Psychologist William Cross—author of Shades of Black: Diversity in African-American Identity—is known for his theory of racial identity development that emphasizes the importance of group identity among students of color. As Cross puts it, “racial, ethnic and cultural identity overlap at the level of lived experience.”
At Case Western Reserve University, that theory can be seen in action. Thanks to the work of those in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusive Engagement and beyond, the university has received INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine’s Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award for 12 consecutive years, the most recent of which was announced Oct. 11. This award recognizes the commitment to diversity and inclusion shown by U.S. colleges and universities—and has been received by CWRU each year since its inception in 2012.
The latest example of this commitment at CWRU is the inaugural Envision Weekend—an early arrival program designed to help underrepresented minority students (URMs) visualize the rich future ahead for them at Case Western Reserve University. The weekend took place Aug. 18 through 20, with the goal of supporting the development of this kind of group identity through shared lived experiences like Cross encourages.
Putting knowledge into action
In a study referenced by Beverly Daniel Tatum in her book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria, it was noted that by encouraging Black students to come together to discuss issues of racial and cultural identity in the context of their schooling, the students were more engaged—with higher grades and participation. This study served as part of the framework in which team members planned Envision Weekend—a process that took multiple years.
“Our team had witnessed the success of early arrival programs at other institutions, so we had no doubt of its benefits and are anxious to track the retention, engagement and success of the 2023 Envision Weekend cohort,” said Vice President of the Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusive Engagement Robert Solomon. “We have already seen a greater engagement among these freshmen and the peer leaders, who now greet us all around the campus and reach out to us directly.”
The goal of the program is to afford first-year URM students a unique opportunity to network, connect and build community with other students while gaining the tools and resources necessary to succeed at the university.
Participants in the program were able to move into campus housing early on Aug. 18, joined by their family and friends. They were greeted by Envision Weekend Student Leaders—like second-year student Adam Miller—along with other student leaders, staff and faculty from across the campus.
“As an African male, I wish I had had something like Envision Weekend [when I started],” said Miller. “I saw people from all walks of life laughing, talking and dancing together. I was amazed and it was beautiful to watch something for underrepresented groups come together. [Typically], people from different communities don’t intermingle—this weekend they did!”
That evening, the students and their families gathered at the Linsalata Alumni Center for dinner with underrepresented faculty and staff members and representatives from campus departments, followed by an official Case Western Reserve welcome from President Eric W. Kaler and Vice President Solomon. Case Western Reserve alum Kevin Carpenter, chief supply chain officer for The Toro Company, provided a keynote address at the event and encouraged the students to envision their destiny and realize their purpose.
“Envision Weekend allowed the incoming freshman to not only learn about the faculty and resources on campus,” said student leader Martina Richter, “but also what it is like to be an underrepresented minority student on campus. Some of the students that I saw [over the weekend] were ones I recognized from other diversity initiatives on campus—which made me believe in programs like Envision Weekend even more.”
A fulfilling experience
Other activities over the weekend included panel discussions, breakout session workshops and more community-building activities. Each new student was assigned an upperclass Case Western Reserve URM student as a mentor to facilitate conversations and bonding to provide support throughout the academic year.
“This weekend was two years in the making, and to see it come to fruition brought tears to my eyes,” shared Associate Vice President and Senior Director for Faculty and Institutional Diversity Heather Burton. “The students engaged in community building while sharing resources and supporting one another to learn [the university]. It was just what we hoped for!”
The future of the program includes a follow-up event in the next few months with both leaders and participants, and the weekend event will be held again next summer.