Ivy League universities are working hard to attract a diverse range of students. While a lot of progress has been made in widening participation, there is still much work to do once students arrive on campus – especially when it comes to supporting students in their freshman years.
As Associate Vice-President for Inclusion and Belonging at Cornell University, Sonia Rucker uses her twenty years of Higher Education experience to make sure that every student has the chance to thrive. GoodCourse co-founder Chris Mansfield asks Sonia about her journey into her current role, and the initiatives she is proudest of.
I never planned on moving back to Cornell. I’m from Missouri and left because of family obligations. I wanted to be closer to my mother as she got older, and to see more of my nieces and nephews.
My mom was always very supportive of me throughout my career, and when my role opened up, she was excited that I might have the chance to return to Cornell. Sadly though, my mom passed away last summer. I was offered my role at Cornell shortly after this, and I loved my previous job, so I felt that it was possibly meant for me to come back.
I’ve been working in the Higher Education sector for over twenty years now, and within DEI roles for more than ten. Before working in universities I was a social worker – and even though I’ve left that field behind, I’m grateful that what I learned can inform my Higher Education initiatives today.
Higher Education is the place where knowledge is created. To me, that’s why DEI work is so important.
Higher Education is the place where knowledge is created. To me, that’s why DEI work is so important: universities are only serving their purpose if there is room for everyone to participate, and I’m really driven towards helping people understand why this is important.
One of my first jobs in Higher Education was within the TRIO Program, which is a federal program that supports a range of young people who are underrepresented within American universities. This includes students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and students who belong to minority ethnic groups, as well as students with disabilities.
My work with TRIO really ignited my passion for widening access to Higher Education and laid the foundation for the work that I do today at Cornell.
In my last two roles, I’ve been in executive positions. While at Southeast Missouri State University I reported directly to the President. In this role, I was also the only woman of color in my team. I’m proud of having been in the room, representing and speaking on behalf of people like me. I’m proud that women of color were listened to because of the fact that I had earned a seat at the table.
When I first came to Cornell in 2003, I was asked to join the university’s crisis team, because of my experience as a social worker and my academic qualifications in psychology.
This involved a rotation of on-call duties lasting a week at a time. Cornell has over 20,000 students, so being on call meant being available at any time of the day or night.
Often I supported students who were experiencing the onset of complex mental health conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, so my background in social work was extremely helpful here. I stayed on the crisis team even as I moved around the university and into more senior roles.
Although challenging, being a crisis manager was an amazing experience. It meant working with people at all levels of the university and crossing paths with faculty, staff and those in leadership positions, I otherwise wouldn’t have met.
Belonging is something that’s important to every student. All of our students live in residence halls for their freshman and sophomore years, which builds a sense of community, but means that many of our students are living away from home for the first time.
It’s very natural for students to feel anxious and uneasy at times, to have difficulty finding their social groups and developing a sense of belonging. We want them to know that this is normal and happens frequently, but when the issues continue and adapting is more difficult, we have support, resources and processes in place to assist people.
This is particularly true for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, students from more diverse backgrounds, particularly students of color. Cornell is a predominately white institution and there are a number of wealthy students and students who may have had more educational opportunities, so those who come from backgrounds that are a bit different can often face some adjustment issues.
Building a sense of community and belonging helps us bridge gaps across gender, race, economic background, sexual orientation, disabilities, and even language. In turn, this ensures that every student gets the opportunity to thrive.
Prepare to be fearless and unapologetic. Working in DEI isn’t for the faint of heart, especially in the current political climate. It’s crucial to be determined to stay in the field and not lose sight of your goals and motivations. There are going to be people who are going to be very critical of your work and say that it’s unnecessary or divisive, but I think the work is important, relevant, necessary and valuable. I’m proud to be a DEI professional.
There are many people I admire in the DEI space, but if I had to name one person it would be Freeman Hrabowski, who is President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
He has an amazing story: he grew up in segregated Alabama and joined other children who marched with Dr. King and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the fight for equality and civil rights as a twelve-year-old. He has an amazing career in Higher Education, excelling as a leader at a very young age.
He’s an amazing speaker and great leader, and an exceptional champion for creating space for diversity in STEM programs. He’s someone I really look up to as not a just a Black leader, but a great leader period.
I could recommend any of Angela Davis’ work. The Matter of Black Lives by Jelani Cobb is also fantastic, as is Ibram Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist.