Interview with Rohan Arjun, Associate Director of Admission & Financial Aid at St. Mark's School and Diane Nichols, Director of Equity and Inclusion at Winchester Thurston School
Why do you feel this is an important topic to speak about at TABS this year?
RA: We are both Founding Faculty Members of the National Diversity Practitioners Institute, a three day professional development institute for diversity practitioners. It is an important resource for anyone who works in education, because we all have interactions and relationships with communities made up of diverse students and adults. We want educators to have the right tools in their toolbox to interact with these diverse communities. This TABS presentation was inspired by one of the NDPI meetings. I am an admissions professional passionate about diversity work. Diane and I wanted to bring together how being a diversity practitioner can affect recruitment and retention. Admission officers have opportunities to create diverse communities that reflect our increasingly diverse world.
DN: I believe this to be an important topic both personally and professionally. Diversity work is much more challenging without the support of admissions officers, for the practitioner. We need to create inclusive communities that are built with a shared understanding of diversity, equity and inclusivity.
RA: One of our goals is to increase the capacity for diversity work. No one can do it alone. We need everyone to think of themselves as diversity practitioners. This is a paradigm shift for educators. You can be an admissions officer and a diversity practitioner. You can be a math teacher and a diversity practitioner. You can even be a head of school and a diversity practitioner. We understand that we all wear many hats as educators, especially in boarding schools. We are simply asking everyone to add the "diversity practitioner hat" to their collection.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in educating administrators about diversity?
DN: I’ve found that few administrators understand how diversity and identity impact our teaching and learning. There is value in supporting the identities of the students that we serve and the people that we work with. One of the challenges is moving people out of a framework of sameness. Most faculty believe that it’s their job to teach everyone the same. Treat others as you want to be treated, instead treating, teaching and engaging others as they need and want to be treated. What they can’t see is that they are missing opportunities embrace the identities of their students and coworkers, across differnce. Unless they are challenged to think about diversity, they will always revert to their schemas or frameworks that define their sense of ‘normal’. We cannot create equitable and inclusive learning communities, without acknowledging the diversity within them.
RA: I completely agree. The only thing I would add is that we are asking people to change the paradigm, and change is difficult. It is not what they are used to. It is difficult to accept anything with open arms that challenges your beliefs and routines. One thing that we ask schools to consider is including diversity conferences as professional development opportunities for everyone. Even though these conferences may not address their area of expertise, every faculty member and administrator can benefit from diversity training. It adds to their teaching, adds to their learning, and opens the possibility of a multicultural curriculum. No matter who is sitting in the classroom, it is important that they can all identify with, connect with, and relate to the curriculum. Diversity training opens administrators to the questions: Do your students see themselves when they walk the halls? Do they see themselves in the faculty? What structures, cultures, and policies are in place to make everyone feel welcome?
What is the main takeaway that you want people to remember about your presentation?
DN: Diversity is everyone’s work. We all need to develop the skills and competencies to adequately support our students. We need to constantly learn and hear new perspectives by going to workshops, reading and connecting around in and through our differences. We all have a responsibility to understand and support the identities of the students we serve and how our identities affect them. I would also recommend that we think about ways to holistically attend to the whole child as part of the admissions process. If you’re bringing in a Muslim student to a Christian community, what do they need to feel affirmed? Are they a guest or a member in their own school? These questions are especially important for boarding schools because it will serve as that students home for the next four years.
RA: I believe that it was Reverend Susan Blue who said, "Diversity is the mix. Inclusion is making the mix work." In order to recruit a diverse student body and make the mix work, everyone needs to be on the same page, especially admissions officers. It starts with finding mission appropriate students or as popularly referred to as the "right fit". Admissions officers often equate ‘the right fit’ with applicants that resemble historically successful students, but what does that mean in the context of an increasingly diverse world? Right fit is the new normal. It is important that admissions officers are mindful of how their school’s culture, policies, and structures will support a student’s full identity. They need to look past their own biases about test scores, applications, and extracurricular activities. They should be asking: Is the student going to be able to bring their whole selves to school? I think that it is important for us to do this because not only does our schools claim to educate the whole child, which is not possible if the student cannot bring their whole self, but we are asking students to spend 4-12 years with us. That is too much time for students not be their full selves.
DN: We also want to remind admissions professionals that schools have a culture with behaviors , expectations, values and norms. They are socializing students to be members of that culture. We should always be aware and vigilant in our efforts to explore how that culture will impact , support, or hinder the development of a students’ identity. We need to be culturally aware and responsive to our incoming students, by increasing our knowledge and awareness to span beyond academics to other social and cultural identifiers.