Space and Grace: Mitigating Bias as Spartans Return to Campus

As more and more Spartan faculty, staff, and students return to campus for what we hope will be a more traditional in-person experience, let's discuss mitigating bias in that return to campus. We have a distinguished panel to help us do that on this edition of MSU Today.

Christine So (she/her) is ASMSU's Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer and Senior Advisor to APASO, that's the Asian Pacific American Student Organization.  Kelly High McCord (she/her) is Director of Human Resources for Residential Hospitality Services. Dr. Ashley Green (she/her) is Assistant Dean of Administration and Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for International Studies and Programs. And Dr. Jim Lucas (he him) is Assistant Dean of Global Education and Curriculum at the Office of Undergraduate Education.

What's the relationship between DEI and the COVID-19 pandemic? In what ways are people differentially affected based on their identities?

“We know that some people are at a higher risk because of their race or ethnicity due to underlying conditions, or more so because of lack of access to regular healthcare and preventions. But there could also be differentials in the impacts of dealing with the trauma or the aftermath,” says Green. “So if you come from an area where numerous loved ones have died from the disease, you now have an added layer of trauma or grief that impacts your mental and physical health due to the actual COVID-19 disease.

“And I have to also mention the differential impacts on our workforce, such as differences in salary adjustments, furloughs, possible inequities in work assignments, power dynamics, and from a personal perspective, women who are juggling heightened full-time work and additional duties at home while managing children being schooled from home. And then more specifically, as it relates to some of the international population, they have had to navigate a number of issues such as border closings disabling them from entering their home countries or leaving to come to the U.S., navigating time zone challenges when trying to participate in courses and meetings virtually, less than ideal internet in various parts of the world, and fears of being unable to obtain a visa for educational or professional traveling thereby resulting in decreased opportunities to travel, which impacts international research and global experiences for our faculty and students. And then lastly, other issues of DEI that are exacerbated in virtual spaces include lack of connection and hands-on physical support. There are some language barriers that are heightened in virtual spaces or while wearing a mask as well.”

“In Residential and Hospitality Services and beyond on campus, many of our frontline team members are people of color and women,” High McCord says. “And so they have been affected in having to make really difficult decisions regarding whether to come to campus. Do I feel safe? Am I going to bring something home to my parents that I care for? Some healthcare institutions may have been closed or compromised in various ways. If you have childcare issues, where can you put your child when you still need to work? There have been a number of challenges.

“We've had staff members who've lost people due to COVID-19, and they’re dealing with the loss. The workforce is very thin right now, and so they're putting in a lot of hours to help us cover and take care of the campus that's still here and operating during the pandemic.”

“In addition to childcare issues, we're hearing about people who have family responsibilities in terms of elder care, and then also students who may be helping to support their families,” Lucas adds. “And so for them, maybe their parents or guardians are out of work and they need to work more. And then of course, we have to look at the jobs sometimes, as Kelly alluded to. If you have a position as a frontline worker or in the hospitality industry, you're being put at the forefront of being exposed to COVID.

“And I just want to also stress something we haven’t talked about enough. We’re seeing internet access issues for our low-income students and our rural students. We've actually had students who've been driving to McDonald's or to Starbucks to sit outside to take tests or to do their homework. And we know that people from certain cultural backgrounds may not feel comfortable accessing medical care or mental health care. And so they may be suffering in silence. And then of course we have to think globally about who has access to what vaccines and who's able to obtain them easily, but also what is the United States' role in supporting COVID vaccination globally?”

We know that vaccine and mask wearing policies have caused some controversial conversation. Can you explain some of the bias or apprehensions around mask wearing and vaccinations?

“To be candid, there were some African American men who were initially hesitant to wear masks in public spaces for fear of being targeted or profiled due to negative stereotypes,” Green says. “As it relates to the vaccine, we also have to acknowledge that there are some in the African American community who are not trusting of the medical professionals or political figures, given the systematic oppression that the community has felt. Some have even cited the Tuskegee Airmen syphilis experiment where black men were intentionally and secretively injected with syphilis as a reason to not trust the vaccine. Ultimately, there are some concerns. They think that there's some ulterior motive or hidden agenda for the government to gain more power and control or for the medical industry to make profit off of them as Guinea pigs.

