Webster University defines diversity and inclusion in the broadest sense — embracing all human differences, while building upon commonalities. Diversity and inclusion are at the very core of Webster’s mission as a worldwide institution that transforms students for global citizenship.
Webster has embraced diversity and inclusion since its inception in 1915 as one of the first women’s colleges west of the Mississippi River. Four years later, Webster welcomed its first two international students. Over the next several decades, Webster opened its doors to students of color, students with disabilities, members of the military and, in 1963, male students – all while continuing to enhance and expand its international focus and footprint.
“Just as we established the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement in 2013, with direct reporting lines to the President and Provost, we continue to make diversity and inclusion a top institutional priority,” said Webster President Elizabeth (Beth) J. Stroble.
For the past two and a half years, Nicole Roach has served as Webster’s first associate vice president for diversity, inclusion and community engagement. “From my point of view, the position I hold is an important one because the chief diversity officer helps to make sure that diversity and inclusion isn’t just ‘lip service.’ It actually allows diversity and inclusion to become the ‘DNA’ of the institution,” she said.
Roach is passionate about her role. Her work has touched numerous areas throughout the institution – from curriculum development, to hiring, to examining the experiences both in class and outside of class for faculty, staff and students alike. “In every part of the institution, we strive to ‘live, breathe and eat’ diversity and inclusion,” Roach said.
“We are proud of the progress we’ve made, yet realize there is still much to do, since work of this nature is never complete,” Stroble said. “However, we are committed to continued conversations followed by the actions necessary to keep moving forward.”
During the past semester, Webster launched Diversity and Inclusion Working Groups that will address the following topics:
These groups will lead the efforts to strengthen the institution’s commitment to inclusive excellence by conducting an internal assessment to determine historical and current status; completing an inventory to determine statistics, processes, programs, services, facilities, technology, etc.; and benchmarking for best practices. The groups will produce a set of recommendations and outline the timeline for their implementation by the end of 2016.
Also during this past semester at Webster, improved signage and maps for restrooms were placed across campus, with more all-gender facilities identified, and a new interfaith space has been identified.
Other items, such as academic program development in LGBTQ and Afro-American Studies and strengthened Accessibility Resources will require more time, Roach said, but the University remains determined to implement them in the near future.
As the University began its second century this year, it hosted a two-day “Critical Conversations: Embracing Diversity and Inclusion” conference on the home campus in Webster Groves on Februray 29 and March 1. The conference featured a wide range of discussions, with a diverse and inclusive array of speakers addressing multiple aspects of inclusion. Next year’s conference is scheduled for March 1-2, 2017.
“We’re really talking about all of the differences in the human condition,” Stroble said. “Whether it’s gender, race, disabilities and abilities, faith traditions, age or nationality, each of us is uniquely human in our own way. It’s a recognition that ‘just because I’m different, I don’t want to be excluded. I want to be welcomed and valued.’”
At Webster, being welcomed and valued begins with the recruiting process. “The minority will soon become the majority,” Roach said. “In our recruiting, we are working to attract underrepresented students. Our task is to tell them that we want them at Webster.”
Examples of this work includes partnerships with the St. Louis Public School District and Rotary to help attract diverse and under-represented students to Webster. Another is the University’s TAP program, which helps provide a smooth transition from high school to college life for “first-generation” students, or those who are the first in their family to attend a four-year college/university to attain a bachelor's degree.
Once enrolled at Webster, more resources are available to support first-generation and under-represented students. For example, Webster First is a campus-wide collaboration dedicated to providing academic resources, social and emotional support, financial literacy, opportunities for campus and community involvement, and career readiness for first generation students.
“We believe that once a student is admitted, it’s our job to build your success,” Stroble said.
Institution-wide, while Roach said she believes the state of diversity and inclusion at Webster is positive, she said that too often, people still look at it as a “black and white” binary outlook. “We need to move beyond that today as there are so many things to consider when talking about diversity and inclusion,” she said, pointing out such diverse populations as LGBTQA, military, color, nationality, religion and disabilities – both visible and invisible.