Deconstructing a historical construct

Merrill Irving, president of Hennepin Technical College, says the Minnesota college is focused on ensuring that leadership, faculty and staff are culturally competent. (Photo: HTC)

Community colleges making the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) journey must recognize that one-size-fits-all support for students of color doesn’t get the job done.

To make everyone feel welcome on campus, leaders of two-year colleges need to ensure that they, as well as their faculty, staff and students, shed their assumptions, get out of their comfort zones and build a culture that celebrates the differences among minority groups — and even within multi-identity, catch-all categories like Latinx or Asian American.

This excerpt comes from the new issue of the Community College Journal, published by the American Association of Community Colleges.

Merrill Irving, president of Hennepin Technical College (HTC) in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, says that he’s been thinking more intentionally about all of this in the year since George Floyd’s murder.

“When I hear the term ‘people of color,’ I think, ‘everyone in the room who’s not white,’” he says. “That isn’t a race, that isn’t a culture, it isn’t an ethnicity. It is a grouping of a variety of populations and ethnicities for convenience.”

Irving and other diverse community college leaders have gone beyond a generic commitment to DEI, and they’re often drilling down into their campus data to figure out how. The higher education sector has historically excluded people, ranging from Black to Native American to LGBTQIA+ — and community colleges, as open access institutions, have a responsibility to deconstruct these barriers, Irving says.

“That starts with [students] walking in the door, being who they are; and that means us understanding who they are and how we can advance them,” he says. “We need to recognize exactly who’s in front of us.”

Getting granular

HTC, where the student body is 49.6% ethnically diverse — including 20.4% Black, 10.4% Asian, 8.4% Hispanic and 8.1% two or more races — undertook research to pinpoint the academic achievement gaps between white students and others. The data also showed that Black men over age 26 faced the toughest challenges in completing school, financially and otherwise

“If we had kept grouping people together, kept going with ‘people of color,’ we never would have known that, or addressed what is affecting persistence in a specific population,” says Irving, who is Black. “That’s why it’s so critical that our college, and our leadership, and our faculty and staff are culturally competent.”

Irving says he’s been calling out white people who say, “I don’t see color,” in an attempt to educate them on why that mentality falls short. “What that says is, you don’t understand what challenges and what discrimination that someone has overcome as a Black individual, or as an Asian-Pacific Islander.

It means you don’t understand my pathway to get to this space. We didn’t get to this space the same way. That mindset affects us in higher education.”

Breaking down broader ethnic categories into component parts helps colleges understand why ESL students have different language scores from African-Americans who are the descendants of slaves, or why African immigrants or refugees struggle with language but might have high scores on mathematics, Irving says. To keep drilling down for the purposes of measuring student progress, HTC has created a disaggregated report that looks at which populations need what he calls “intrusive engagements.”

“Unless we separate out these populations, if we are looking at them as being Black — and not native to the U.S., or an immigrant — how are we culturally aware of their [potential in] our classes and programs?” Irving asks. “You also have to look at things from a religious perspective. When I first got to the college, they were holding graduation at a church, and we have a large Muslim population. You can imagine that many of our students did not feel comfortable coming to graduation. I had to campaign to change it that year.”

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About the Author

Ed Finkel
Ed Finkel is an education writer based in Illinois.