InclusiveVT initiatives: Graduate School updates

InclusiveVT was developed in July 2014 as a framework for Virginia Tech to become a more inclusive and diverse university.  An overview of the effort, recent report and events can be found on the website, the inclusion and diversity blog and through social media (twitter, Facebook, Instagram and more).

As part of the effort, senior leadership was asked to develop three initiatives for implementation starting during the 2014-2015 academic year. As one of those administrative units, the Graduate School had previously developed many programs and opportunities focused on diversity and inclusion including an office of Recruitment and Diversity Initiatives (ORDI) and wanted to develop initiatives that would promote pervasive change and actively engage constituency groups across the university in transformative change.

In this post, I will report specifically on the progress made on the Graduate School’s three InclusiveVT initiatives:  holistic admissions, inclusive Graduate Life Center (GLC) and affirming environment for graduate education.

Holistic admissions in graduate education

In preparation for action, Graduate School staff investigated the use of holistic admissions at selected universities in the U.S. to identify promising practices. The next step was to survey departments and programs to determine the admission practices already in use at VT.  After reviewing the results of the surveys and wanting to identify admission criteria beyond the typical GPA, GRE scores (or other standardized test scores) and reputation of the university, we decided to make changes to the Graduate School application and the letters of recommendation process. Based specifically on information provided by our departments and programs we modified the application so that applicants could provide additional educational experience for consideration in admissions: community involvement and/or service; leadership; overcoming social, economic and/or physical barriers; personal and/or professional ethics; recognition of achievements over time; and research and scholarship.

In alignment with the personal attributes critical to academic success studied intensively by Educational Testing Services in its development of the Personal Potential Index (PPI), we modified the letter of recommendation form to include specific questions about the following: communication skills, ethics and integrity, initiative, innovation and creativity, planning and organization, and teamwork. Letter writers are asked to evaluate the applicant on these attributes and then provide a brief statement about the most compelling reason to admit the candidate. Full letters of recommendation are still to be submitted.

The changes in the application and the letter of recommendation form were designed and built in such a fashion that departments/programs can “sort” by the additional educational experiences and personal attributes as well as GPA and other measures departments wish.  Admissions committee are encouraged to use these experiences and attributes systematically in determining qualified candidates and not just “sort” by high GPA and high GREs. Specifically, department are asked to “sort” initially and then revisit the applicant pool to “sort” at least two more times to expand the pool by the addition of those who were rated high on the pertinent additional educational experiences and personal attributes of value for academic success. We have collected data on the demographics of the pool of qualified applicants (admissible or admitted) in the last three years and will compare these with the data to be collected starting for Fall ’16. It is anticipated that these changes will allows for an increase in the size and diversity of the pool of qualified applicants. Beginning in mid Fall’15, we have conducted workshops and information sessions about holistic admissions and I am personally holding college-level meetings to discuss holistic admissions and affirming environment for graduate education.

Inclusive GLC and Affirming Environment for graduate education

These two initiatives are both focused on creating an affirming and welcoming “space and place” for graduate education; the first initiative is focused on the Graduate Life Center (including the Graduate School) and its people, program, place, policies and more and the second is focused more broadly on the broader university departments and programs. Specific activities have included the establishment of a GLC advisory committee to define inclusivity in terms of the physical space, attributes and policies of the Graduate Life Center. Also in the mix is an examination of the GLC promotional materials, evaluation mechanisms, and future programs. Educational programs and workshops have been initiated for GLC and Graduate School employees for understanding unconscious bias and micro-aggressions along with a commitment to the Principles of Community and inclusivity in hiring of new employees and in the annual review process of current employees.

Many efforts are directed toward creating more affirming and welcoming environments for graduate education. Among these are an revised entry survey and an exit survey developed to understand why individuals chose to enroll (or not) at Virginia Tech and to gather information about their experiences at VT upon completion of their degree. These have been helpful in enhancing the graduate experience at VT. We have also conducted “mid” surveys and more recently “climate surveys” to evaluate the climate for graduate education and wherever possible to determine why individuals chose to leave VT. With the goal of retention and provision of pertinent services and programs for our students it is important to understand more about their characteristics, varying attributes and multiple identities. Thus, we developed a post-admissions, pre-enrollment survey so that they can provide additional information about their needs and desires so that we can provide meaningful support services and programs.

Throughout this year and beyond, we will be conducting workshops and information sessions and gathering data about affirming practices and information about the graduate students’ experiences.   We are working with departments/programs to assist faculty and graduate students in dialogue about understanding privilege, unconscious bias and micro-aggressions. In support of these efforts, I have authored a series of blogs on academic bullying, expectations for graduate education, understanding stress and more to share my reflections and offer resources for others to create or enhance affirming environment for graduate education.

The most recent endeavor is to change the rhetoric and reality of graduate school from surviving to thriving. Stay tuned – more to come on Thriving in Graduate School. Your thoughts and comments are welcomed.

Leave a Comment