“I'm supportive of the science, but whether you agree or disagree, it is a reality for some that needs to be acknowledged. Then some people are just simply pro-choice in every way and are against being forced to do anything.

“There's also some concern on the other side where people still want to continue wearing masks, even when and if a mask mandate is lifted and they're just concerned about being teased or looked at like they're odd when they're still wearing their masks. So we are really seeing the concerns on both sides. And again, whether you agree or disagree, I think it's important to acknowledge everyone's feelings when trying to deal with this.”

Christine, what do you think students are most worried about in general coming back to in-person this year?

“A lot of students are still concerned about their own safety in the classroom,” So says. “There have been things going around about how people are creating fake vaccination cards or fake COVID tests. So even though a student may submit a vaccination card, what's to say it's real or not real?

“A lot of students, including myself, really want empathy. I know some professors were more empathetic than others. I feel like some professors were very accommodating and others were not. So I'm kind of interested to see and concerned about how professors will treat students this fall because we all know the transition back to a somewhat normal year will be very challenging for not just students, but the faculty and staff in our institution. So I'm just really hoping for some empathy and mental health. And transitioning of two basically new freshmen classes will be a big learning curve for not just those students, but for the faculty and staff supporting those students with resources and teaching them. And something I want to emphasize too is the pandemic still exists. It’s still going.”

“Faculty, staff, and students with sensory issues are also affected by masks,” adds Lucas. “It may inhibit their ability to read lips and it can be harder to hear sometimes. We’re thinking through how we'll be doing fall welcome events and the scope and the scale of those events. We're basically going to be repeating some of the events that this year's second year students went through virtually because we know from talking to students that the virtual year, although they benefited and they had a great education, it wasn't the same. It wasn't the same as meeting people.

“We're hearing a lot about social anxiety issues as students transition to a place that they know a little bit but not a lot about. And they are going to want to be with friends and engage in clubs and do all the things that first year students do. And so there is a campus reorientation effort that's looking at how we can do that and how we can basically transition all of our students back.”

“I would add that our staff is feeling similarly,” continues High McCord. “Many of them worked from home, and so they’re reacclimating to campus and thinking about the thousands upon thousands of students who are going to descend on campus and they're very anxious. And like Christine said, this pandemic is still happening. And so there's some staff that are saying, ‘Why are we acting like this is not happening?’ So we've been trying to encourage our team members to come back to campus now to ease their way into it. We have people who are very anxious coming from home where people were shopping online and having things delivered curbside who are now coming into an office even with 5-10 people, and that is very anxiety producing.

“I really liked Christine's point about empathy and thinking about how to keep people physically and psychologically safe. And we're talking to our supervisors about how to do that. You know, don't take for granted that no one wants to wear masks. Some people do. And there are people who are worried about being bullied for wearing a mask, or people asking about vaccination status or health status because some choose to wear a mask. We want to protect people so we're telling people to not ask those questions. Let people make that choice for themselves.”

“We've politicized COVID, unfortunately, and mask wearing,” Lucas continues. “Whether you're a faculty staff, employee, or a student, you have to remember that people are coming from different backgrounds with different beliefs, and you can't make an assumption about someone because they want to wear a mask, or they don't want to wear a mask. We have people who have immune compromised loved ones, and they want to be safe because they don't want to bring it home. And so we have to remember it's both ways and that's something I find that it's helpful to talk to people about. As much as some people are nervous about coming back, some people are really eager to come back. And there is no right answer other than what I hear us all trying to say is you have to have empathy and grace.”

Ashley, can you talk about how xenophobia plays into our discussion?

“That's been a big concern among the international population, particularly, but not solely from the Asian community,” says Green. “As many people know, there has been a rise in hate crimes against the Asian community. And some of this stems from the assertion that the coronavirus came from China, along with our former political figures, unfortunately, calling this the China virus and making other disparaging remarks. There are people who are now targeting members from the Asian community in a prejudiced or discriminatory way, and that’s causing a lot of emotional and even physical harm.

