Students come to universities with a wide range of backgrounds and identities, so it’s necessary to listen to them to truly understand their needs. This is at the heart of the work done by Phillip Cockrell, Vice President for Campus Engagement and Chief Diversity Officer at Cleveland State University.
Phillip met with GoodCourse’s Community Engagement Lead to discuss his work advocating for students from marginalized communities, building an inclusive climate on campus, and promoting civil discourse across ideological divides.
I serve as Vice President for Campus Engagement and Chief Diversity Officer at Cleveland State University.
I’ll need to take you way back. I went to a small public liberal arts college called the Mississippi University for Women — they started to admit men in 1982. In high school, I had taken a vocational course for students interested in the health sector, then decided to enroll as a nursing major in college. As an undergrad, I got involved in student government and fraternity life before becoming an orientation leader. My mentors helped me realize that I could do this as a career. I’m a person of faith, so prayer and fasting helped me to reflect and find my calling. So then I changed my major, and the rest is history. What I do doesn’t feel like work to me: it’s my mission, my vocation, the thing I love to do.
It impacts me in several different ways. I was a first-generation African American student from a low-income background: I know the struggles students go through, as I experienced many of them myself. I always tell my students, “Don’t let the suit fool you!” I get to create magic every day, working with aspiring student leaders, and helping them understand their dreams and plan their paths. I have an open-door policy: we need to listen to students before we can make changes.
One of my mentors, the late Dr. Theresa Powell, once said, “Don’t forget the invisible.” I remember that every day. There are students who are not seen, who don’t have the privilege of sitting at the leadership table, so it’s my job to advocate for them. I am so blessed to be doing this every day — I just want all my students to know they can be whatever they want to be.
My faith keeps me grounded. I often think about Job: he lost everything but stayed true to his faith. I try to live by that example.
And I’m grateful for my parents: they led in love and taught me that anything worth having was worth working for. I always worry that if I’m not here, those students in need might not have anyone to speak up for them. I want to give them a blank slate and let them be the authors of their own destinies.
Students need to feel like they matter to someone. In the first six weeks, if students make connections on campus, then we have a nine out of ten chance of retention. Students bring many invisible identities with them — single parents, veterans, LGBT identities, and people with disabilities. We must keep students engaged by involving them in leadership, promoting teamwork, and engaging in civil discourse. If we can create an intersection of academic and social life, we can ensure our most vulnerable students stay in education.
If we can create an intersection of academic and social life, we can ensure our most vulnerable students stay in education.
I try to meet students where they are. I believe in putting intent before impact, and context before content. We need to understand students’ context — where they come from, and how they got here — before we can even think about delivering content. When I first started here, I held a lot of listening sessions to help students share their experiences. That has led me to create a series called “Courageous Conversations.” We started in February 2022, talking about issues such as race, gender, and disability. The goal is to promote civil discourse. You might not agree with everything you hear, but you will learn something.
After I saw the Tyre Nichols video, I set up a space in the Black Cultural Center for people to come and share their thoughts. It was intergenerational, bringing together everyone from undergrads to faculty — it was very moving to hear all those voices in the same space.
I found a lot of time to read during the pandemic. One of my colleagues lent me Learning to Lead Like Jesus by Boyd Bailey which describes the importance of humility in leadership, which really resonated with me.