Associate Professor Heather Washington, BA ’06, Criminology and Investigations, and Professor Rachael A. Woldoff had already started a working group in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and proposed more action in their department to address various manifestations of racism. They felt it was their role as scientists who studied crime and communities to help their students navigate current events through the lens of sociology and to help advocate for antiracism. They wanted to challenge their students, no matter their career, to be proactive.
Washington and Woldoff also had personal commitments to social justice. Both are tenured professors and mothers balancing academic careers with raising Black children during a period of great social unrest and a pandemic. One is a Black woman from Appalachia. The other is a white Jewish woman from Philadelphia.
Along with their colleagues, they created an antiracism class. They co-taught one of four sections for 11 students over Zoom in the spring of 2021. They read “How to be an Antiracist,” Ibram X. Kendi’s best-selling memoir of being a Black man in America, which advocates for antiracist policies. In the class, the professors and students shared their own experiences with racism, sexism and homophobia.
“They could see that we were also taking risks in our career and our social standing,” Woldoff said of the students. “You have to have moral courage to have these discussions with parents, grandparents, colleagues and students in class. And that’s just part of what we do, and it isn’t easy.”
The weekly course of 50 minutes would often run over as students kept sharing their stories.
“This has had an effect well beyond the 11 people in our class,” Washington said. “It’s affected their families, their friendship groups and their roommates. We had roommates who wanted to attend our weekly class because they were interested in the topic and wanted to learn more.”
“We are learning to be antiracist together.” – Associate Professor Heather Washington
“It’s helping students understand their own biography and connect it to racism,” Washington said.
“And process it and give them courage,” Woldoff added. “To be in a room and say something. It’s also about action. It’s not about just quietly understanding. It’s about encouraging them and nudging them. Students tell us how they feel when their grandpa says a racial slur at Thanksgiving, and we ask them, ‘What are you going to do next time?’”
Their class is a microcosm of a predominantly white University working to promote diversity and inclusion and provide students with real-world applications of a 21st century education.
“We are learning to be antiracist together,” Washington said. “Being antiracist is a process. It requires a daily commitment to actively work against racism in our homes, communities and our University. Our class resonates with students because we are all moving through this process together.”
Getting to Work
In June 2020, following the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests, President E. Gordon Gee wrote a letter to the campus community that said, in part: “I am saddened, angered and frustrated. To the Black members of our community, I cannot fully appreciate how deeply affected and pained you must be by not only this most recent act – but by all acts that reflect a deep-seeded bigotry in our nation’s communities. However, I can appreciate and accept the responsibility to ensure our campus community reflects something different.”
That month, the Board of Governors received a petition from students, faculty, staff and alumni about racism and racial inequality at WVU, and the University responded.
The Board and the University administration made a firm commitment to review its internal processes and to work quickly to address issues so that Black students, faculty and staff felt safe and supported.
The University community was concerned about inclusion and representation and ensuring equity: that people of color have the same chance of succeeding at WVU.
Gee convened “action-oriented” working groups that looked at a variety of concerns, including training and policy at the University Police Department; supporting the development of Black leaders through programs and increasing exposure of existing organizations; improving the campus environment through anti-racism education, recruitment strategies for students of color and public service campaigns; and reviewing codes of conduct policies and community programming.
The work expanded, creating inclusion committees in colleges, departments and the Alumni Association. But other work had been started before 2020 and has recently born fruit. The University established an overarching Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, started the Inclusive Hiring Initiative in the Provost’s Office, and grew Mission Hires, an ongoing program that has so far hired five faculty of color, two in African-American studies in the Department of History.
Of course, the University has had inclusion efforts for decades from supports such as the Center for Black Culture and Research to programming to recruitment of students, faculty and staff.
The consensus is that the work needs to be broader and more cohesive.
Meshea Poore became the vice president for the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at WVU in 2018 after working as a public defender, a delegate in the West Virginia House of Delegates and an attorney in private practice. A native of Charleston, W.Va., she is used to starting conversations that are new to those around her.