“As it relates to faculty, there is tension between the government compliance and sometimes unjust mistreatment of international faculty as they deal with additional layers of scrutiny and approvals and other protocols that not all faculty have to deal with. And so it's just a really big concern. As people come back to campus, they want to feel welcomed and they want to feel invited. It's not just purely an MSU campus culture issue, it is a U.S. national issue. And so it's prevalent among many groups. I just took the time to talk about the Asian community, but many populations are feeling this just as some Muslim populations felt this during the 9/11 crisis.”

The university is focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. What are some of the ways in which your college or department is advancing to contribute to an inclusive environment?

“International Studies and Programs advances programming related to global and cross-cultural initiatives,” Green says. “Working with academic colleges, we develop education abroad programming and other forms of student exchange. We offer a diversity of seminars, conferences, and workshops through our units related to global DEI. We also have a role in internationalizing teaching and learning and integrating diverse perspectives, cultures, and voices into the curriculum. And then externally, we facilitate equitable partnerships to transform lives and address global challenges through collaborative research and outreach.

“And all of this is for our students to participate in and benefit from, and we have other initiatives through our units, such as the GenCen, serving as the hub for gender and sexuality research from a global perspective, Muslim studies programming, our area studies, creating cross-disciplinary research on a global scale, and then our Office of International Students and Scholars with all of their support for immigration regulations, intercultural communication workshops, and other DACA related issues. And then we're also proud to have partnered with the president's office and OI3 to develop a robust set of information and resources for our undocumented students, refugees, and DACA students.”

Kelly, what about at RHS?

“I'm glad you asked because I wanted to make sure we didn't jump from the xenophobia piece too soon because we really need to outwardly say and demonstrate that we want all of our students to be safe, including our Asian and Asian American community members,” High McCord says. “We need to be explicit about that. And so we’re checking in appropriately to see how people are feeling and if they feel safe. What you can do to help them feel safe is really important. I know in our division, we're trying to do that. We've talked about our Hate Has No Home Here campaign. Students will see that right away when they move in to campus. We'll have a robust campaign going and a pledge signing piece as well. But as students have told us, if we are saying that hate has no home here, then we need to put some action behind that and show how we protect our students, staff, community, and faculty. We're looking forward to doing that.

“We've been trying to stay on the pulse of what's happening for folks of color and our international students throughout this pandemic and talking with our colleagues across campus. Christine has been a part of a summit that we had in RHS and Student Affairs and Services to really talk about what we need to do to make students feel safe. And students have given us a number of demands related to safety that we're trying to respond to right away. And so maybe Christine wants to talk a little bit about that, but I think we're really trying to talk about action steps to do it. It's not verbal support, but actually supporting them in our policies, practices, and procedures.”

“I want to thank Kelly for sharing the work that summit has been doing in that group,” says So. “It's been really good. As a student who participates in some of those organizations and those circles, it's really nice to see that demands are now receiving actions. Something I also want to emphasize is that because MSU is a PWI, a predominantly white institution, it's really important that these colleges are developing steps to promote their DEI initiatives. It is important to bring that sort of awareness to our university.

“On the topic of xenophobia and being a Korean American woman myself and looking very East Asian, which Chinese people also fall under with that unfortunate stereotype that has been circulating because of the pandemic, I have not had an experience where somebody has blatantly come up to my face. But I remember at the peak of the pandemic when my brother and I would go to the grocery store or I'd assist my mom when I came home in March of 2020, the stares and people blatantly moving away from us in the grocery store. I don't think some people recognize how hurtful those small actions can be or be felt so it is really important to make sure that people are checking in with students and faculty and staff who are part of this community as well.”

“Our office runs a lot of different programming that looks at DEI and its connection to student success,” says Lucas. “We know that creating a hospitable campus with a positive climate is essential for all of our students. And so whether it's the way we do orientation or the way we do first-year transition programming, we have been embedding DEI into all of the work that we do. And in relationship specifically to COVID, some of the efforts we've been doing is having specific global education and DEI related conversation so that faculty members who are most likely to be teaching our younger students have some context of what they're facing and how to address those issues in the classroom.

