Equity Builds from Student Voices: A CSU Student Plenary on Creating a Student-Ready Campus

By Thad Nodine and Kalifa Madden

A panel of students moderated and presented at the opening session of the first annual statewide conference by the CSU Student Success Network, an independent network facilitated by EdInsights. Representing campuses from Northern, Central, and Southern California, the students drew from their experiences in the CSU to describe the challenges they face on their campus and online, the supports that helped them succeed, and the equity-minded policies they’d like to see at college.

The two-day conference, entitled “Building a Student-Ready Campus,” was organized by the CSU Network for CSU middle leaders (faculty, staff, and middle-level administrators) and students to advance equitable student success. It was held online on Sept. 25 and Oct. 16, and was attended by over 350 CSU middle leaders and students representing campuses across the system.

Challenges and Supports

Rihab Shuaib, a Ghanaian-American student majoring in human resources management at CSU Dominguez Hills, described the key supports provided by her campus’s first-year programs and her Equal Opportunity Program (EOP) advisor. But she said she faced hurdles after the first year, including enrolling in classes, finding a consistent source of academic advising, and connecting with a faculty mentor. “Yes we have to advocate for ourselves, but we need more support after the first year to help us graduate on time,” she said. “It’s really important to find mentors who support you and empower you throughout your college experience. And it’s really impactful to have faculty who look like you.”

Gaonoucci Belle Vang, a first-generation Hmong scholar and double major at Fresno State, also described her first experiences on campus as welcoming. She said she went to orientation and was excited, but then she couldn’t get into the courses she wanted. She, too, emphasized the importance of faculty mentors and she credited two programs with helping her find her path: “Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies, where I learned I don’t have to be an obedient student, and the McNair Scholars program, which provided me with financial and other resources, including mentors. You need people who believe in you. Mentorship encourages you to be the person you can be.”

Ilseh Busarelo, likewise said that they struggled during their first year, as they adjusted to the expectations and workload of being at a university. “Moving to a different city was a shock,” Busarelo said. “I had to work as well as go to class, and it was difficult to juggle.” Busarelo was born in Los Angeles and is studying Chicanx.a.o. Studies (CCS) and Environmental Justice at San Jose State. As with Shuaib and Vang, Busarelo said the challenges became surmountable after beginning to see themself in the academic programs they were studying: “I didn’t get the support I needed until the second year when I started taking CCS courses and I got involved in spaces that made me feel seen and heard.”

The students agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic has made the challenges that students face more difficult. “COVID has amplified all the needs of students,” Shuaib said, adding that students are suffering from food and housing insecurity, as well as mental health issues, and it’s difficult to access these kinds of services off campus. “People can’t go to the queer resource center,” she said, “or the Black resource center, or food banks.”

Suggestions for Equity-Minded Approaches

The panel had many suggestions to make university campuses more welcoming for minoritized students, including being more intentional about racial equity in the following areas: budgets and funding, faculty hiring and training, curriculum, and student responsibilities. “Students are not just students, they have a lot of intersectional aspects to them,” said Vang, referring to the extent to which students have multiple kinds of identity and face overlapping discrimination, depending on their race, gender, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, physical ability, class, or other characteristics. “It would help if students were required to take cultural competency courses,” she said, so that they’re more aware. She also recommended hiring more professors of color and of other minoritized identities.

Shuaib called on all faculty to speak out about racism and to support faculty and students of color through, for example, the funding of research opportunities for faculty and research positions for students. She said, “What are we doing so that our Black students, our Black faculty, and our ethnic studies departments are being supported? Everyone needs to be involved in this conversation. It is a systemwide and campuswide conversation.” She also recommended that faculty receive training, if needed, to be more sensitive to and aware of the perspectives of minoritized students. “I’ve been in classes where I am the only woman and the only Black person, and faculty have made insensitive remarks. All faculty need to make students feel welcome in talking with them after class to address issues that come up in the classroom.”

Busarelo agreed that many professors need to be more aware of their behaviors. “Even when we are learning about the history of an issue,” they said, “that doesn’t make it okay to repeat the slurs that others have used in the past to denigrate us.” Busarelo called for broadening the curriculum to include more Black, Latinx, and indigenous literature, history, and perspectives. They also emphasized the importance of students becoming more informed about events beyond campus, both in communities and nationally.

Next Steps for the Annual Conference on Student Success

The student plenary was co-sponsored by the California State Student Association (CSSA) and moderated by Alondra Esquivel Garcia, who is pursuing two bachelor’s degrees–in political science and in race and resistance studies–at San Francisco State. Conference Director Larissa Mercado-López, PhD, associate professor at Fresno State, said that the students set a tone and a bearing that lasted throughout the conference. “We wanted to flip the college-readiness conversation in higher education away from narrowly focusing on student preparation and toward preparing our campuses for students,” she said. “What better way to do that than by engaging students who could lift up and direct this conversation? The expertise that came across in the dialogue reminds us how important it is that institutions meaningfully consult with students and lead with student voice in their equity efforts.”

The plenary was followed by two days of sessions featuring CSU faculty, staff, and administrators sharing their approaches to equitable teaching practices and academic supports, such as reducing course-level equity gaps, building a campus culture to support transfer students, and shifting advising online. “We wanted to engage participants around actionable items: models, practices, and concepts they can consider and readily apply in their own settings,” said Mercardo-López.

What did participants describe as highlights of the conference? The student plenary. Having multiple breakout sessions to choose from. And making connections with colleagues from other CSU campuses. “We are excited by the cross-system connections and the depth of engagement we were able to achieve this year virtually, and we’ll be building on that these next few months as we prepare for another virtual event next year,” Mercado-López said. “What we heard from participants is that this conference provided a long sought-after space for connecting, problem-solving, and solution-sharing with their colleagues across the CSU. And of course–the students were absolutely key to its success.”

The CSU Network is facilitated by EdInsights at Sacramento State. For additional information about equity-minded practices, see the first two memos from the CSU Network’s Knowledge Center: Addressing Racism in the California State University System: A Conversation with Dr. Frank Harris III and Approaches to Online Instruction That Are Engaging for Students

October 2020

CSU faculty, staff, and administrators are using a range of creative practices to increase student engagement, facilitate equitable remote learning, and broaden access to virtual student supports. In a series of online conversations hosted by the CSU Student Success Network in July and August, over 150 faculty and staff across 21 CSU campuses shared strategies and learned from each other about student-centered online practices. In the spirit of navigating this unique year together, we want to disseminate the ideas, tips, and practical strategies our colleagues shared during the sessions.

The conversation series, called Navigating Uncertainty Together, focused on what we in the CSU learned from our virtual transition last spring, and the actions we can take to advance racial equity for students returning to our virtual classrooms this fall. As one participant noted, “It is very easy right now to get bogged down in the challenges. Good ideas came up … about solution-oriented thinking.” Ideas emerged with regard to ways to create and strengthen connections with students, develop flexible class and support practices, use technology creatively, expand accessibility to services, and leverage the campus community.

According to Terra Thorne, Director of Statewide Initiatives at EdInsights, which runs the CSU Network, “None of us has all the answers, but collectively across our campuses we have the expertise. These dialogues tapped into the sense that we can do this work together, in the service of our students.”