Meshea Poore has been vice president for the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at WVU since 2018. (Photo by Brian Persinger)
“So we say, ‘Mountaineers Go First,’” Poore said. “That means you should be first in a room to be able to have an intellectual conversation about the beauty of our differences and how that relates to your field, whether it be medicine, engineering, farming, agriculture, oil and gas – it’s across every area. This is a conversation that I’ve had in rooms training and discussing how to diversify professions. We should be making sure that our students are prepared to do that.
“While we definitely do a beautiful job of educating them in the classroom, it is our responsibility – it’s our land-grant mission to get them to be global ambassadors for wherever they land, that they’re able to represent us well, and that they are equipped for whatever discussion they’re placed in.”
Poore says that the University is making a promise when it says that we are welcoming all people.
“We have to ensure what we promise is what we produce. If we promise it, we have to produce it. And it starts with all of us,” Poore said.
The call to “all of us” reverberated throughout the University community and across the country.
Marilyn McClure-Demers, BA ’88, Political Science, JD ’91, of Columbus, Ohio, is on the Alumni Association’s Board of Directors. She was asked to chair a new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Statutory Committee. Professionally, she is vice president and associate general counsel at Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. and has a long history of working in diversity and inclusion.
“All results begin and end with the people working to achieve them,” she said. “A leadership assignment to harness our collective power as alumni to move WVU, our association and state forward spoke directly to my heart.”
This work involved changing bylaws and examining recruitment, retention, programming and recognition. McClure-Demers said that the most important aspect of the committee’s work is “taking action to ensure that we represent Mountaineers across all diversity dimensions at a board level, committee level and in all that we do.”
“This is critical,” she said, “as you cannot say you represent all Mountaineers when some do not have a seat at the table.”
In the spring of 2021, Poore joined the board as an ex officio member and four new board members were appointed: Kamau Brown, BA ’98, English, MS ’99, Industrial Relations, who works for Microsoft and manages global sales accounts for LinkedIn; Gabrielle St. Léger, BA ’01, English, MA ’01, Secondary Education-Language Arts, EdD ’12, Educational Leadership Studies, is vice president for student development and campus life at La Salle University and was just honored as 2021 Outstanding Alumna at Homecoming; Nesha Sanghavi, BSBA ’08, Finance, is owner and president of UG Apparel and chicka-d; and Monté Williams, BA ’92, Political Science, MA ’96, Political Science, JD ’03, leads the General Litigation Practice Group at Steptoe & Johnson.
“Our legacy as alumni is for all who choose and/or support WVU to know that their experiences and perspectives are valued,” McClure-Demers said. “If we accomplish this, we believe that our alumni will be more connected and contribute thought leadership, opportunity and time and treasure for each other and the next generation of Mountaineers.”
On campus, it is all-hands-on-deck for growing inclusive hiring, resources and programs.
WVU Medicine, the largest healthcare system and private employer in West Virginia, is hiring a system-wide director of diversity, equity and inclusion to help grow an environment to attract and retain employees from underserved populations. The hospital system and affiliates as well as the School of Medicine departments of family medicine and pediatrics have also put in place a program called Advancing Excellence in Gender-Affirming Care, which focuses on training staff and students to treat patients who are transgender.
The Health Sciences Center expanded its diversity, equity and inclusion team to include a diversity student outreach coordinator and diversity, equity and inclusion liaison. HSC is also establishing a multicultural space to provide connection, which is now a virtual hub due to the pandemic. Health equity education is being implemented into curriculum, including training faculty in the MD program to write multiple choice questions in a way that reduces racial and ethnic bias.
In June 2020, Health Sciences Vice President Clay Marsh wrote: “We redouble our commitment to curricular and experiential training in equity, inclusion and diversity to create balanced, healthy and socially conscious healthcare providers.”
Elsewhere on campus, there are new supports popping up. The Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources awarded its inaugural Excellence in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Award to recognize a faculty member, student and student organization who put into practice the ideals of diversity, equity and inclusion. The awards were presented to Nagasree Garapati, visiting assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering; Raafay Uqaily, a sophomore biomedical engineering student; and the WVU chapter of the Society of Women Engineers.
