by Aj Silva, staff writer
Pikes Peak State College’s journey towards promoting equity and inclusion on campus post-COVID has been filled with successes and challenges. As the staff, faculty and students continue their efforts toward creating a more equitable and welcoming environment, they face the reality that much work still needs to be done.
The community college serves students from a variety of identities and backgrounds and has an organizational vision establishing that: “Students succeed at PPSC.” To achieve that vision, staffers are implementing a range of initiatives and practices, like establishing student groups and introducing teaching techniques to promote student engagement. But attempting to implement those initiatives in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic has created and intensified barriers.
Ricardo Perez, the college’s director of student life, described how he advises a student group, the Gender and Sexuality Alliance, to promote inclusion for LBGT+ students and allies. Perez noted that the alliance originated from his interactions with the staff and faculty serving on the school’s LGBT+ Advisory Committee. The committee developed an initiative to achieve the goal of better engaging LGBT+ students. Perez welcomed the opportunity to create and advise the alliance since he has worked with LGBT+ student groups on college campuses for 12 years.
“Advising these groups has always been the highlight of my job,” he said. “But I also find it to be an incredible resource for our LGBT+ students.”
The alliance facilitates equity and inclusion, Perez said.
“Offers LGBT+ students a safe space to be themselves, learn and engage with LGBT+ culture, and most of all, make like-minded friends,” he said.
Initiatives to promote equity and inclusion through student life have room to improve at the college. A study published by Gabriel Murchison, a psychologist at Harvard University, suggests that student groups, such as those intended to support LGBT+ students, can better serve members by incorporating community advocacy and student feedback.
Perez said he observed high levels of staff and faculty support for including students from underrepresented groups on campus.
“I feel that PPSC could do a much better job of including students in [these] initiatives,” he said.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty and staff initiatives for inclusion have often lacked student feedback, yet these initiatives require student engagement and feedback to succeed, Perez cautioned.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty and staff initiatives for inclusion have often lacked student feedback, yet these initiatives require student engagement and feedback to succeed.
Another set of campus processes promoting inclusivity, High Impact Practices, address the disadvantages students of color face in higher education. Black and Latino students nationwide have historically lower rates of retention, credit completion, and graduation in college compared to white students, as Jessa Valentine and Derek Price, researchers who each have a Ph.D in Education, noted in a white paper for the Lumina Foundation, an organization studying inclusion in state and community colleges. A research study by Jason Arday and Christopher Jones, who have respective Ph.D degrees in Education and Sociology, documented how disadvantages experienced by adult students of color increased on American college campuses during the COVID-19 pandemic. As of the 2019-2020 academic year, the Pikes Peak State College website says, 38% of the 19,102 students at the school were persons of color, which shows that a high proportion of students could be directly impacted by inclusivity practices.
Jo-Ellen Becco, the college’s director of High Impact Practices, detailed how the practices have improved engagement and academic outcomes for students of color. The practices consist of teaching strategies that campus faculty utilize in their courses. According to Becco, the practices “create opportunities for meaningful experiences so that all students can feel a sense of belonging and value in the PPSC community.”
Becco establishes requirements for the practices based on research showing that these practices promote student and faculty interaction, facilitate stakeholders’ respect for diversity, foster student engagement and improve grades and academic persistence for all students, and especially for students of color. At Pikes Peak State College, data from the 2019-2020 academic year revealed that enrollment in one High Impact Practices course boosted academic persistence by 7% for all students, and 18% for Black students.
Vice President for Student Services Homer Wesley described how the college developed virtual services to address emergent student needs during the pandemic. The pandemic forced students at colleges across the country to shift from traditional classroom learning to online learning, but Wesley attributed the move’s negative impact on community college students to factors like restricted access to equipment and internet services, along with challenges balancing online learning demands with those of work and family.
The college opted to host online services from the 12 departments comprising the Student Services division, including Career Services, Financial Aid and Counseling.
“[My role is] to support divisional leadership so that individual departments can deliver services that allow the college to … support students in reaching their goals,” Wesley said, citing that the college continues to face barriers, particularly in terms of acquiring sufficient funding for new initiatives and maintaining sufficient staffing.
Vice President for Instructional Services Jacquelyn Gaiters-Jordan said the emphasis on virtual learning created by the pandemic has had additional consequences for the college’s pursuit of equity and inclusion. She observed enrollment decline during and after the pandemic, along with enrollment among students of color. Additionally, she said diversity in hiring suffered at the time. Still, she offered a solution.
“The use of virtual platforms like Zoom has provided the opportunity to interview a broader pool of applicants, which may lead to more diverse hires,” she said.
PPSC strives to promote equity and inclusion on campus post-COVID through initiatives to engage students from underrepresented groups. However, the pandemic has created and exacerbated barriers, highlighting the need for increased student feedback and funding for staffing and new initiatives.