Engagement & Transformative Learning: Equity where it Matters

Written by Sunshine Cowan, Ph.D., MPH, MCHES®, Professor, Department of Kinesiology and Health Studies –

I had the good fortune this past summer to join a team from the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) attending the Institute of High Impact Practices and Student Success, sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). The Institute focused on equity in higher education, and our team concentrated on ways that UCO could develop an equity mindset on campus. In the words of Dr. Sharra Hynes, we wanted to lay the groundwork to be a “student-ready” campus. This phrase became a goal: What needed to be accomplished so that we were ready when students arrived? What could we do better to meet the needs of the students who choose UCO (rather than banking on outdated expectations of who our students “should” be)? How could we provide opportunities to engage first-generation, low income, and minority students in order to retain them and serve our state and respective fields with career-ready graduates?picture of colorful raised hands

We spent our daysat the Institute planning ways to address inequities in our classrooms, programs, colleges, and across the university. Rather than being prescriptive for our campus colleagues who were not in attendance, we instead focused on finding ways to communicate our existing campus data where inequities lie (such as D-F-W rates in our courses and the racial and gender gaps associated with them). Our plan centered on Dr. Cia Verschelden’s belief that once everyone knew the existing inequities, we as a campus would find ways to address them that make sense in our respective classrooms, programs, or areas. We embraced a “knowing is half the battle” framework. The team is still working on disseminating these data, and we hold high hopes that the message will be heard and that our campus will become a community with an equity mindset in all that we do.

Additionally, our team recognized that UCO’s Student Transformative Learning Record program (STLR) offers an opportunity for faculty and staff to put equity into practice by connecting with students who may otherwise feel disconnected from UCO. In fact, the federal grant currently funding STLR places its focus on students who are first-generation, low socioeconomic status, or racial or ethnic minorities.

By ensuring we provide High-Impact Practices with an equity mindset, we can provide engagement and transformative learning opportunities to students that need it most. We can live into our espoused values of diversity and inclusion – and our students, professional fields, and communities will be all the better for it.

Developing an equity mindset requires us to take a moment to think about our outreach to students in regards to out-of-class projects. Rather than encouraging students who are already excelling in the classroom (or otherwise securely connected to campus) to work with us on research, service learning projects, or community events, an equity mindset inspires us to look for potential in students who may otherwise be overlooked. It reminds us to stop and consider the socioeconomic status, race, or familial educational status of our students and then engage those who may need added connection to campus. It is worth our time and energy to adopt this mindset – and when students who may otherwise slip away are instead retained until graduation, it pays off big dividends for them, our communities, and our professional fields.

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