Photo by Sean Hines.
The WVU Foundation awarded the first Belmear Scholarships, created by Black alumni and named for Horace and Geraldine Belmear, who spent decades recruiting and nurturing Black students. The first crop of scholars are: Morgan Montgomery, of Greenville, Tenn., majoring in sport management; Cierra Jones, of Carlisle, Pa., majoring in pre-nursing; Sona Magassouba, of Charleston, W.Va., who is planning to major in exercise physiology; and Drew Roby, of Dixon, Ill., who is planning to major in sport management. One major area of focus is recruiting, retaining and supporting faculty.
Amena Anderson was working on improving the University while a graduate student. And her work is paying dividends at a time when people are looking for ideas of how they can make their community more equitable. Anderson, MA ’02, Educational Leadership, PhD ’17, Higher Education Policy and Leadership, is professor of practice and assistant director of the ADVANCE Center, created in 2010. ADVANCE draws from the work of experts in a variety of fields in its mission to create initiatives to identify, disrupt and transform policies, practices and processes that produce and justify inequitable outcomes for faculty, staff and students who are located in the margins of society and traditional higher education institutions.
A direct outcome of Anderson’s research on academics in the dominant group engaging in equity work was the development of the ADVANCE Change Agent Course. “So you have a lot of faculty who are white, administrators who are white, who care about social justice, but are unclear about how to translate that concern into institution-transforming work for social justice,” Anderson explained. “What does it look like to be an academic leader whose practice is grounded in social justice tenets? The Change Agent course addresses this question and creates a space and place for academics to consider how to move beyond awareness – care and concern – to consequential patterns of action that transform academic departments, whole schools and colleges, and ultimately the entire institution.”
Many of the people who have taken the course have already put into practice critical lessons. One is Joshua Hall, recently named the Milan Puskar Dean at the Chambers College of Business and Economics. Hall said that the Economics Department implemented some changes and was able to attract a faculty member who is African American through ADVANCE’s Inclusive Hiring Initiative. The Initiative, led by Christine Rittenour, associate professor of Communication Studies and master facilitator with ADVANCE, works with departments to examine their hiring practices and find solutions beyond a one-size-fits-all approach.
“So no matter where you come from – whether you’re local, whether you’re from out of state or whether you’re international – our responsibility is to embrace everything that makes us better as Mountaineers.” – Meshea Poore
Hall’s department is also paving the way for future hires through a graduate student workshop where students from other institutions can develop their job talk as they prepare to become faculty members. Hall hopes they will keep WVU in mind as positions come open in the future and the relationship and knowledge of the University will already be there. He said this work is cumulative. “It really needs to be more of a transformative thing. Because if you do that, then the numbers will come,” Hall said. “And if you get people here, but the culture hasn’t changed, then they’re going to just go elsewhere. They’re not going to be happy.”
“The work is to identify your spheres of influence and move within those networks to effect change,” Anderson said. “Our goal is to create a cadre of academic change agents who care about WVU and have the capacity to help WVU realize its fullest potential. It may not seem like a lot when you consider us individually – but as a collective our committed action can only result in the type of progress we want to see.”
Since the Change Agent Course began in 2018, more than 100 faculty and administrators at WVU have completed it. During the summer of 2018, WVU ADVANCE trained three other ADVANCE universities on how to deliver the course, and all three have delivered the course to over 100 faculty and staff participants. This summer, Anderson and Elizabeth Skoy, an associate professor of Pharmacy at North Dakota State University, delivered the course to the pharmacy faculty at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.
Another outgrowth of ADVANCE is the Faculty Justice Network, a space for racialized and minoritized faculty to receive support for their social, cultural, academic and professional development needs. It’s an effort to have a support network in place so that community is not based on an individual seeking out opportunities but to have a place waiting where they can belong.
Providing an Education
Students choose schools for several similar reasons: pursuing career passions, scholarship support and a sense of belonging.
