought to be preserved and expanded. The main aspect that students appreciated was the opportunity to engage in small group discussions about DEI and form connections with other students, which promoted engagement and inclusion in campus life. Students also said they appreciated how the definitions of terms (such as DEI, microaggressions, and stereotypes) and of SCU’s values helped them to understand oppression. Several students valued that SCU prioritized DEI by including it in orientation. These are cornerstones on which Being a Bronco can continue to build.
Increasing Engagement: Students shared several suggestions for increasing their engagement in Being a Bronco. The most common themes were providing more options for the kinds of groups students might participate in (including affinity groups and self-selected groups); taking steps to increase the openness and trust in small group discussions; stronger facilitation, ideally led by other students; and expanding the role of in-person conversations and learning in orientation rather than online components.
Learning Goals: Students felt that five kinds of learning outcomes were especially important for Being a Bronco, including learning about the negative impacts of microaggressions and how to identify them; about cultures different from their own; about how to practice inclusion in their social lives on campus; about resources they might need to address these issues in the future and where to find them; and about the current state of DEI at SCU and its need for progress.
Accessibility, Common Language, Emotions: Participants in the forums believed that DEI concepts could be made most accessible through in-person, small-group discussions, in which definitions given online can be reiterated and explored. Students suggested that orientation could further establish a common language for discussing DEI by encouraging SCU students to share information and experiences about their diverse cultures, fostering open and honest communication about their differences and commonalities, and building community through discussion. The most important emotions that students saw as important for participating in Being a Bronco discussions were safety, comfort, and open mindedness.
Face-to-Face versus Online: Most students felt that online modules were best for introducing definitions of concepts of diversity, equity, inclusion, oppression, intersectionality, and the like. In-person discussions were seen as more appropriate for holding sensitive conversations about DEI issues in students’ own lives because face-to-face conversations were more memorable, less prone to distraction, more likely to motivate engagement, and more transformative. Students also suggested ways for the online modules to be more engaging, such as using more visual activities, and to improve Zoom sessions, including holding more breakout discussions.
Priorities: At the end of the discussion, and again in the closing survey, students were asked to identify their top priorities for strengthening DEI in Being a Bronco. Students emphasized the value of smaller discussion groups for boosting student engagement and comfort when discussing DEI issues, facilitated by well-trained peers whenever possible. Participants also reiterated the importance of holding these conversations in person. In addition, students prioritized connecting the DEI issues talked about in Being a Bronco to the SCU community – including SCU’s particular values, resources, history, and needs for progress. Finally, students suggested that there should be more opportunities for discussion and experiences involving DEI that extend beyond orientation – through residence life, clubs, mentorships, and other ongoing means of building a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive community.
Evaluation of the Forums: The forums themselves were evaluated very positively by participants. A large majority of participants felt that they explored different perspectives and demonstrated mutual respect for each other’s ideas, that conversations were facilitated impartially, and that students learned enough to arrive at well-informed views. Students left the forums feeling that they learned more about DEI, and they felt more committed to creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive SCU. Students believed that OML would pay attention to the ideas brought up during the forum.
 James D. Ludema, Michael R. Manning, and Amber A. Johnson, Six Questions that Can Lift your Leadership, Shape Your Strategy, and Transform Your Organization (Lisle, IL: Benedictine University), https://cvdl.ben.edu/resources-tools/six-questions/