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Cassandra Fluker addresses the impact of underrepresented faculty in new article

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HFC Director of Student Activities Cassandra Fluker.

HFC Director of Student Activities Cassandra Fluker recently published an article, “Hiring Faculty of Color for Student Success”, on the League for Innovation in the Community College website. The League is an international organization that provides resources for the promotion and support of innovation in the community college environment.

“My article speaks about the lack of underrepresented faculty in higher education, their contributions to student success, and what colleges can do to improve in that particular area,” explained Fluker. “In addition to helping to increase the retention rate, a diverse faculty enhances and broadens the college experience for all students by introducing them to different perspectives, ideas, scholars, and teachings. In contrast, with exposure to a diverse faculty, students recognize that we are living in a global society, and they learn to embrace diversity.”

Fluker is an alumna of HFC, as well as an employee. She earned her associate degree in business from HFC, her bachelor’s degree in general studies from the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and her master’s degree in administration from Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant. Currently, she is a candidate in the Doctorate of Community College Leadership at Ferris State University in Big Rapids. She is expected to graduate in 2022. Fluker has been the Director of Student Activities at HFC for 18 years.

Sharing a broader POV

“One of my DCCL instructors encouraged my cohort to submit a publishable abstract to enhance our careers and share a broader perspective on an issue of interest. My interest is in student success, coupled with the progression of diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education. Underrepresented students are often falling behind in college completion, so I am beginning to think of channels that may further assist with their college persistence. One plausible solution is to increase the presence of underrepresented faculty. I learned in my research that mirroring the college workforce with the student body is a challenge for many colleges across the nation. Student bodies are growing more diverse, but the rate of diversity in college workforces is lagging,” said Fluker.

Whether faculty of color set out to be mentors or not, their presence leads them to serve students in various ways, according to Fluker. Students look for faculty who can relate to and understand their background, including their feelings, struggles, and needs. Fluker cited the recent article about HFC alumna Darlena Buford as an example. In the article, Buford named HFC Assistant Director, Advancement and Alumni Relations Shai James-Boyd as her mentor and said she feels inspired to see someone of her color in an accomplished position. Buford also noted that James-Boyd has been very encouraging of her decisions and future career goals.

“This scenario gives the student hope that she can achieve her goals and aspirations,” said Fluker. “Students want and need to see faculty, staff, and administrators who look like them. This assures students that they are in the right place and on the right track. It creates a sense of belonging for them as well, which is another vital component for student success.”

The pandemic and the “new normal”

Fluker also spoke about how the pandemic impacted student success and what the impact on student success would look like once colleges and universities return to campus and in-person classes in what can only be described as a “new normal.”

“Many students decided to take a gap year or withdraw from their college classes because of the pandemic and their sometimes limited capabilities with online and remote learning,” she said. “Some student populations prefer face-to-face learning for their academic development and achievement. They may not have come from high schools that engaged students in online learning, or they might not have had adequate technology to complete online homework assignments.”

Fluker continued: “We at HFC knew this to be true when the pandemic hit. Many of our students needed laptop computers and home internet connections to continue their programs of study. Also, during the pandemic, college enrollment decreased for underrepresented students, especially at the community college level. Now that colleges are reopening and returning to in-person classes, I suspect that it will be another adaption period for them, and faculty are needed to provide encouragement, as well as mentoring.”

Relationship-building is valuable between students and faculty/staff. These relationships help students to connect with the College and seek assistance when experiencing difficulties, said Fluker. Many new incoming students have missed an entire year of substantial learning and will require additional, as well as stronger support systems to ensure they complete college successfully.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is a current trend in higher education that should be embedded into the culture of education, according to Fluker. Looking at DEI as a separate operation will prolong society’s progress, not to mention barriers and disparities will continue to exist.

One size does not fit all

“While writing my article, I was excited, hoping that more colleges and universities will soon act and make a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. I was amazed to find the research that supported my premise and experience of the elements that contribute to underrepresented students' learning process,” said Fluker. “On a personal note, when I attended the College, I was the only African-American student in many of my courses. Not once did I experience the joy and opportunity of interacting with an African-American instructor. I am not saying that there were no African-American instructors at HFC at the time, I am saying that was not my experience…. Unfortunately, I did not develop a genuine sense of belonging while a community college student.”

When Fluker transferred to UM-Dearborn, she learned from an African-American professor there who finally fulfilled that need and became a mentor. She credits her own self-determination and familial support for motivating her to complete college.

“As I have said, students – particularly first-generation students – need to know that they are on the right path, especially if their environments do not align with the concept of education being part of their roadmap for success,” she said. “A holistic view and strategic planning will guide colleges and universities to develop systems that are designed for the success of students keeping in mind that the ‘one size fits all’ model is no longer adequate or effective.”