By fostering a culture that promotes Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), universities can help students become more well-rounded individuals, better equipped to navigate the complexities of the modern world. Daniel Pascoe Aguilar, Founding Director of the Center for Social Justice and Chief Diversity Officer at Excelsior University, has led the way in this regard, driving his institution toward more equitable educational outcomes.
Daniel sat down with Kitty Hadaway, GoodCourse’s Universities Lead, to discuss strategies for serving historically underrepresented groups of students, the use of technology to facilitate engagement, and the importance of DEI in developing a more diverse, authentic, engaged and ready next generation of leaders.
I have the privilege of working for Excelsior University — an online, post-secondary institution in the US. We have an operational campus in Albany, New York, but we have staff and students all over the country. We have about 15,000 students across associate, bachelor's, and master's programs. I’m the Founding Director of the Center for Social Justice and Chief Diversity Officer. I’ve been in this role for around a year and a half, but I’ve been in Higher Education (HE) for 22 years.
A powerful focus of Excelsior University is a commitment to serving historically underrepresented groups. It’s a cause that means a lot to me, and it really drew me to the institution. In the US, when someone earns a Bachelor’s degree, their unemployment rate drops by half and their wage bracket doubles. Based on OECD data, it typically takes five generations for a family to climb out of poverty, so HE can have a real transformative effect on students, their families, and their communities. Research data show that only 11% of people in poverty in the US graduate from college. So there is a systemic, structural lack of access to education, and it was important to me to find an institution that has a passion for serving the historically underrepresented groups in our community and breaking down barriers to entry. Online education allows students to go through the learning experience at their own time, place, and pace, so it’s an effective way to level the playing field.
I’ve always had an intrinsic interest in DEI. Early in my career, I was a church minister in México and the US. I studied a Master's in Divinity, and I directed services for homeless families in San Francisco — that work had a strong emphasis on equity, inclusion, and social justice. From there, I transitioned into HE, working in the career and professional development space. My role was to help students identify the meaning they wanted to pursue. I’ve always believed we need to help the next generation of leaders think of success collectively instead of individually, to consider the impact they will have on the world — not only what they’ll get paid but also what they’ll pay back to the community. I’ve always defined professional development as a form of social justice, so moving into DEI was a natural step. For me, it’s about preparing a new generation of leaders that is diverse, authentic, engaged, and ready.
Our approach here was built around an initial listening tour to identify systemic issues and opportunities related to JEDI — which stands for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. We developed a JEDI framework, including models like Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity and Jackson and Hardiman’s Multicultural Organisational Development Model, the latter focusing on three emphases of our work: inclusivity, leveraging our diversity of perspectives, and serving the broader community. Based on that, we’ve developed a number of strategies that we’re facilitating through an intentional partnership approach, both internally and externally. We’re also developing a JEDI Institute which will capacitate our partner organisations and local non-profits. Fundamentally, we need to see the humanity and diversity in others before we can truly succeed.
Fundamentally, we need to see the humanity and diversity in others before we can truly succeed.
Our JEDI Framework is part of a course all students take. It consists of three components: challenging our assumptions, modifying our behaviours, and scaling change in our ecosystems. We want students to see diversity as an opportunity, not a problem that needs to be solved. If we adopt a collective approach, we can scale change to shift the structures of our institutions. We’ve created something we call “rope teams” — a series of 18 support villages focused on different identities and industries that matter to students and our community members. For each team, we’ve created an integrated digital space integrating data from multiple systems. As part of our rope teams effort, we promote intersectionality: we understand that we all hold multiple identities, so we encourage and try to make it easy to move across rope teams.
Right now, we’re focused on engagement campaigns as part of our rope team's work. They are still quite new — we launched them in November 2022 — we spent the first six months building sustainable patterns of content management. We’re closely monitoring their usage: we currently have about 1,500 users per month. We can break that down to see where we’re getting the most engagement; our groups for different abilities, race and ethnicity, and gender and sexuality have been the most popular. As part of our engagement strategy, we’re inviting people to tell their stories and participate in community engagement. Our platform allows users to set preferences to receive an individualised newsletter with the content of their choice: we believe that our platform should go to users instead of asking users to come to them.
First, we should always approach our work with three tenets: striving to see the complexity of others’ experiences, learning continuously, and opening conversations instead of closing them. Second, individual efforts aren’t enough — we need to make structural changes in an intentional and systemic way. We need to find strength in our differences, allow everyone to be who they are, and ensure every voice is heard.