Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Expanding Diversity

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Expanding Diversity

Article excerpt

Long bike rides are an annual tradition for Dr. John Sygielski, who spent several weeks biking from New Orleans to Nashville this traveling along the Natchez Trace Parkway and passing through Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. Along the way, he raised close to $5,000 for his school's emergency grant fund through a GoFundMe campaign.

Sygielski, known to most as "Dr. Ski," is the president of HACC, Central Pennsylvania's Community College, an institution serving approximately 25,000 students on five campuses in the greater Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, area. The emergency fund helps students cover the unexpected - a car breaking down, a security deposit for an apartment or a medical bill. Students can apply for a one-time grant of $500.

That grant program is just one of the many ways that HACC seeks to make life easier for its students and make their educational goals more attainable. "For many of our students, if not for us, who?" Sygielski asks. "We're often the first hope, and the second hope, and the last hope."

HACC is the largest postsecondary institution in the Harrisburg area and serves a diverse student body, not only with regard to racial and ethnic representation, but also in terms of students' life experiences. "We have a huge distribution in age here," says Warren Anderson, HACC chief diversity and inclusion officer. "A student who graduated from high school last year might be sitting in a classroom with someone who graduated high school 40 years ago."

The chief diversity and inclusion officer position is new to the college. Anderson, the first to hold the role, joined HACC in July 2016. As a member of the president's cabinet, the chief diversity and inclusion officer position has a prominent role within the college's executive leadership team. In that sense, HACC is a leader among Pennsylvania's 14 community colleges. Only a handful of HACC's peers either have a cabinet-level position dedicated to diversity and equity or are planning to create such a role.

Although Anderson has been with HACC for just over a year, he says that the institution has made impressive strides in creating an inclusive environment across each of HACC's five campuses. Spread across 11 counties in south-central Pennsylvania, the five campuses serve rural and urban communities, each with its own specific set of goals and needs.

"The college has really taken to heart what has to happen around diversity and inclusion," Anderson says. "They've really taken up the mantle and have gone leaps and bounds beyond where I thought we would be in my tenure."

Developing that kind of culture took leadership from the top, Anderson says, starting with Sygielski. The president began his tenure in 2011, and he committed to creating a diverse and representative leadership team and campus environment. "We have a changing student demographic, and I felt that if we were going to represent the communities that we serve, there should be people on cabinet, on the board of trustees, at the senior and junior leadership of the college that represent the community and people that we serve," Sygielski explains.

When recruiting for jobs, the college casts a wide net across different mediums to attract a diverse pool of applicants. The commitment to diversity and inclusion applies to all hiring, whether it be for faculty, staff or a position in the administration, but setting the tone from the top is critical, according to Sygielski.

"At the senior level, as we're talking about procedures, outreach, a variety of things, I think it's important we have people from all different demographics, backgrounds, nationalities and races because that's going to inform us on what to do as we see our populations change," Sygielski says.

Sygielski knows the impact a community college can have from personal experience. He was born and raised in a Polish neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, where life revolved around the steel mills. "College just wasn't a thought, because you can go to the steel mill and make a real good living," he explains. …

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