Posted: April 19, 2021

In the wake of a series of racial hate crimes in the United States, Penn State and the College of Agricultural Sciences are elevating their commitment to providing an environment where everyone feels welcome and supported.

Image: James Steinberg

Image: James Steinberg

Although the United States has come a long way since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s, the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, a Black man living in Minneapolis, by a white police officer was a horrific reminder that we still have a long way to go.

"It was a difficult year for our country," said Patreese Ingram, assistant dean of multicultural affairs in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. "The day before the presidential election, one of our students told me she wasn't going to leave her home on election day. Given all the aggression and violence she had seen in the news, she was afraid that if she went out, something bad might happen to her. That's so sad."

In a message to the Penn State community a few days after Floyd's death, President Eric Barron wrote, "It is past time for change... . We cannot remain silent in the face of this heart-breaking reality. As an institution of higher education, we have an obligation to fight ignorance and intolerance, model inclusivity, and embrace the power that diversity represents."

To help address both immediate and longstanding problems of racism, bias, and intolerance inside and outside the University, Barron created the Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias, and Community Safety. From the College of Agricultural Sciences, Elsa Sánchez was invited to serve on the presidential commission.

"As a college, we can implement avenues of access and actively engage the participation of groups that have been systemically excluded from past input and inclusion," said Sánchez, a professor of horticultural systems management. "We are already endeavoring to do this by creating a culture where everyone feels welcome, including underrepresented and marginalized people."

Indeed, members of the college have long been working to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion. And with renewed commitment from the University community at large, they are taking their efforts to the next level.

"We still have a lot of work to do," said Rick Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences. "But we are dedicated to fostering a culture of respect and inclusion in our college, and we're excited and hopeful for the future."

It's easy to set an intention to do more, but to even begin to bring about change, people must first be aware of the role they may be playing in perpetuating stereotypes. "Implicit biases," said Roush, "are unconscious stereotypes people harbor about certain groups. We may think of ourselves as antiracist, but that doesn't mean we don't carry around a set of preconceived ideas about people who are different from us. And this can be an impediment to improving diversity."

To help college leaders become aware of their implicit biases, Ingram taught a five-session diversity education series to college leaders last fall and is now working with departments to deliver the series to faculty and staff members.

Besides discussing implicit bias, sessions in the series focus on the history of diversity, equity, and inclusion in America; for example, how government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have created racial inequities that continue to impact people of color today. The series also introduces the topic of microaggressions--subtle or indirect acts of discrimination--and what to do about them, the concept of "white privilege" and how it may have affected participants' lives, and where to go from here. The last session is an opportunity for people to share their thoughts and make recommendations about what the college should be doing to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Ingram and her colleague Derek James in the college's Office of Multicultural Affairs also provide diversity education to students as guest speakers in required First-Year Engagement courses. "We talk about our differences and stereotypes, and how we can stop running on automatic because we all do this," said James, who is the college's coordinator of multicultural programs and also serves as a co-chair of Penn State's Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity.

Patreese Ingram and her colleague Derek James in the college's Office of Multicultural Affairs provide essential support through diversity education and promoting a welcoming environment for underrepresented students. Photo: Michael Houtz

Ingram added that the ability to interact with people with different backgrounds is an expectation of employers. "The workplace itself is getting more diverse," she said. "We now work with people from all around the world who have different customs, beliefs, behaviors, and viewpoints. If we aren't flexible enough to interact appropriately with those people, then we aren't going to do as well professionally. It's important that we help our students to become more aware and more accepting of people and their differences."

One of the ways that Ingram and her colleagues promote diversity awareness among students is through the annual Minority Alumni Visit hosted by the college's Diversity Coordinating Council. Each year, the council invites a handful of minority alumni back to the college to spend two days giving a presentation about their careers and what it took for them to succeed in those careers. The visit also includes an opportunity for students to speak one on one with the alumni. "For students, they serve as role models of people who are underrepresented and have been successful in the field of agriculture," said Ingram. "I think the students get a lot out of it."

Through the Office of Multicultural Affairs, Ingram also hosts a diversity book club, which features a new book each semester. Last fall the club read How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. In addition, the office sponsors an undergraduate diversity essay contest in which students can submit essays about diversity and how it relates to their field of study. "It gets them thinking about how diversity fits into the careers they are planning to go into," said Ingram. "Ultimately, we want our students to be aware of the issues and the role they can play in making the college a welcoming and supportive place for everyone."

Another avenue for promoting a welcoming environment for underrepresented students is the college's sponsorship of a Penn State chapter of the Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences Society (MANRRS), a national organization that aims to foster academic and professional advancement by empowering minorities in the agricultural sciences and related fields.

Leela Robinson, a senior majoring in animal science who came to Penn State through the Millennium Scholars Program, is the current president of the Penn State chapter. "I officially joined MANRRS the spring of my sophomore year, and I think it was one of the best decisions i've made," said Robinson, who hails from San Diego, California. "I'm a first-generation college student, so coming into college I didn't know what to expect or what to do when I got here. MANRRS has benefited me beyond what I ever could have imagined. It's helped me learn how to navigate all the ins and outs of college, find the resources I needed, and build my résumé, which was important because I realized along the way that I wanted to go to graduate school."