Toni Owens hails from Kansas City, Kan., where she was an assistant in Kansas State University’s diversity office. There, she met David Fryson – then WVU’s vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, at a Big 12 gathering of diversity officers. She was looking at grad schools, and he suggested WVU. He invited her to the University’s longtime program, the Colloquium for Aspiring Underrepresented Doctoral Candidates, which encourages potential students to study at WVU.
When she was accepted by multiple universities, she chose WVU because the funding offered was higher and because she already had connections here.
Owens is now a doctoral student in the Human and Community Development program in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. She had to develop a course as part of one of her classes. And she wanted to make one that filled a need and that fit with her career goals. She made a class called Diversity and Society.
Her professor’s feedback? “You should teach this class.” Her professional background is in diversity in higher education, and with help from diversity professionals, she created a class that looked at many facets of inclusion: disabilities, veterans, educational status, socioeconomic status, sex, gender identity, race and age. She taught the course in spring 2021, and now the School of Design and Community Development wants her to help develop an online class about diversity for a required minor.
Amaya Jernigan is Student Body President for '21-'22.
Amaya Jernigan was a Mountaineer before she knew what college was. Her mom, alumna Felecia Newman, often spent time with her WVU Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters and took Jernigan to tailgate at the Blue Lot before Mountaineer games.
“I think her love for West Virginia University just made it so special when I was able to get the chance to finally apply and to get in,” Jernigan said.
Jernigan is a senior biology major from Waldorf, Md., who wants to become an orthopedist, which is why her mom was surprised when Jernigan said she wanted to run for Student Government Association president.
“When I decided to really run for this position, it was purely for the fact that I want this University to be better in every aspect.”
She and her running mate, Hunter Moore, were elected president and vice president, making Jernigan the first Black woman to hold the position at WVU. One of their main platforms is accessibility — from ramps in buildings to the availability of vegan food in the dining halls to gender neutral bathrooms to transportation — they are looking at equity for all students.
It wasn’t easy but Jernigan knows the time is right.
“When you’re the first Black woman to do things, you’re going to get comments about how you do them,” she said.
There were negative comments on social media about her election, but there was also tremendous support from her team, alumni and students. “I loved seeing the Mountaineers who did know me or supported me go through and just be like, ‘Hey, this girl is amazing, she’s going to do amazing things for WVU and there’s no reason to be rude to her.’”
Poore, the vice president of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, sums up this work of inclusion at the University.
“It’s about making sure that WVU and every single person that calls themselves a Mountaineer is doing their very best to make sure our University shines with every bit of its beauty,” she said. “And that means that we are to embrace the different beauty, the different hues that are on our campus.
“So no matter where you come from – whether you’re local, whether you’re from out of state or whether you’re international – our responsibility is to embrace everything that makes us better as Mountaineers. And so that trickles into what it means to be alumni as well, because these individuals will be alumni. So how will you embrace them? How will the work continue? And will they continue to say that they’re proud to be a Mountaineer? I certainly hope that they will.”
And There’s More
There are so many more upcoming and established programs at WVU that support and promote diversity, equity and inclusion. Here’s a larger sample. Find out more online at wvu.edu/inclusive-campus.
• Black at WVU oral history project
• Ask a Black Professor podcast
• Diversity micro-credentialing program
• Video on reporting hate crime and bias incidents
• Country Roads Program for students with disabilities
• Center for Black Culture and Research
• Center for Veterans, Military and Family Programs
• LGBTQ+ Center
• The Quad Living-Learning Community for students of color
• True Colors Living-Learning Community for LGBTQ+ and ally students
• Engineering Sciences prayer room remodel
• A Pact for Antiracist Pedagogy reading group
• Crowdfunding scholarship campaign for underrepresented students
• Office of Accessibility Services
• Honors Students of Color affinity group
• Diversity scholarships
• Care Team for at-risk students
• M-Power, mentorship program for students of color
• Center for Excellence in Disabilities
• SHAPE student organization shares LGBTQA concerns with the medical community
• New chapter of Bilingual Language and Literacy Investigative and Networking Group
Learn more: wvu.edu/inclusive-campus.