Beyond diversity: How the University of Michigan-Dearborn cultivates inclusion on campus

When Vyas Shenoy arrived in the United States from his home country of India, he felt pretty lost.

"I didn't know anyone," Shenoy recalls. "I had just taken two bags from India, and a dream of pursuing my master's degree in the United States. I thought, 'If something happens to me, who'll help me?' I didn't know... I didn't have answers for that when I left India."

But after studying for several years at UM-Dearborn, Shenoy, who serves as president of the university's Indian Graduate Student Association and works as a project manager with Formula SAE-Electric, says he feels right at home.

Vyas Shenoy. Photo by Doug Coombe.

Today I have a very good family, and I've made friends from different backgrounds," says Shenoy. "I feel proud to be in the United States. It's like a second rebirth, you know?"

That experience is exactly what University Chancellor Daniel Little hopes for all students of UM-Dearborn, whether they come from another country or from right here in Metro Detroit.

"We have high admission standards and highly qualified students, but also students with relatively low opportunities and many first-generation students," says Little. "It's an unusual combination."

The University of Michigan-Dearborn is a member of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, which are typically non-flagship universities (the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is considered a flagship institution). There are 420 AAACSU institutions across the country. 

"One thing that AASCU institutions are proud of is the opportunities we offer to under-resourced populations," says Little. "Generally speaking, AASCU institutions are more diverse than their counterparts in the flagships. The diversity at UM-Dearborn, for example, is substantially greater than diversity in Ann Arbor. It's not that Ann Arbor is less interested in diversity. It's just situational."

UM-Dearborn draws the majority of its students from the Metro Detroit region. Of the 9,131 students enrolled in the fall of 2016, 79 percent hailed from Wayne, Oakland or Macomb counties. But international students accounted for nearly 10 percent of the student body, and the total student body is diverse; 24.4 percent were people of color in fall 2016. For comparison, only 20.4 percent of the students enrolled in the autumn of 2015 at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor were people of color, and a greater percentage of those were Asian (11.2 percent in Ann Arbor vs. 7.2 percent in Dearborn).

But according to Little, just having numbers that show diversity is not enough.

"I've talked to a lot of presidents of AASCU institutions, and the general sense I have is that most of those institutions are still struggling to create that environment of a welcoming climate for all groups that are on campus," says Little. "But I can tell you that is has been successful at UM-Dearborn. I think it's intentional; leaders and faculty and students have wanted this."

Little points to the results of an engagement survey of senior students conducted annually, where UM-Dearborn students reported more frequent discussions with people of different races and ethnicities and more diverse perspectives on course discussions or assignments than at other AASCU institutions across the nation.

Chancellor Daniel Little. Photo by Doug Coombe.

"That is a good indicator because you've got a direct consequence of good climate," says Little. "If you have a climate which says it's safest for you, if you're a Latino student, to hang out with the Latino students, then you're not as likely to interact with a non-Latino student, and also the non-Latino student is not so likely to interact with you. But if you have a welcoming climate, then you would expect more positive interactions."

Cultivating that welcoming climate is the job of Dr. Ann Lampkin-Williams, who serves as special counsel to the Chancellor for inclusion and strategic projects. Lampkins, who left a similar role at another Michigan university, says that she came to the UM-Dearborn precisely because of Little's emphasis on inclusion.

"What I love about Chancellor Little is that he just doesn't talk the talk, he walks the walk," says Lampkin-Williams."He understands that numerical diversity is something that can be attained. But once you have numerical diversity, then what are you trying to accomplish? From there, you're moving into retention, which requires an inclusive campus community."

Initiatives to cultivate inclusion on campus include an ongoing Conversations on Race discussion series that brings in scholars and renowned speakers to engage students on topics related to historical and current racial inequities. A Diversity Ambassadors program allows students to develop leadership skills through fostering conversation with peers. A program for LGBTQ students offers peer groups and ally training, And an array of student associations, including a Muslim Student Association, a Black Student Union,  a Latin American Student Association and more join forces every spring for a Global Fest in March that brings the entire campus together to celebrate cultural diversity.

But inclusion goes beyond race, ethnicity and LGBTQ issues, according to Lampkin-Wiliams.

Ann Lampkin-Williams. Photo by Doug Coombe.

"Another piece of the puzzle that we do well is through our provost office, and their creation of the Talent Gateway," she says.

Talent Gateway is an online platform that helps students connect to opportunities for mentoring, skill development and personal growth. "It's about understanding how students are so unique and different. This is not just about the honor students, but students with just diverse backgrounds."

For Shenoy, it's the little things that add up to  what he calls a "transformation". To that end, he organizes an annual event called parichay, an Indian word meaning "introduction." The event helps students from South Asian countries learn about everyday cultural norms in America; everything from saying hello, smiling and looking people in the eye, to how to engage with professors.

"These are the small things which students don't know," says Vyas. "I always think small things build up. Transformation doesn't happen without smaller changes. This is what I believe."
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