On Oct. 21, 2016, President Tuajuanda Jordan sent out an all-student email marking the completion of the search for a new Associate Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion (AVP). The position, which is part of the President’s cabinet, has been occupied by Dr. Kortet Mensah since her first day on the job on Nov. 28, 2016.
Mensah brings over 19 years of experience with initiating, overseeing, and evaluating programs and initiatives that facilitate diverse students’ and employees’ successful inclusion and adjustment. Her background in multicultural programming, fostering student success, advancing academic and social relationships, as well as examining cultural influences on individuals’ psychosocial development provide Mensah with a unique skillset to serve as the College’s first AVP of Diversity and Inclusion. Dr. Mensah is responsible for coordinating efforts to establish excellence in Inclusion, Diversity and Equity (IDE) throughout the St. Mary’s community.
On the role of an Associate Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion/Chief Diversity officer on a college campus, Dr. Mensah answered that the position varies across many colleges and universities. However, she stated that an essential task for the position at St. Mary’s College of Maryland is to collaborate with faculty, staff, students, alumni, community members, and all the members of our college campus through inclusion, diversity, and equity.
This includes what happens in and outside of the classroom, the hiring and admissions process, and everything connected to St. Mary’s. She says for employees, we have to ask if we are “recruiting, hiring, and retaining through promotions a diverse employment pool?” To ensure a diverse student body, she emphasized “recruiting, admitting, and supporting success of a diverse student population.” She continues, “once they are here, we also have to work on creating a community that is welcoming and makes them feel that their voice matters.”
Dr. Mensah reflected on past events that led to the creation of this position, which she referred to as “some of the negative challenges.” These challenges created “a tense climate and community” where people did not feel included. This situation caused President Jordan to create five work groups to help with those issues, one of them being the Civility and the Embodiment of Our Ethos. It is tasked with “how to invigorate and reimagine the St. Mary’s Way and how to identify what our values are as they connect to IDE (Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity).” An essential component is the idea that we should encourage people to live out the St. Mary’s Way and recognize when they do so. Dr. Mensah says, “If all you focus on is the negative aspect, you create tension.” She believes that only through conversations, community building activities, partnerships, and creating systems which include all campus members should we educate our campus community and create a climate where those things are not as likely to happen.
The Point News asked Dr. Mensah what vision she has to make students from diverse background feel included, welcomed, and valued at the College through creating the systems mentioned. Dr. Mensah replied that she would work collaboratively with all students, and that she wishes students to contact her through email for meetings. Dr. Mensah says, “Students, faculty and alumni: come talk to me, let me get to know you and understand your experiences on this campus, and your hopes and dreams for this campus.”
Based on what she learns from students, especially student leaders, she determines how to craft projects. Dr. Mensah has meetings with the SGA Programs Board, the student affairs team (Residence Life, the Wellness Center, Student Activities), as well as RAs in training to discuss how to incorporate diversity and inclusive programming into their projects.
She also believes that the work should not be seen as a checklist to be completed, rather as a system and belief that should already be interwoven in everything that we do. Regarding this system, she says, “Many times when people think of diversity, inclusion, and equity, they think of quotas such as the number of students here. If we just do the checkboxes like yes, we advertised to students of color, so yes, that’s diverse. That’s not enough, it has to be interwoven into everything.” She also adds that diversity is connected to everything because diversity is about the people. The challenge arises when certain groups have been excluded from the conversation and resources. She is therefore tasked with bringing back the inclusion aspect, which is a mindset and not a checkbox.
Dr. Mensah was then asked if there are any resources that students can utilize if they feel unwelcome or unsupported. She says that one way to get involved is through student-activity opportunities, career services, and the Wellness Center. There are several student organizations that have different demographic focuses here on campus, ranging from cultural and religious focuses to athletics.
Being a part of career programs allows students to meet other students as well. Dr. Mensah offered an example of the Bookbag to Briefcase conference she was involved in. In this conference, she discussed with the seniors what role IDE plays in the workplace. Being a part of these career services will help students to think professionally as well as applying what is learned as a student. The Wellness Center also has several support groups and resources. Dr. Mensah works in collaboration with the Wellness Center staff to make sure that the services are “inclusively diverse”. “Her position”, she says, “is also here for all students.” She remarks that it is not for students of color only, but women and students who are LGBTQ who have felt attacked, disrespected, devalued in incidences in the past two years. She says, “everyone has a place in this conversation. We cannot say we are inclusively diverse, but only diverse to a certain group of people.”
The Point News concluded the interview by asking Dr. Mensah if with the changing demographics and recent new stories, she feels as though an AVP of Diversity and Inclusion officer at St. Mary’s College of Maryland is long overdue to demonstrate the importance of diversity in higher learning institutions. She agreed, stating that given the historical context of various “-isms” (such as racism, sexism, etc.), this position was a necessary and welcomed step for any higher education institution, but it is not enough to have the position. The position should be interwoven into all campus activities. She reflects on this aspect as what excited her about this position, the idea that it is intertwined. She says, “the position is not here just to be here, but to help move the institution along the process to being inclusively diverse.” She believes that if it is only a checkmark, the “utility and significance does not shine through.” Dr. Mensah concludes by saying that not every college and university has the commitment to make the position interwoven into their institution. St. Mary’s, however, has demonstrated this aspect by the level on which they have placed this position, which reports directly to the President.