The most important part of a student’s college experience is often their exposure to new ideas and ways of thinking. This applies not just to arts and humanities subjects, but to students studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes too.
As Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Richard Harris brings together his experience in engineering with his unique perspective on the DEI landscape and promoting inclusion on campus to give students the opportunity to learn in new ways. GoodCourse DEI lead Kitty Hadaway asks Richard about what led him to his current role, and some of the initiatives that he is proudest of to date.
I’m a first-generation college student, as well as an immigrant – I came to the USA at four years old from Central America. My parents didn’t receive the formal education that I had: my mother has a third-grade education, and my father a tenth-grade one. They always encouraged me to pursue Higher Education for the opportunities that it could open up for me.
I studied engineering as an undergraduate at Northeastern University myself – I enjoyed the subject but also learned a lot from my studies about how to approach the problem of systemic issues and tackle complex situations.
I worked as an engineer for sixteen years before I began a career within the DEI landscape. What first inspired me to progress my career in this direction was my involvement in the Montreal Global Treaty, which aimed to eliminate the use of ozone-depleting chemicals in engineering work.
Getting to collaborate with engineers around the world showed me how much of an impact I could have when I worked with other driven and motivated professionals. That feeling of interconnectedness made me want to be involved in things bigger than myself.
When I first came on board, it was common for conservative groups to target initiatives that sought to widen access to STEM subjects.
When I moved from Massachusetts to Chesapeake and joined Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings, a Japanese company, I learned more about how diversity of experience leads to diversity of thought, and why that is so important.
While I was living in Virginia, a Dean at my alma mater called me and said that he had an offer I couldn’t refuse – Director of Northeastern programs in minority engineering. I was very glad to accept the role, and have found my career here very fulfilling.
When I first came on board, it was common for conservative groups to target initiatives that sought to widen access to STEM subjects, and aim to shut them down or defund them. This was obviously very challenging for everyone in the DEI space, so I tried to get around this by referring to our work as “multicultural” rather than as being focused on “minorities”.
Changing that slightly also meant we could extend our work to support students from underrepresented socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as disabled students and women, not just students who belonged to a minority ethnic group.
My focus in recent years has been on institutionalizing our progress to make sure that it endures after I retire. It’s very important to me that I leave behind a framework for others to build on. Right now, we provide opportunities for student affinity groups to organize and meet – such as Asian Student Networks, Female Student Networks and Disabled Student Networks.
These lead on from our Summer Bridge program, which gives underrepresented students the chance to see each other in a critical mass, showing and reminding them that even if no one in a classroom looks like them, they aren’t alone. This counters alienation and allows students to build a sense of belonging.
For many years, this was not part of Northeastern’s formal DEI framework, and so we had to continually look for outside funding to run our schools. Now, however, the university funds this work and it has been expanded to encompass all science subjects as a university-wide initiative.
A big reason for this was that we could very easily prove the success of our work. Northeastern University has produced two Rhodes scholars – in 2016 and 2020 – and both were young African American women who had once been Summer Bridge program participants.
The point of my work is to help students see their potential and appreciate the assets that they bring to the table, rather than telling them that they are deficient and need extra help. To me, this is an important part of making sure that Northeastern University generates the leaders of tomorrow.
Students are always passionate about making change, no matter the issues of the day. While I was an undergraduate, many students were passionate about encouraging the university to divest from South Africa so as not to support the apartheid regime.
We challenged the university administration, and they listened – that taught me about the power of collective action. It also showed me how to disrupt systems without being destructive.
Being on the flipside of this equation at the time of the killing of George Floyd in 2020 was a learning curve. Our response to the strength of feeling in the student body was to provide actionable steps we wanted take, so that we could be held accountable, but also measure our progress.
Specific to Northeastern University is the issue of gentrification in our local area. It has been fantastic to hear from students about how they want to prevent the university from contributing to our worsening of this problem.
I oversee Northeastern University’s work in line with the Alliance for Minority Participation, which is a fellowship program funded by the National Science Foundation. One thing I’m very proud of having done within this is using our funding to take some of our engineering students abroad to Cameroon.
In this project, Northeastern University students worked with students at two universities in Cameroon to identify areas of opportunity – like the need for clean water facilities, waste disposal, renewable energy and better healthcare access for young women – and find ways in which they could make life better for local people.
What this showed our American students was that human-centered designs are vital: specifically that every engineering project has a cultural context, and that this context needs to be understood in order to effectively design for it.
When we first arrived in the country, staff in Cameroon asked us: “did you come to see, or did you come to stay?” At first I didn’t understand what they meant, because we had only come as visitors. But I came to realize that this phrase was meant to show the importance of leaving behind more than we took as guests in the country, by providing opportunities and solutions.
I feel that in return for what we learned about cultural approaches to scientific problems, we have back in the development of new research and a cross-continental community. I’m very proud to have been a part of that.
Remember that change is a continual process, rather than a sudden thing. Your targets will change along with the DEI landscape, so it’s crucial to be flexible and keep appreciating the value of diversity in novel ways.
Freeman Hrabowski, a mathematician by profession who has just stepped in as President of Maryland College. He is a trailblazer for his ability to recognize the need for minority students to access tailored support and feel respected by their institutions.
The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran. His essay on children in particular really resonates with me. I return to the stories in that book very frequently to inform my approach to education, as well as answer questions I have in my personal life.