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Creating an Inclusive Environment for Undergraduate First Generation Womxn and Womxn of Color at a Predominantly White Institution

Womxn in Student Affairs
September 9, 2020 Lauren R. Contreras, Ed.M. University of Denver

       Two years ago I began working as the Program Coordinator for the Colorado Women’s College (CWC) Leadership Scholars Program at the University of Denver. The CWC Leadership Scholars Program is a cohort-based Leadership Program for first-generation womxn and womxn of color. The womxn in the program pursue degrees throughout the University of Denver while completing a Leadership minor. In addition, students are eligible to receive a scholarship to cover their unmet financial need. The program also hosts co-curricular programming to engage and support participants. The strength of the Scholars program is the tight-knit community of womxn undergraduate leaders who empower, encourage, and support one another. Aligned with NASPA’s call for student affairs practitioners to be student-ready and take an asset-based approach, I share tips that have helped to ensure the Scholars Program is inclusive and equitable for first-generation womxn and womxn of color.


1)    Authenticity is Important - Influenced by Bianca Williams’ (2016) notion of radical honesty, which she defines as, “a pedagogical practice of truth-telling that seeks to challenge racist and patriarchical institutional cultures” (p. 72), I believe sharing my own personal narrative is important to developing relationships with students. Through enacting radical honesty, I have developed authentic and meaningful relationships with students. For example, I do not shy away from sharing my challenges with mental health with students in order to normalize asking for support. As a current doctoral student at the same institution my students are attending, I also share my struggles as a woman of color navigating a predominantly white space, who has challenges with imposter syndrome, and also faces microaggressions. As someone who identifies as lesbian, I also acknowledge it is not always easy to share all of your identities. I have feared losing connection with students due to my sexuality, and I recognize that as practitioners, we must also assess our risk in sharing our identities. In my experience, I have found that when I do share my full identity as a queer woman of color, I am able to have deeper, more meaningful relationships with students that encourage them to be their full and authentic selves. Additionally, I hope I am seen as a resource for students who may identify as LGBTQ.


2)    Co-Creation - I also draw from bell hooks’ (1994) radical pedagogy that calls on those working with students to break down power dynamics and allow for co-creation between students and practitioners. My colleague (who runs the program with me) and I agree that the CWC Leadership Scholars Program is enhanced when students are involved in its co-creation. To facilitate this, we have established a CWC Leadership Scholars Executive Board, where students share ideas and are encouraged to create programming that supports other scholars. In the past, students have been encouraged to create workshops for other scholars while I provide logistical support. This approach empowers students, allows them to feel more connected to the program and generates more interest from their peers to participate. Furthermore, students come to our program with their own strengths, and I believe, as practitioners, we should not only recognize this, but also allow it to shape our programming. As a program, we are often asking for student input and feedback. I even asked students for feedback on this blog!


3)    Acknowledge and Understand Context - As our program is situated on a predominantly white campus, and over 90% of our students are womxn of color, I cannot shy away from the institutional context. In recent years, DU has had incidents of racist, sexist, and other discriminatory acts. Our students also often share with us microaggressions they encounter at the institution. Drawing from Frank Tuitt’s work (2003), racism and other forms of discrimination must be confronted directly to create an inclusive environment. We have responded to the incidents on campus as well as the ongoing racial injustice occurring in U.S. society, which has resulted in the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. To do this, we have sent emails of support, created both classroom and co-curricular space to address these issues, and named these racist and discriminatory acts at our events, in the classroom, and in direct conversation with our students. As practitioners, if we do not do this, the impact can be detrimental to our students, who already feel marginalized. This can be challenging and we will not always get it right, but, we must keep trying. We must also acknowledge how COVID-19 has impacted our students. Before the fall quarter, we sent a survey asking students to share concerns they have about starting the quarter. While I do not know what will be the best approach to serving our students this fall, I know our program will be able to better support them by understanding how they are being impacted.


4)    Provide Space - Our program also seeks to provide a space where students can feel comfortable being themselves. Yosso (2006) found womxn of color are able to navigate racism and sexism at predominantly white institutions by engaging in counterspaces that create a supportive environment. Any space created by the institution will never be completely “safe”. Nevertheless, there should be spaces where students can feel supported and comfortable to be themselves. In the past, the CWC Leadership Scholars Program has hosted off-campus weekend retreats, where students are asked to be vulnerable and share their experiences. During one activity, we ask students to share a meaningful personal object. While students are encouraged to share, and most do, we do not force anyone. When students share, they find that there are others in the program that have similar experiences. This also allows for the students to establish trust with one another. Students find this to be one of the most impactful moments from the year! While the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging us to be more creative with providing space for students, it will be essential to do so. In a recent survey, our students shared they would like frequent check-ins throughout the fall with other scholars and program staff. I plan to facilitate this so students can share concerns and receive encouragement.


Taken together, I believe enacting these approaches has allowed for our program to be a place where our students feel like they matter, can be themselves and are supported by program staff as well as their peers. While there are times taking these approaches can be challenging, and uncomfortable, these approaches are important for generating an inclusive and equitable environment for our students, in particular, womxn of color navigating spaces where they are often given messages that they do not belong.


I would like to thank Dr. Trisha Teig and the CWC Leadership Scholars for their input on this blog post. Additional, thanks to Dean Ann Ayers and Associate Dean Magdalena Red for supporting the CWC Leadership Scholars Program. Lastly, I would like to thank Kamal Ararso for thinking through some of these ideas in our previous coursework together.


Lauren R. Contreras, Ed.M., is the Program Coordinator for the Colorado Women’s College Leadership Scholars Program at the University of Denver. Lauren is also a PhD Student in the Higher Education department at the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver.



hooks, b. (1994).  Teaching to transgress:  Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.

Tuitt, F. (2003) Afterword: Realizing a More Inclusive Pedagogy. In A. Howell & F. Tuitt (Eds.). Race in higher education: Rethinking pedagogy in racially diverse college classrooms, (pp. 243- 264) Harvard Education Publication Group.

Williams, B. (2016). Radical Honesty: Truth-telling as Pedagogy for Working Through Shame in Academic Spaces. In F. Tuitt, C. Haynes, & S. Stewart (Eds.), Race, Equity, and the Learning Environment: The Global Relevance of Critical and Inclusive Pedagogies in Higher Education (pp. 71-82). Stylus Publishing.

Yosso, T.J (2006). Chicana/o undergraduate ‘stages of passage’: Campus racial climate at Midwestern University. In Critical race counterstories along the Chicana/Chicano educational pipeline, ed. T. Yosso, 99–128. Routledge.