“Sometimes faculty and staff may see each other or a student in distress or something might have happened like George Floyd, and then they don't say anything about it because they don't know what to say, or they don't know how to say it, or they don't feel prepared to deal with what might come out of launching into a conversation. I can say from my perspective that's something that we've been trying to do a lot during COVID is to give people the skills to be kind. I don't mean that people aren't kind, but give people the skills to be empathetic and to give them the confidence to reach out to other people.”

We've been touching on it throughout the conversation, but what are we expecting to experience with our staff, students, and faculty this fall and how are we preparing for it?

“We're doing our best to prepare for it,” High McCord continues. “Right now we are responding to the mask mandate and how students and staff are responding to that, and also the vaccination mandate that has been handed down. There are so many questions about what this means for me and the timelines. Getting information out to the MSU community will be very important in helping them make sense of it and what it means. There are a lot of people who are saying, ‘If I decide not to get it, does that mean that I'm terminated and I can no longer work for the university?’ And what does that mean? What does that mean for them and their livelihood and their family, but then also for the institution?

“We've been trying to hire a lot of people. Across the state and across the nation, there's an employment shortage. Losing individuals because of this mandate could be pretty detrimental, depending on what the volume is of people who decide to make that decision.

“That's what we're focusing on right now. I appreciate what Jim said about there being a lot of people who are really excited to get back. I think our students are really excited to get back. We also have a lot of returning students who are coming into their sophomore year who are looking forward to living on campus because they missed that experience their first year. Being in RHS, it's great to see that people want to live on campus and have that experience and really value it because that's a part of diversity, equity, and inclusion as well, learning to live with other people who are not like you. And it puts the onus on us to create a welcoming environment to support the diverse people that we serve.

“We try to encourage people to get to know people who are not like themselves. You’re discovering who you are and what your values are. And so a lot of the kind of inclusion and equity pieces come from you knowing who you are and what you value, and then also then learning about other people. We're really excited to have students back on campus to talk with them more about how we can work together to make a safer environment on campus.”

Jim, are there any resources to support faculty and students regarding mental health and wellbeing?

“We have been posting a list of the available mental health and wellbeing resources on the Keep Teaching, Keep Learning, and Keep Working website. We have the support units, the counseling center, and the employee assistance program. But we've also launched a new program with the support of the provost called Kognito. And that program is an online discussion simulation where the AI responds to your comments and gives you feedback. It's designed to help people feel more comfortable having conversations about mental health and also to encourage them to seek out mental health support.

“Kognito is available in an employee version and a student version, and all students and employees have access to it. And we've integrated that information into new employee, graduate student, and student orientation. And we're also developing some trauma-informed practice guides for faculty in the classrooms. On the student side, the counseling center, CAPS, has launched CAPS Connect, which is a program that's been going on for a few years. It sends the counselors out into diverse spaces. So into college offices, into international student offices, and into the multicultural center to put mental health resources where our students are. That's the one message that CAPS would like to get out to the community is, if you're having students who are experiencing mental health distress is to get them to the CAPS Connect professionals.”

And how are we thinking, Jim, differently about student services and curriculum as we shift to in-person? Like, what's happening with reorientation?

“Reorientation has been a real campus-wide activity to look at what it means for all of us to come back to campus,” continues Lucas. “And as my friends and colleagues have pointed out, in some cases it’s not just the students who have never been on campus. For some, it's just who spent time away and who may not remember how to do certain things. Or their campus navigation skills have gotten a little rusty. So we have a series of initiatives. One is looking at, as I said before, the scope and scale of our activities. So things like Sparticipation and resource fairs, understanding that more people might be wanting to go to those events. And so maybe they need to be larger, they need to be more spaced out because of COVID. And maybe we need to think differently about the resources we're giving, because it's not just students looking for clubs, but students looking for education abroad and research and community engagement type of activities.

“We're really thinking about that. And we're really trying to promote trauma-informed practice on our campus and encouraging people to have open dialogue with students and to give students the space to grieve, to give employees the space to grieve, to have learning communities within your workplace to talk about the transition back, as Kelly mentioned, but also to perhaps be doing that in the classroom.”

