If we really want to learn how to help students of color succeed in higher education, we should be looking to Minority Serving Institution. On November 1-3, 2013 a number of educational leaders and supporters of Minority Serving Institutions congregated at the Chauncey Conference Center in Princeton, New Jersey led by Drs. Marybeth Gasman (University of Pennsylvania) and Clifton Conrad (University of Wisconsin, Madison). I was fortunate to be one of the participants at the National Convening on Minority Serving Institutions. I was also very excited about what I would learn about the 12 participating MSIs in the Models of Success Project.
During the convening, while I listened to each of the MSIs share how they provided supportive environments and their efforts toward developing successful learning communities for their students, what also crossed my mind was the potential for similar learning communities for and among those involved with MSIs.
As someone who has spent the better part of my career studying college students of color, I always knew that MSIs had valuable lessons to teach us. The Convening reinforced my hunch as I learned about the culturally relevant practices and positive student outcomes. By having an understanding of each institution’s specific context, their specific programmatic efforts and the critical data collected by each of the MSIs, it helped me create a clearer picture of why their strategies proved to be successful. I also became better educated on the relationship of funders and their pivotal role in supporting MSIs, namely: Lumina Foundation for Education, the Kresge Foundation, USA Funds and Educational Testing Services.
Upon further reflection, the camaraderie between MSI leaders, scholars, and funders at the Convening became evident, suggesting that this group of people could become a learning community. This led me to ask “What aspects of successful student learning communities can we use to develop a successful professional learning community amongst MSIs?
Similar to student learning communities, MSI professional learning communities may be equally beneficial and have at least three potential advantages:
1) Create a better understanding of each other’s cultural, political, and economic contexts. In student learning communities, students are encouraged to learn from each other on various levels beyond academics. On a similar level, an MSI professional learning community can be encouraged to learn from each other beyond an institution’s demographics and numerical student outcomes. More importantly, while these communities can help recognize valuable similarities amongst MSIs, they can also provide for each other a more critical understanding of the nuances and cultural contexts that influence how each MSI uniquely addresses these distinctions.
For example, while some MSIs have existed longer than others, we can never learn enough about both established and newly established MSIs as their contexts are always changing. In the case of AANAPISIs, the newest of MSIs, these institutions have challenged the longstanding misunderstandings and misrepresentations about the complex diversity of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. AANPISIs have helped bring to the surface the need to address the large economic and educational disparities that occur within the AAPI population. AANAPISIs have at least 10% of its population identified as Asian American/Pacific Islander and must meet certain federal Pell Grant guidelines. Therefore, funded AANAPISIs have recognized issues that affect particular AAPI populations and through a nuanced understanding of the institution’s and students’ contexts, are able to help effectively address AAPI concerns. It is through learning about each other’s contexts that an understanding can be established and the possibility of collaborative learning relationships can be formed.
2) Facilitate better collaborative and learning relationships amongst various stakeholders: researchers, faculty, administrators, practitioners and students within and among MSIs.
As a former student affairs professional and now a faculty member, I have observed the imagined boundaries among researchers, faculty, administrators, and practitioners that continue to stubbornly exist and often prevent authentic community relationships and understanding. However, the consistent interaction, continued effort and willingness to learn from each other may help foster future collaborations with stakeholders within and among MSIs.
3) Create an environment of support and advocacy amongst the MSIs.
Meaningful and collaborative relationships eventually lead to naturally supporting and advocating for each other especially within environments and situations that call for speaking up for the benefit of all MSIs as a collective.
In sum, these may be ways in which we can consider creating and sustaining MSI professional learning communities. In my observation, the MSI convening in November planted a seed for this possibility to take place.
Dina Maramba is Associate Professor of Student Affairs Administration and Asian and Asian American Studies at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton and an affiliate at PennGSE’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions.