A big part of working in Student Life is about creating initiatives that help to make an inclusive space that welcomes everyone. However, the next step from here is meeting students where they are at and promoting engagement.
Martino Harmon, Vice President (VP) for Student Life at the University of Michigan, sat down with Kitty Hadaway, GoodCourse University Lead, to discuss how he implements these practices into his work every day.
My name is Martino Harmon, and I am Vice President for Student Life at the University of Michigan. This is my second Vice Presidency; I came from Iowa State University, where I served as Associate VP and eventually became Vice President for Student Affairs.
I started in admissions at the University of Toledo, my alma mater. I worked on Student Success programs focused on African American students and other at-risk populations and then moved on to community college leadership before working back into four-year institutions at Iowa State University.
To work in an educational setting was something that I always dreamed of doing, and I feel like I can make a difference every day.
It’s a large institution with so many opportunities for students. Our students are very engaged, and very involved, they really want to change the world and change the institution, and they want to make life better. The great thing about the University of Michigan is there are no limitations on the experience that they can have; we have the resources that can allow them to do what they want to do. It's our role in Student Affairs and Student Life to help guide them through that experience and also to promote student success with our academic mission.
I lived in New Jersey at that time, doing volunteer work with a group where we had a Saturday enrichment program for African-American males. I was then inspired to come back to education and do that as my job every day. When I was working in admissions, our role was to recruit students, but I found a lot of joy in seeing some of the students I recruited walk through their whole educational journey. So I found myself drifting into Student Affairs, and then my career followed that pathway.
It comes into my entire journey and my passion and commitment for DEI and for populations that are primarily a part of DEI, even though everyone benefits from it ultimately. In admissions, that role gave me a chance to reach students who some institutions may have ignored. These students perhaps didn’t have the highest test scores, and I was one of those students too — I probably wouldn't have been accepted by some of the more selective institutions.
Then, the Provost at the University of Toledo asked me to start a new African American Enrichment Office, which was designed to promote student success and close the gaps that those populations would experience, and connect them to other opportunities on campus. It was a two-person office, but the impact was incredible.
We're currently moving into our second phase of a DEI plan. The first phase was DEI 1.0, and we are now moving into DEI 2.0. We will launch the new DEI plan as an institution in the fall of 2023. Through this planning process, we've been doing a lot of listening. Our plan not only focuses on students, but it also focuses on our staff and their experiences.
Our plan not only focuses on students, but it also focuses on our staff and their experiences.
We're building all this information up over time. Our plan will be focused on people: staff, recruiting, and retaining people, but also the processes that we need to have in place. And then what products: innovative teaching, research, anything that we need to actually help advance our DEI initiative?
We do this in a number of ways and have certain programs and initiatives. For example, our Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, MESA, does something called teach-ins, which focus on race, discrimination, and inclusiveness. Alternatively, our LGBTQ Spectrum Center may do a workshop to draw in students. We have a specific tool that we've used called the Intercultural Development Inventory. It's a multi-part assessment that individuals can take on important topics.
It's critical in society, but especially at a public institution. When freedom of speech plays out in speech that is harmful or hurtful, speech that is considered hate speech, it's hard to embrace and understand that because you feel personally affected by that speech. But we have to work hard to help students understand that this is a part of society, a part of our role as a public institution, and it benefits everyone when we have the marketplace of ideas, even if some of those ideas are not embraced. We need to use our voices to express our own speech. In theory, it sounds logical, but in practice, it's hard when people are hurt.
We have one particular department that has special national expertise in this. It's called the Program on Intergroup Relations. And IGR, as we call it, offers several courses designed for students to provide training around DEI and social justice issues, and how to have those critical conversations with people.
I heard this from students on a few occasions, particularly in a couple of meetings with our students of color. One thing that they said, which I thought was very important, was that it would be really helpful if we met them where they were at. They didn’t want us to just expect them to come to a program or initiative; we need to do more work to meet them where they are.
For example, we have multicultural lounges in the residence halls; we need to be present in those spaces. The same goes for classrooms — that's where all the students are. We need to try to be where they are. So my tip for all professionals in student affairs is to try to meet students where they are as much as possible. We still need offices, and we still need programs, but we can do a better job of coming to them.