DEI in Education Improves Belonging

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Diversity, equity and inclusion at college and university campuses serves everyone while helping to alleviate barriers, officials say.

“DEI is important because we create a sense of belonging for all students,” says Susan M. Moorer, assistant director of DEI at Youngstown State University. “It’s not targeting specific kinds of students. It’s for everyone.”

Karla Martin, senior vice president and chief diversity officer at Eastern Gateway Community College, agrees.

“It’s for all students, all employees, all people,” she says. “It’s for people who have barriers.”

By helping those with barriers, communities improve too, Martin says.

“If you have a single parent of school-aged children, they can have barriers for making a liveable wage,” she says. “We have federal grants that are available that will allow them to elevate their level of education, then get a degree. That changes lives.”

And it enables that person to contribute to their community, she says.

“We create programs where all students are welcome and they all participate,” Moorer says.


Across the country, there are efforts to cut DEI on college and university campuses. Legislatures in several states have introduced or approved initiatives to slash DEI spending.

The Ohio House Higher Education Committee in early December approved a bill that, among its provisions, would prohibit most mandatory DEI training on public campuses. Similar legislation passed the state senate. It’s unclear as of this writing, if it will be brought before the full House for a vote.

Moorer says if she met someone who’s opposed to DEI, she would ask what they believe DEI is.

“Based upon their response, I would take that as an opportunity to educate them about DEI programming,” she says. “I think people must have the wrong idea. We’re not doing anything for one group and not doing something for another. It’s open to all students.”

That’s why students feel comfortable coming and talking to DEI staff and sharing concerns, Moorer says.

What’s Being Done

Years ago, diversity efforts on college and university campuses amounted to posting flags of a particular country or culture, serving those foods in the campus center and hosting performances of dancers from ethnic groups.

It’s deeper now.

At Thiel College in Greenville, Pa., efforts serve both students and faculty and staff, says Than Oo, assistant dean for student engagement and director of student activities.

He works with an associate dean on the academics side to target DEI from both angles.

Thiel, like many colleges across the country, focuses on DEIB, with the “B” representing “belonging.”

For faculty and staff, Thiel offers an eight-week micro credentialing series. Participation is voluntary and series installments include understanding subconscious personal bias, the power of language, mental health in DEIB and being an ally and advocate.

Oo acknowledges that sometimes the idea of diversity training may be perceived as burdensome or something that breeds discomfort.

“That’s not how we approach it,” he says. “We might be discussing things that might make some people uncomfortable. But we do it with positivity and enthusiasm. The goal is that we are learning.”

Gina M. Vance, vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa., says the college’s DEI initiatives grew out of the strategic plan.

“The first is a cultural center,” she says.

The center offers cultural programming. Classes are taught there and it includes a lounge and study area. The center, which is available for all students, provides a home for marginalized students.

The college also developed a yearly trip for students to a community that includes residents of a different culture. About eight students last year visited Tuba City, Ariz., during spring break to learn about the way of life of its indigenous residents.

This year, the trip will be to a town along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Vance says the destinations are selected to coordinate with timely events.

Westminster also began working with the Liberal Arts Colleges Racial Equity Leadership Alliance for professional development of faculty, staff and administrators. The college also offers the training to resident assistants. Participation is voluntary.

LACRELA “unites Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities across the United States to collectively address issues of racial diversity, equity and inclusion on their campuses,” according to its website.

Ty-Juan Young-Bright, vice president of institutional diversity & student engagement at the Youngstown Campus of Eastern Gateway, says DEI works to ensure students at the Youngstown and Steubenville campuses as well as students who take online courses, have a sense of belonging both at the college and the community where they live.

DEI initiatives strive to remove barriers so students can secure a degree or certification and potentially pursue a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution, Young-Bright says.

“We bridge the gap,” he says. “In both communities, there are different types of barriers. Our focus is to remove barriers. We focus on academics, student activities, academic advising…We’re meeting  needs where they’re at.”

YSU offers two mentorship programs through DEI. The first, Achieve, Impact, Motivate, or AIM, pairs new, first-generation students with a professional staff or faculty member. The mentors and mentees meet regularly.

The other mentorship program is the Navarro Executive Fellows which matches incoming freshmen who are African American/Black, Hispanic/Latino/Latina, Asian/Pacific Islander, Native American/Indian with members of the YSU executive/administrative leadership team. It’s a two-year mentorship/internship program.

YSU has offered voluntary diversity training for employees too.

We just want to provide a safe space for students to come,” Moorer says. “We want to provide programming.”

Oo says Thiel focuses on ensuring students feel like they belong wherever they go on campus.

“That involves social programming and there’s an educational component to that too,” he says. “We try to bring both together.”

One part of that effort is a series that brings people, such as entrepreneurs, to campus from underrepresented groups to talk to students.

Measuring Success

To determine if efforts are working, Vance says she talks with students to gauge how they’re feeling.

“We also look at retention rates – overall and by race, ethnicity, first-generation — to see which populations aren’t being retained,” she says.

Vance says those metrics show improvement but room to grow.

Thiel also looks at graduation rates and placement to determine if its efforts are successful.

“We also do a campus climate survey,” Oo says. “It asks students if they feel part of this campus.”

Moorer says YSU measures its progress by participation in programs.

“Whenever we have anything, whether it’s a workshop, YSU movie day, the students register,” she says. “We have a tremendous response.”

The university asks participants to complete evaluations before and after programs to determine if the programs meet expectations, Moorer says.

The office also connects with the community and partners with community groups.

Why It’s Important

At YSU, the DEI department is “critically important and we certainly would like the community to continue supporting it – the Youngstown State community as well as the community at large,” Moorer says. “It is not for any one group of students. It’s for all students and I think everybody needs to know that.”

Without it, students might not feel they have a safe space to go, she says.

“That’s what we provide,” Moorer says. “Any student can come here and talk to us about anything and never feel judged.”

Oo, from Thiel, says DEI serves a practical purpose as well.

“There are benefits to DEI,” he says. “There’s evidence in business that having a diverse team attracts more talent and more talent affects the bottom line in a positive way. It’s not just for optics.”

Pictured at top: Susan M. Moorer is assistant director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Youngstown State University.