Research News

Report from Winkle-Wagner compares experiences with diversity on different campuses

November 22, 2016

UW-Madison’s Rachelle Winkle-Wagner is the lead author of a new article that examines student and faculty experiences with diversity at both a predominantly white institution (PWI) and at a historically black college or university (HBCU). The paper is co-authored with Dorian L. McCoy, an assistant professor with the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

The study, published Nov. 7 in the journal Race Ethnicity and Education, is titled, “Feeling like an ‘Alien’ or ‘Family’? Comparing students and faculty experiences of diversity in STEM disciplines at a PWI and an HBCU.”

The report notes that students of color described feeling like an “alien” on the white campus and like they were part of a “family” on the black campus. The paper goes on to conclude that PWIs, such as UW-Madison, should identify and learn from the practices within HBCUs that allow students with diverse racial backgrounds to both feel welcome on campus and have more success in their academic pursuits.

Rachelle Winkle-Wagner
“This article demonstrates how much can be learned from the practices at historically black universities where students of color are treated as assets to the campus, as if they will be successful with the help of faculty and administrators,” says Winkle-Wager, an associate professor with the School of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, and a faculty affiliate of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education (WISCAPE). “Predominantly white institutions like UW-Madison could learn from these practices and make deliberate efforts to rethink how students of color are not only viewed -- seeing them as important assets to our community -- but also seriously contemplating how they are treated.”

Adds Winkle-Wagner” “If students of color are brought to campus and treated as if they are ‘aliens’ as they were in the findings of this study, not only will the campus climate not improve but students will have negative experiences that will ultimately hurt the potential for the institution to continue to diversify. In particular, students of color must be treated like part of the ‘family,’ like they are a centrally important part of our community within white institutions.”

The study is a qualitative exploration of diversity experiences among both undergraduate and graduate students, and faculty in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. 

The abstract explains that the “level of diversity and inclusiveness may matter to how Students of Color experience inclusion in their academic programs. Participants at the PWI described feeling excluded, voicing concerns about institutional struggles with creating an inclusive campus climate; whereas, participants at the HBCU perceived STEM disciplines to be diverse and viewed their programs and the institution as supportive of their needs.”

“The findings suggest that practices within a department are particularly crucial because this is where students spend a majority of their time,” says Winkle-Wagner. “If departments are welcoming and treat students of color as a vital part of the community of that discipline and department, students of color may be more likely to report positive perceptions of the larger campus climate.”

The abstract continues: “The diversity of a college campus still matters to Students’ of Color experiences, particularly relative to whether students feel included. Campus climate (i.e. how welcoming a campus is toward diversity) research suggests that the way that campuses deal with diversity can influence Students’ of Color success and persistence. At predominantly White institutions (PWIs), there is ample evidence that Students of Color often experience alienation and isolation. An established body of research suggests that Black or African American (used synonymously here) students within historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have better academic outcomes and higher rates of satisfaction with their experiences than do Black students within PWIs.”

The report concludes by explaining how “students and faculty within the PWI described the institution as lacking a commitment to diversity and multiculturalism, isolating, and unsupportive and some used the word ‘alien’ to epitomize how they felt on campus. In contrast, students and faculty within the HBCU described the institution as inclusive, diverse, and supportive, describing the campus and their disciplines as a ‘family.’ ”

“Feeling like an ‘alien’ or ‘family’ is about the way in which the everyday actions by faculty and administrators can influence how welcoming a campus is to students of color,” says Winkle-Wagner. “ In this study, students of color saw through empty promises to make the campus more inclusive within a predominantly white institution and the students felt betrayed enough that it greatly influenced how they viewed their campus experiences.”

Winkle-Wagner and McCoy add that the “next steps are to identify ways that PWIs might learn from the practices within HBCUs, so that at least some students might start to feel more like ‘family’ and less like ‘aliens.’ ”