Diversity, Student Success Challenges Resonate at AAC&U Conference - Higher Education
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Diversity, Student Success Challenges Resonate at AAC&U Conference

by Jamal E. Mazyck

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade cited the work of the late artist Tupac Shakur in an example of tailoring a curriculum relevant to the students they are serving.

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade cited the work of the late artist Tupac Shakur in an example of tailoring a curriculum relevant to the students they are serving.

SAN DIEGO — The second of four Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) academic renewal conferences wrapped up this weekend after focusing on educational strategies to promote academic excellence for all students.

AAC&U’s centennial year conference brought together 705 practitioners, researchers, faculty and staff to implement inclusive action-oriented best practices on their campuses. The theme of the network meeting — Diversity, Learning, and Student Success: Accessing and Advancing Inclusive Excellence — addressed the accountability of institutions serving the most underrepresented students.

Many attendees were impressed by the conversations about how critical it is as educators to serve the whole student.

“So many have come up to me commenting on how important it is to address the lived experiences of the student, cultural background along with the academic understanding of each student,” said Tia Brown McNair, AAC&U’s senior director for student success. “We need to account for how those aspects intersect and not minimize or devalue what students bring with them to the institution. This conference aims to serve more than just student academics.”

McNair added that the fact that the conference was the largest in AAC&U history underscored “how critical the topic of diversity is in our educational system today and we need to talk about the students who are the most underserved and the most underrepresented.”

Dr. Carol Geary Schneider, AAC&U’s president of 17 years, announced the new Liberal Education & America’s Promise (LEAP) Challenge that aims to influence policy by advancing inclusive excellence in college learning.

“When we mention liberal education, most think we are referring to liberal arts and sciences,” Schneider said. “We have expanded our mission to include the advancement of liberal education and inclusive excellence. We are committed to advancing a framework to fight the stratification of the disparities that has disfigured our educational system.”

The LEAP Challenge aims to prepare students to understand and manage complexity, diversity and change through the development of high-level transferable skills that can be used in real-world settings.

Keynote speaker Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade spoke about his 20 years as an urban educator and addressed social toxins that young people face in society. Duncan-Andrade, San Francisco State University associate professor of Raza studies and education administration and interdisciplinary studies, used many references to the late artist Tupac Shakur to relay the significance of curriculum relevant to the students they are serving.

“The young people that gravitate toward Tupac’s message today are the very same young people that everyone in this room is desperately trying to reach,” he said. “I can take a crisp $100 bill and stick it inside any Shakespearian text, and leave that text anywhere in the classroom, it’ll be safe. But if I leave Tupac’s book of poetry, The Rose That Grew from Concrete, that book will be immediately snatched up.”

In other words, curriculum needs to be relevant to students’ experiences in order for them to respond to the toxins emerging from racism and poverty.

“Often times Tupac’s book is immediately snatched up by the very same students that the system is convinced is not interested in literacy,” Duncan-Andrade said. “I told U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan that it’s not that young people are not interested in literacy, it’s that young people are not interested in the literacy they are given.”

Student participation was also welcomed at the AAC&U diversity and student success conference. A session of student narratives from students at the University of Southern California (USC) was moderated by Dr. George Sanchez, professor of American studies and ethnicity and history, and vice dean for diversity and strategic initiatives at USC. Students shared their experiences and motivation for pursuing higher education.

Panelist Jasmine Torres co-wrote the article “Walking the Tightrope of Full Participation” with Sanchez in the latest issue of AAC&U’s Diversity and Democracy. Torres drew from her experiences overcoming homelessness and the foster care system to help launch the Trojan Guardian Scholars program, which offers support services specifically for current and former foster youth who study at USC.

Sanchez introduced Torres as a “brilliant spokesperson for what is possible to achieve with support and mentorship. We need to find ways to incorporate the visions of our students into our programs, to make their dreams become realities and to support them to shoot high and make a difference in our society.”

Jamal E. Mazyck can be reached at jmazyck@diverseeducation.com and on Twitter @jmbeyond7.

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