At most universities, students consider a wide range of career options and life goals. All of the cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point are committed to a career in the United States Army, and this changes how West Point staff deliver DEI and wellbeing support initiatives to learners.
As Associate Dean for DEI, LaKeysia Harvin helps West Point cadets and faculty members understand the importance of equity and the strengths that diverse teams bring to complex problems. GoodCourse co-founder Chris Mansfield sits down with LaKeysia to learn more about the unique challenges involved in supporting cadets, and the achievements that she is proudest of to date.
I grew up in Florida, and studied business economics as an undergraduate at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. I then went on to study law at the University of Florida, and practiced law for two years as a prosecutor before I decided to join the US army as a military attorney. I thought I would only stay in the military for a few years, but I retired last year after two decades of service!
My specific focus is on diversity within curricula and academic settings. West Point has developed a Diversity and Inclusion minor for students to study, as well as a number of other courses that focus on DEI issues.
Moving into the DEI field after leaving my previous job as an Assistant Professor was quite a natural change of direction for me. Just before I retired from the army, I also took on an internship that looked at issues around diversity, so the subject area was familiar. When the position of Diversity Fellow at West Point opened up it seemed like a fantastic opportunity, and five months ago I was promoted to Associate Dean in recognition of the fact that a formal leadership position in this area was needed.
I’m still very new to my current role, but what I’m proud of so far has been the effort I’ve made to build relationships with departments and individuals. This is crucial within a university setting so that everyone can learn from each other, and influence the institution’s direction.
My specific focus is on diversity within curricula and academic settings. West Point has developed a Diversity and Inclusion Studies Minor for students to study, as well as a number of other courses that focus on DEI issues. To us, this formal education is an important part of creating the best future leaders that we can for this country.
Military schools like West Point are designed to do a very thorough job of training young people from a wide range of backgrounds. There is always room for improvement, of course, but I feel that we are very skilled at bringing people together from all over the country and transforming them into effective members of a team with a shared mission. We know that our cadets are going to be America’s future commanders and leaders, so we take our diversity and inclusion mission very seriously.
The military is always talking about the importance of readiness. Part of readiness is making sure that the teams we belong in and lead are cohesive. For this to happen, leaders need to understand concepts like the influence of unconscious biases on our behaviour and the real strength to be found in diversity.
Like any university, we face challenges with engaging learners and making sure that everyone is on board with our mission. Our small class sizes are a big benefit here – we only have around 18 cadets in each class group, so identifying students who might need more support or who want to raise ideas and concerns with us is very straightforward. I’m proud of how our overall approach to DEI and engagement means that we can recruit and retain talented young people.
There has been a huge shift in terms of the things the Higher Education sector turns its attention to now. Our overarching approach is to speak to students as much as possible, and often they’re proactive in coming to us with their ideas themselves. For example, our students put together an anti-racist campus action plan in 2020 and presented it back to us, and we met them with the changes we could make immediately and ways in which we could integrate those points into our ongoing strategy.
To work with students as effectively as possible, it’s important to see how change happens. We have had students tell us that they didn’t previously realise how many processes were involved in our institutional decision-making, and that we should be louder about the things we’re doing to respond to their concerns.
Continue to read widely and stay up to date with new ideas and terminologies. This is a big bonus when it comes to working with other DEI professionals and communicating your ideas.
Be sure to celebrate the small wins, so that you can keep chipping away at your big goals – and make sure that you have a mentor who can inspire and guide you through difficult periods.
My mentor at the University of Texas at Arlington, who I met through a military program. We speak on a monthly basis and I always find her ideas and DEI expertise to be hugely helpful.
Inclusify: The Power of Uniqueness and Belonging to Build Innovative Teams, by Stephanie Johnson. This book really shows the importance of developing an inclusive environment through stories and anecdotes.