“There is the new Global DEI Task Force,” Green adds. “That is a cross-university task force that has been created including representatives from key administrative offices. Many of the offices are represented by the speakers today. And we have some faculty with expertise in global engagement and intercultural competence. This task force is charged by the associate provost and dean of International Studies and Programs, and I'll be chairing it. The goal is to develop resources, programs, and potential policies to reinforce inclusive practices in a global context. We're discussing the needs and developing recommendations over the summer for implementation beginning in the fall semester. And this institutional-wide effort will build on existing programs and resources to result in educational materials, teaching resources, training options, and even a communications guide.

“We also plan to increase diversity trainings and other initiatives and campus conversations geared toward global diversity, equity, and inclusion. And this is really important to us because scholars have noted that in many DEI strategies and conversations, the global dimension is sometimes an add on or an afterthought. We're really working hard to make sure that it's a natural integration into these discussions and efforts.”

And Jim, can you define what trauma-informed is and why that's important in DEI?

“Trauma-informed practice is being espoused by several different groups on campus,” says Lucas. “It was actually started in relationship to sexual assault and relationship violence, but also it relates to a communication tactic post any form of trauma, whether that be a recent trauma or a past trauma. We believe that after everything that we have gone through as a community, as a nation, and as a world related to COVID, that we have all experienced a trauma. And so the idea with a trauma-informed practice is kind of what you've heard my colleagues talking about. You know, not asking someone, ‘Why are you wearing a mask?’ Or not asking someone to give you proof that they're upset, that you assume and give grace.

“So instead of saying, ‘Well, prove to me that you need an extension on your paper and explain to me why you didn't get it done,’ take that more critical, analytical approach, which I think sometimes we see happening in the classroom. Say, ‘I understand. I empathize with you. I'm here to support you. How can I support you? Where can we direct?’ You're starting with this kind of openness, one of belief, and one of support, instead of asking, ‘Give me evidence. Give me proof that you had COVID. Give me proof that you need to be online.’”

And Christine, as the chief diversity officer for ASMSU, are there any initiatives that student organizations and leaders are involved in?

“I know a lot of students are excited, especially on the ASMSU side, to get back into academic governance and in places where student voices really need to be represented,” So says. “As a resident assistant, I've also had the opportunity to be a part of conversations about gender-inclusive housing and what that will look like in the fall since Wonders Hall, which is where I'm a resident assistant, is piloting that. I'm really excited for that. But I know a lot of students want to be a part of spaces and panels through OCAT, our Office of Cultural and Academic Transitions. And there have been a lot of conversations happening there as well in terms of campus safety and that transition coming back.”

Why is DEI work everyone's responsibility?

“Everyone should be mindful that DEI is broad and really should consider many populations,” says Green. “Specifically in my role, I like to promote that we have to recognize the immense value of having a truly global community, and then ensure that as we talk about DEI, we aren't just focusing simply on diversity, but also providing the support and resources needed to ensure equity and full inclusion.

“We have international students, scholars, faculty, and staff in all areas and levels of the university, and these global Spartans bring invaluable cultural, intellectual, and experiential contributions. And so this is an area where MSU is well-positioned to be a diversity champion in alignment with our world grant identity to be inclusive of the globe, not just of the nation, particularly due to our long-term and continuing strengths in international engagement. Global DEI is an approach that we need to take at a top 100 globally ranked institution, and it's all of our jobs to ensure that all are welcome and supported on this campus.”

“Diversity, equity, and inclusion is in everything that we do,” adds High McCord. “It’s in every decision that we make and every interaction that we have, whether we recognize it or not. And so diversity is there, whether we recognize it or not. The inclusion piece is actually recognizing it and acting on it and the equity is making sure that everyone that is there and is a part of it has what they need to be successful and has the same types of opportunities for promotions, progress, and tenure. It's in everything how we utilize our resources and who has access to our resources.

“MSU is a highly diverse institution. It could be more diverse, yes, but we need to definitely serve the diverse community that we have and it's in everything. And I think that people are asking for us to just stop celebrating diversity and actually take action to move towards inclusion and equity within our environment. It touches absolutely everything that we do.”

Christine, from your student perspective, why is DEI all of our responsibility?

