Wednesday, April 29, 2015
On April 8th, 2015, law school students, administrators, faculty, academic support educators, and admissions officers along with members of the judiciary and leaders within the Law School Admissions Council congregated in a large hotel conference room within walking distance of the Las Vegas strip and a short bus ride from the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law. They had a common purpose: to discuss how to work together to better meet the needs of our diverse law students. Dr. Terrell Strayhorn gave the keynote speech, an inspirational start to an energizing and thought-provoking three days. Below are my notes from his keynote speech and some of the themes that I took back to Rhode Island with me from the conference. I also have pasted some links below for those of you who wish to read more about the topics touched on in this blog. I have a lot more to learn, but this conference was a wonderful starting point for me, and a much-appreciated opportunity to deepen my understanding of my own diverse students. Much thanks to Kent Lollis, LSAC’s Executive Director of Diversity Initiatives, Rod Fong, Chair of the LSAC Diversity Retention Conference Planning Group, Professor Nancy Rappaport of UNLV, and many others for their hard work in providing this opportunity for all of us.
Dr. Terrell Strayhorn, a Professor of Higher Education at the Department of Educational Studies within Ohio State’s College of Education and Human Ecology, is also the Director of the Ohio State Center for Higher Education Enterprise (CHEE).
During his keynote address, Dr. Strayhorn spoke about the need for students of color to feel that they “belong” to a community, to feel included. In his book, College Students Sense of Belonging, A Key to Educational Success for All Students, Dr. Strayhorn defines a “sense of belonging” as “a basic human need and motivation, sufficient to influence behavior. [It] refers to students’ perceived social support on campus, a feeling or sensation of connectedness, the experience of mattering or feeling cared about, accepted, respected, valued by, and important to the group (e.g., campus community) or others on campus (e.g., faculty, peers). It’s a cognitive evaluation that typically leads to an affective response or behavior.” According to Dr. Strayhorn, a “sense of belonging” is “relational” in that “members matter to one another and to the group,” and that “each member benefits from the group” and the “group benefits from the contributions of each member.”
This sense of “belonging” is an important factor in a diverse student’s potential for success, more significant than her LSAT score. A “sense of belonging” arises from both “structural” and “curricular” diversity. “Structural” diversity refers to the number of diverse students who are in a class overall & within each individual classroom. Curricular diversity refers to bringing both diverse and non-diverse students together in a meaningful way to discuss their experiences and perspectives. Cross-racial understanding comes from this curricular diversity. Simply having a number of diverse students in the classroom does not, by itself, facilitate inclusion. True inclusion involves interaction among students about their different perspectives and experiences. This “interactional diversity” is what impacts the student body. Many law faculty across the country, however, are unready to have these conversations. (See suggestions below)
If law schools do not bring students together to discuss their diverse experiences, cross-racial understanding and inclusion suffers because understanding and inclusion results from these interactions. A lack of conversations in law school classrooms about diverse perspectives among students is a missed opportunity to provide for a deeper sense of belonging for students of color. Students of color need to feel they belong to the community in which they learn. Curricular diversity engenders a sense of belonging, which, in turn, engenders self-efficacy among students of color.
For these conversations to facilitate understanding and inclusion there must be a sufficient number of students of color in the classroom for them to disagree with one another. The risk of having these conversations with too few students of color in the classroom is that these students feel they have to be the spokespersons for their entire race. In terms of structural diversity, law schools across the country still have a long way to go.
Dr. Strayhorn, and, in fact, every member of the panel on that first day, spoke about the importance of effective pipelines that reach deep into the diverse student community as early as middle school or preschool. In addition, he spoke about mentor programs for diverse students, and the need to enhance these programs by providing more oversight and training to the mentors about how to mentor a student. Mentors should not just meet a student for lunch to periodically “breathe on a student.” Rather, he spoke about three steps to being an effective mentor: 1) believe in the students and set high expectations for the students; 2) build character and invest in the students by providing specific strategies, sharing perspectives, and teaching them tools to achieve; and 3) push them to accomplish more (he called it “intrusive exposure”).
Once students of color decide to attend law school, and must choose which school to attend, they typically will view the law school’s website, but do not typically speak with staff or faculty about the law school. Instead, they choose to speak with people outside the law school, particularly family and friends. In fact, during his research, Dr. Strayhorn heard repeatedly from students of color that they chose to attend law school because they wanted to help their family by attaining a well-paying job to make money to give to their family. This family may include spouses and children, but also parents, brothers, sisters, and grandparents or others. In addition, students of color may feel responsible for financially supporting their families while in law school. They have an aversion to taking out debt.
Feelings of belonging also impacted students’ choice of law school: Meaningful connections with law staff and faculty made a critical difference to students of color. Some sentiments that Dr. Strayhorn consistently heard when he asked students why they had chosen their law school was “it was the only law school where the faculty made time to get to know me,” or the staff had an “honest conversation with me about the strengths and challenges of each law school I had applied to.” They “cared about me.” They “helped me with my application.” “Something about the school felt like a family.” Very few students spoke of the law school’s ranking in U.S. News & World Report or the law school’s reputation. Students also rarely spoke about the alumni placement data, bar passage rates, library holdings.
Dr. Strayhorn’s final comments: Minorities are severely underrepresented in the legal profession. The legal profession should better reflect our society. A diverse workforce will make better decisions. Although some great pipeline programs exist, the critical problem facing law schools and diverse students is the lack of a preschool to undergraduate pipeline.
Kathryn Thompson, Director of Academic Success Program, Roger Williams Law School