Working within the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) space is about creating the means for all students to not only succeed academically, but also feel comfortable and safe within their university environment.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews sat down with Elizabeth Conklin, Associate Vice President for Institutional Equity, Accessibility, and Belonging at Yale University, to speak about the importance of creating an experience in Higher Education (HE) that is equal for all, and what can be done on all levels in order to create this experience for students.
I came to Yale during the pandemic in 2020 and this is a new role for the university. I spent ten years prior to that at the University of Connecticut (UConn) in a similar role, where I has the opportunity to work with other colleagues across Connecticut, particularly on sexual misconduct and sexual harassment which, in the US, was a really active area of focus.
I co-founded a Connecticut Title IX Coordinator coalition that included Yale, and through that work, I met some of my colleagues here at Yale, which was a part of what led me to apply for this role.
Student experiences vary depending on their major, where they live, and other factors too, so while there needs to be an institutional commitment to DEI, a lot of student experience is tied to a micro-cohort experienced by individuals, so a lot of the support needs to be on a local level. This includes equipping staff to support a broad range of students as well as equipping students to support one another, including the language to discuss difficult issues. The support needs to be on every level.
A lot of it includes things like speaking to our students about consent and sexual conduct because there are realities to campus life that are new to a lot of students, for example, more autonomy and room to explore all kinds of relationships.
A single online training session might be a good introduction to a topic but it isn't everything, so we need to build community norms throughout the student experience. We also focus on having the conversation at every level of education, and knowing how to have it in a different way as well as to students having different experiences.
I learned a lot about the collaborative nature of HE. I like to accomplish things, but I began to understand that these kinds of things can be done better in collaboration even if it slows down the process. That is always a learning journey for those who are used to accomplishing things alone, and I’ve taken that on.
Student feedback is the best you can get — you can pivot and do things better as you’re more informed.
Another important aspect was understanding the value of meaningful student input on everything from policy to website materials. Student feedback is the best you can get — you can pivot and do things better as you’re more informed.
When I started at Yale in September 2020 I knew I’d be walking into something very different from regular university life, and it’s still happening even now, even though some aspects are behind us. There was certainly an acute feeling for many people of disconnection and missing out on the classic college experience, and I think that was really hard.
Now we come back to a time of connection, so the question is how do we set community norms and translate the online into the human? We’re trying to do that in a lot of ways, such as having student leaders who can assess the student experience and feedback. However, it’s also about finding where being remote was benefiting people, and perhaps keeping some of those aspects where possible.
I would say it is a good time for individuals interested in pursuing DEI, because there is so much opportunity. Think about what you enjoy and what means a lot to you, and also remember that you don't have to be in the DEI office to do meaningful DEI work; the work has to happen at all levels.
All of the students, staff, and faculty that are deeply committed to learning and creating a meaningful and inclusive culture within their space, including personal and professional development. This makes education environments safer and more inclusive, and there are so many people across the institutions I’ve worked with committed to this.
Brené Brown’s work is very inspiring to me — Dare to Lead in particular helped me to think about my approach to this work as a leader and as a manager of human beings. The longer I do this work, the more deeply I feel that my purpose is to support those human beings, and I love how her work frames that.