“Coming to MSU was when I really started to become passionate about DEI work and recognizing the diversity and the equity and inclusion that needs to happen,” So says. “I think Ashley brought up a great point about how DEI is very broad. And the reason why it's so important for everyone to practice it is because it's so broad. And because it's so broad, there's so much opportunity to learn and to educate oneself. And I feel like that also intimidates a lot of people. So something my department in ASMSU, the DEI department, is trying to do is to have mandatory DEI goals where we are asking our staff to set a goal on a topic where they want to educate themselves more and ask them to reflect and read a book or watch a documentary. And then at the end, have a discussion or a survey about how they felt and also how I can better give them resources.

“If someone comes and is like, ‘I want to learn more about the LGBTQA+ community,’ that's kind of broad. It’s my job in that position to steer them in a direction that's more specific. I know DEI in that sense is also very intimidating. So something I just want to put out there is that it's also very important to make sure people are allowing people to have that space to learn and grow and apologize and be sensitive and empathetic. Because I think a lot of the times people are very scared or they have bad experiences because someone corrected them without mercy and they weren't shown or given grace. So that's just something I also want to emphasize.

“With DEI, I think it's just important when it's everyone's responsibility that you're very patient with yourself and you don't try to force it because it can be really tiring work. That's what I've learned in my position. I just want to remind everyone that it is everyone's responsibility but be patient with yourself and don't be so hard on yourself about it.”

“Building off something that Kelly said, it's something that integrates into every aspect of our work and our lives,” Lucas adds. “I was hired to do internationalization of the curriculum. From a curricular perspective, some people always say, ‘Well, should I integrate it or should I make it its own class?’ The challenge is when you make it its own class, or you put the responsibility on a certain person or a certain office, then it allows you to marginalize that office or that class, or it becomes a one-off. And really, DEI is a part of the ethic of our institution. It's part of our culture, and it needs to be living and breathing across all spaces.

“When I'm working with faculty, I might have a faculty member say to me, ‘Well, I teach a genetics class, how can I teach diversity? That's not the content.’ But the way I like to talk about DEI work in global education is it's not just about the content. It's about the climate that you create in your class. It's about having equitable policies that are transparent and fair for all of our students. It's about the pedagogy you use. It's about the books and the examples you use. And it really takes all of us working together because we all have expertise in different areas. It's only through collaboration that we'll ever achieve our DEI goals as a campus.”

Final thoughts and key takeaways from our conversation?

“The university has really been focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion,” High McCord says. “President Stanley from day one has been talking about how important that is to him and how he wants to see it integrated into the institution. He established the DEI Steering Committee where Dr. Wanda Lipscomb and Luis Garcia and Dr. Cynthia Jackson-Elmore led that charge. We're really excited about their report and the recommendations it issued. The report is on the president's page. Our Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer, Dr. Jabbar Bennett, will take the lead in orchestrating what needs to happen across campus. It doesn't just rest on his shoulders. As we just talked about, it's all of us being involved to help implement those recommendations and make this a better climate and environment for everyone in our community.”

“It's really important and intense work, as Christine mentioned, but after this conversation, I'm energized because this is just another example of how we really need partnership, we need collaboration, and it's all of our responsibilities,” says Green. “I have much respect for everyone on this call in all of their hard work and valuable contributions to this conversation.”

“Students are very eager, including myself, to get back to campus,” says So. “There's a mix of different stressors that come to mind with the pandemic, but we’re very excited to be back hoping for a somewhat normal year to have those normal in-person club, e-board, and executive board meetings. Zoom, I think we all made it work and everybody adapted very well, but I do miss that in-person reaction, passing people in the hallway and saying hi. And I'll also be sitting on the Homecoming court, so I really want to enjoy that opportunity while trying to stay as safe as possible.”

“If I could say anything it's to reinforce the ideas of grace and empathy, both for ourselves and our colleagues and our students, allowing us the time and the space to be flexible and creative in how we're achieving our work and how we're working with those around us,” Lucas says. “And I think my main point that I'd like to leave you with is we need to be encouraging help-seeking behavior with all the people around us. Some people are really reticent to seek out especially mental health assistance because they may be stigmatized. Seeking help is a strength, not a weakness. And Spartans are here to help. They're here to help each other. They're here to help the world. And you can't do that if you're suffering. We need to be giving ourselves grace and encouraging people to get the help they need.”

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