CTA workshop brings instructors, students and staff together
Exploring our own biases is something many of us would probably prefer to avoid. For an intrepid Sierra College group, however, the process might be key to boosting student success on campus.
At least, that’s what several faculty reported after emerging from CTA’s breakthrough training on Unconscious Bias. Led by CTA staff, the training allowed some 50 Sierra College instructors, staff, students, and officials to spend two days in April delving into their own biases in order to strengthening learning and working conditions on campus. It also marked the first time the CTA-developed training had been offered at a California community college as well as the first time it included students.
The Sierra College community has galvanized around the issue of making the campus more inclusive, welcoming and respectful of differences. Most recently, the campus has made strides in reaching out to LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning) students. The Unconscious Bias training was deemed important enough that Sierra College Trustee Dave Ferrari, offered his motel in Tahoe as the venue for the off-campus conference.
“I’d have to say it was probably the most meaningful and important workshop I’ve ever been to,” said Vernon Martin, a philosophy instructor and member of the Sierra College Faculty Association. “This was a conference that explores the way hidden preferences affect us. As a professor, it affects the way I interact with co-workers and students.”
Martin says students are aware and sensitive to bias, particularly students who have experienced it, or who have been bullied.
“I want to make my students feel welcomed and valued, and not marginalized or alienated. How can that happen if I’m not aware of these biases?” he asked.
Attendees participated in several activities, from taking the Harvard Implicit Association Test online to discussing their assumptions about age, race, sexuality and gender.
“It’s pretty disturbing to become aware of our biases. Everyone imagines that you treat everyone equally, but it’s pretty unlikely that’s the case,” Martin said.
Surprised by training
As a psychology professor Stephanie Coday is familiar with the concept and theory of unconscious bias. She knows about how our brains take advantage of certain shortcuts in perceptions so they don’t get overwhelmed with stimuli. Nevertheless, she was surprised by how the training affected her.
Just a few days following the training, Coday said, “I’m still processing. I’ve become hyper-vigilant about everything in class. I’m looking at what I say and what I do with a new lens. But I do think there will be long-term positive consequences for students and faculty.”
Coday has been involved with the Spectrum Committee, a standing committee appointed by the Academic Senate, to help ensure the success and retention of LGBTQ students. Along with the student Rainbow Alliance, the committee has promoted a number of activities on campus, ranging from a three-day Pride festival to the recent Second Chance Prom for LGBTQ students that drew 400 participants. She is one of 116 faculty and staff who have gone through Safe Space training to provide support to students. The Spectrum Committee has also spearheaded a proposal for a Pride Center which will serve as a learning center for students.
Despite all that, however, there was still a gay student who committed suicide this year.
“LGBTQ students continue to have higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide. This gets tied into student success. The minute you are bullied, you are excluded, and when you are excluded, you are likely to skip class, to skip days and to skip school entirely,” Coday said.
Perhaps even more importantly, faculty who attended the training are eager to build on what they have learned.
“There’s a hesitation to let the information go,” said Johnnie Terry, the philosophy professor who helped organize the training. “We’ve already had a discussion to create a critical thinking course that would integrate unconscious bias. It would be an interdisciplinary approach with elements of sociology, psychology, philosophy and English.”
Although the CTA training is geared toward educators, the dozen or so Sierra College students also found the two days to be meaningful.
As psychology student Ryan Parino notes, “It was amazing to see the diversity in the room and to know that we were all there for the same goal. That was powerful.”