The Interview USA
Capella University
Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President for Academic Enrichment and Learner Support

Charlyn Hilliman

As each year passes, particularly in such a politically divided climate, the need for education in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) becomes clearer and clearer. University campuses are one of the most natural places for this to occur, as they bring together young people from a variety of different backgrounds, many of whom may have never encountered this much diversity in one place before now. And given the number of cultural biases that had been earlier baked into education, it’s more crucial than ever to disentangle them just as people are setting out into the world. 

GoodCourse recently spoke to Charlyn Hilliman, Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President (VP) for Academic Enrichment and Learner Support at Capella University. Their discussion covered the importance of DEI on university campuses and how it can positively impact not only the student experience but their ability to learn as well.

Charlyn’s Journey

Charles: What brought you to your current role and the wider field of DEI?

I have always been on the academic side, as a faculty member, as a faculty chair. Through these different roles, I realized the importance of student services and supporting our learners. When an opportunity arose to take on this position due to a restructuring within our university, I jumped at it. And in terms of DEI, it’s something I’ve been doing ever since my graduate school days, so being able to transition into it in a more formal capacity was just a natural fit. 

Charles: You’ve worked extensively with designing and implementing strategic solutions for academic medical centers. Can you tell me more about this work and its relation to the student experience? 

Before moving to Capella, I had a lengthy academic career in healthcare information technologies. During those years, I worked collaboratively with commissions, informaticians, and other technologists to design strategic solutions to improve patient care. In one project, the IDEATel Study, we took a holistic approach to diabetic care for seniors residing in medically underserved communities. This had multiple stakeholders and required a lot of cross-institutional collaboration. So while working in that field, I realized customer service and patient engagement were important. We had multiple clients and focused on clinical staff, faculty, students, and most importantly, of course, the patients, so our solutions had to address the needs of all stakeholders including the communities we served. Taking this holistic approach to care really prepared me for the multifaceted student/learner experience. 

Prioritizing student experience makes the university journey more special, and some research suggests that engagement improves both academic success and critical thinking skills. That lends itself to creativity. An engaged learner makes the faculty/learner interaction easier because they’re more likely to form positive relationships with each other, along with the rest of the faculty and their peers.

Charles: You’re certified in DEI in the Workplace on a corporate level. How has this qualification influenced your work with students within higher education (HE)?

I leverage the concepts of the certification in my learner strategy. It increased my awareness and understanding of the challenges and barriers that people from diverse backgrounds may face in the workplace. That’s easily applicable to a learning environment. It helped me recognize how bias impacts interactions with students. It reinforced what’s already important at Capella, which is the need for an inclusive and welcoming learning environment, incorporating diverse perspectives and experiences into our curriculum and teaching. Creating a space where all learners feel valued and supported. And so my strategic focus now is on developing approaches for effectively engaging with learners from diverse backgrounds. I use techniques for building trust, fostering open communication, and adapting teaching approaches to meet the unique needs of different students. I’m more effective as an educator, mentor, and advocate for learners due to that certification and the principles I learned.

Charles: On The Interview, there has recently been a lot of discussion on the need to advance cultural competency amongst students in order to create a welcoming environment on campus. What initiatives have you been working on to this end?

Firstly, I researched what other institutions are doing. I found that universities were implementing DEI-training programs for students — workshops, seminars, online courses — designed to increase understanding and awareness of diverse perspectives, cultures, and identities. This training covers implicit bias, microaggressions, and cultural humility. And I realized we were already doing that at Capella with our President DEI Lecture Series. This started in 2021 and is hosted by a different academic department each quarter. The goal is to improve learner connection to the university by focusing on DEI topics while looking at industry trends and things that apply to their career development. 

Another thing I found while looking at other organizations is student-led DEI groups, providing them with a platform to voice their concerns, experiences, and promote DEI awareness. They organize events, activities, and celebrate different cultures. At Capella, we already have honor societies, professional organizations, and affinity groups, but we’re hoping to expand that even further so our learners have even more opportunities to share their experiences with like-minded colleagues. 

Other institutions have engaged in community partners to allow students to interact with people from diverse backgrounds, with things such as volunteering and cultural events. We do the same types of things. We have strong, thoughtful partnerships with community-based organizations through the Capella Fellows Program. These types of strategic partnerships help to mitigate social and economic inequities, so they’re positively impacting the community and region. 

We’ve also been striving to keep integrating DEI topics into the curriculum in order to help our students better understand different cultures and identities, and how that shapes their respective disciplines.

Quick-fire Question

Charles: What is your top tip for engaging students on DEI topics?

Try to remain current in the industries that we serve. Read, learn, and participate in ongoing DEI-focused dialogues. You have to know what’s happening on a day-to-day basis. Stay abreast of current literature, stay involved, and continue to educate yourself. 

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