Perhaps even more important, said Robinson, is the sense of community that MANRRS has provided. This support was essential as she experienced incidences of racial discrimination on campus. "I've been called the N-word multiple times on campus," she said. "With MANRRS, I have a group of people who care about me and want me to succeed."

That support, Robinson said, is something she enjoys providing, in turn, to high school members of Junior MANRRS. "I see myself in those students," she said. "One of my favorite things to do is to talk to them about how cool science is and about how agriculture is so much more than just farming."

Indeed, the stereotype that agriculture is simply "plows and cows" can be an impediment to attracting minority students to the college. Every year James visits several urban high schools in Philadelphia and even New York City to recruit diverse students to Penn State. "My goal when I go to those schools is to show students the breadth of opportunities that our College of Agricultural Sciences can offer," he said. "Whether they want to become teachers, business professionals, scientists, or farmers, we can provide them with the knowledge, skills, and connections to succeed."

Increasing the diversity of the student body, as well as the faculty and staff, is imperative, said Ingram, because diversity leads to better generation of ideas. "I once had a boss who used to say, 'If you have two people who think just alike, you don't need one of them.' If everyone has similar backgrounds and life experiences, you could miss out on a lot."

The college's efforts to foster a more diverse student body have paid off. "Over the years the number of underrepresented students in the college has increased somewhat," noted Ingram. Between 2016 and 2020 the numbers of African American, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American undergraduates increased from 286 to 345. "We've definitely increased our Latinx and African American populations," she said, "but there is still room for improvement. I often hear from minority students that they are the only ones in their classes and that it would be nice to be around other people like them."

Carolee Bull, head of the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology, has been involved in recruiting undergraduate and graduate students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUS) and Hispanic-Serving Institutions. "We've developed a nice pipeline from Cal State Monterey Bay, a university where I used to be an adjunct professor," she said, noting that with diversity comes greater creativity. Bull and her colleague Kevin Hockett, assistant professor of microbial ecology, also involve undergraduate students from Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, an HBCU in Chester County, in their mushroom disease research based nearby. "We hope by doing this we can recruit these students to come work with us for the summer and eventually enroll in our graduate program," she said.

According to James, a new program in the works will support first-generation students. "Twenty-eight percent of the students in our college are first generation," he said. "Statistically, you can expect more students of color to be in that group." These students don't have parents who have gone to college and who can share with them what it's like and help guide them along the way. We want to not only provide extra support to these students but also celebrate their achievements with them." In April, the Office of Multicultural Affairs will host a virtual Celebration of First-Generation Students. A panel of first-generation students, faculty, and staff will share their experiences, and students will be given the opportunity to discuss the kinds of support the college can provide to help them be successful.

Unfortunately, increasing the diversity of the faculty has been a bigger challenge. While the field of agriculture continues to be dominated by white men, the College of Agricultural Sciences has significantly increased the number of women on faculty in recent years. Since Roush became dean in 2014, the college has recruited 63 tenure-track faculty members, 58 percent of whom are women. The college has also had success in attracting Latin American tenure-track faculty members, with seven appointed. Yet the college still struggles to recruit African American faculty members.

"There are so many excellent candidates out there, and we really strive to recruit them to Penn State," said Roush. "Unfortunately, it's been difficult to entice them to come to State College. It's frustrating and disappointing."

One of Roush's strategies that seems to have helped is a policy he instituted to focus on new faculty hires at the assistant professor level. "When I started at Penn State in 2014, many of our faculty were close to retirement age," he said. "By recruiting mostly assistant professors, we are not only diversifying the age structure of the college, we are also improving the diversity of the faculty because, increasingly, minority individuals are entering the field of agriculture."

The college also has diversity in mind as it conducts its work outside the University. Brent Hales, director of Penn State Extension, and his colleagues are working to ensure the college's services are accessible to all residents of the Commonwealth.

"So far we've created Latinx and LGBTQIA+ communities of practice, and we are in the process of creating an urban/suburban community of practice," said Hales, explaining that the communities of practice comprise faculty and staff in the college who develop and deliver programs--for example, in Spanish--that can serve all residents of Pennsylvania.

The communities of practice, Hales explained, are part of extension's new Beyond Civil Rights program, which aims to ensure the organization's faculty, staff, and volunteers "look like" the citizens of the Commonwealth. "Our mandate is to serve the totality of the Commonwealth," he said. "We want our constituents to see themselves in us so they can relate to us and so we can relate to them."

Sánchez, who works with vegetable farmers in Pennsylvania, said, "Through Penn State Extension, we can extend policies and programs that deconstruct past systemic inequities and promote equitable, safe, and fair inclusion to underrepresented and marginalized communities. Overall, there is much work yet to be done in developing systems of belonging and retention and on addressing the systematic practices that are exclusive and exclusionary."

Hales added that extension is ready to take up the charge. "What we're planning goes far beyond what we're required to do," he said, "but it's the right thing to do."