The Interview USA
Kent State University
Vice President (VP) of the Division of People, Culture and Belonging

Amoaba Gooden

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) can often be oversimplified, focusing on race, gender, and socioeconomic class; in reality, the concept and mission are broader than that. To be able to tap into the richness that diversity has to offer, all people need to see themselves as part of the DEI conversation.

Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, sat down with Amoaba Gooden, Vice President (VP) of the Division of People, Culture and Belonging at Kent State University, to discuss how access and opportunity in education can contribute to a more well-rounded approach to DEI.

Amoaba's Journey

Max: Let's start with a brief introduction to yourself and your institution.

 My name is Amoaba Gooden; my pronouns are she/her/hers. I serve as the VP of People, Culture, and Belonging at Kent State University. It’s a new division, an amalgamation between the Human Resources and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) divisions. Our President, Todd Diacon, felt that aligning HR with DEI would allow us to target our university’s key focus areas of wellness, access, and opportunity for all more intentionally. The division serves both staff and students.

Max: From a DEI perspective, what is most important in fostering a safe campus climate?

We want to ensure our students feel safe psychologically and physically; this requires sufficient access to mental health support on campus. A key part of this is providing students access to programs and individuals they can identify with, creating spaces where students can be their authentic selves. We also consider students’ financial safety; we offer scholarships to offset tuition and campus life costs to mitigate financial stress.

Max: How do you approach creating a sense of belonging and inclusion for all students?

That’s a wonderful question. Every student needs something different to feel they belong. Our responsibility in Higher Education (HE) is to ensure that students see themselves reflected in their campus community – this needs to be embedded holistically across programming and staffing. Also, by offering a diverse mix of programming options and experiences, we can invite students to step outside their comfort zone and develop their capacity to see life through a different lens. 

Max: How do you maintain student engagement with the belonging and inclusion initiatives offered at Kent State?

When people think about DEI, gender, race, and class typically come to mind. But DEI is more nuanced than that. Diversity also includes, but is not limited to, such things as religion, political affiliation, age, and veteran status. We are all diverse!  Meaningful engagement requires everyone to see themselves as part of the DEI agenda. We also need to ask students what they need when we’re developing program offerings. When we truly hear our student population, we can create programs that meet students at their level, which drives engagement.

Max: How are you looking to reach students who may be disengaged? 

This is an ongoing challenge. We always aim to have students at the decision-making table; they are the experts of their own experience. At the same time, we need to be dynamic in how we approach communication on these issues and evolve the conversation beyond gender, race, and class. For instance, if we’re looking at diversity, we need to recognize that could mean diversity in all forms, from language and financial situation to neurodiversity and everything in between.

We also make efforts to activate student engagement through our Flashes 101 course; the course is integral to our student orientation program. It’s been designed to empower students to communicate their needs and develop their sense of belonging at Kent State.

Max: How are you working to ensure students engage with one another respectfully, particularly in light of the increasingly polarizing political landscape?

We are running a program this year called Dialogue and Difference. The program was developed with student input and by staff from the School of Peace and Conflict Studies - the school originated as a result of the May 4th campus shooting in 1970. Dialogue and  Difference offers a range of specific sessions spanning culture and religion and create space for all students to participate. We’ve also been mindful to deliver a combination of online and in-person sessions to enable wide-scale student access and diverse perspectives.

Max: How do you reinforce these key learnings across the student journey?

We can’t shy away from having difficult conversations; we need to recognize the tension at this moment in time and collectively think about the way forward. One way in which we are committing to continuous reinforcement is through the provision of student education around themes such as conflict resolution. We want to equip our students with the skills to navigate challenging conversations and personal differences as they experience life. 

Max: What has been most critical in widening access and facilitating student success across Kent State University?

Creating opportunities for scholarships is critical for ensuring equitable access to HE. As President Diacon has said – historically, HE has been considered ‘for the fortunate few’ – our motto at Kent State is that access to education is for ‘the meritorious many.’ A vital piece of this is providing financial resources that enable students to attend our university and find ongoing success in the classroom as their studies progress.

Max: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received across the course of your career?

Keep your head up. Sometimes, when we’re looking down, we lose sight of the bigger picture. For me, keeping my head up means paying attention to my local, State, and National landscapes; what is happening at those levels will impact the work I do to support students at Kent State University.

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Max Webber
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