Evolution of Cultural Competency

The first diversity and multicultural program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences was created in 1993.

“At that time, the percentage of minority students in the college was around 3 percent, and it was low around campus and low among our peers,” says Mary de Baca, manager of the college’s diversity programs from 1996 to 2010. “Graduation rates were lower for minority students, and the campus climate was not always favorable for them. Iowa State was not attracting minority students from Iowa high schools, and they were not aware of the scope of courses of study in agriculture. Agriculture industries were increasingly seeking minority employees, but minorities had little access to the private sector.”

The college took action. Under the leadership of then Dean David Topel, an approach emerged consisting of a Minority Programs Office, Diversity Programs and a minority liaison officer.

The Minority Programs Office focused on undergraduates. Charanne Parks served as its first director and minority liaison officer. The Minority Programs Office worked in tandem with Diversity Programs which focused on serving graduate students and was led by Gerald Klonglan (’58 rural sociology, MS ’62, PhD ’63), professor emeritus of sociology and former associate dean for national programs and research, and de Baca.

CALS was the first on campus to support a minority liaison officer to connect undergraduates with university minority affairs programs. Every college at Iowa State later added similar staff positions.

These efforts helped staff connect students with graduate assistantships and build up the Iowa State chapter of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences (MANRRS). The college revived its faculty diversity committee, first created in 1963, to better engage faculty. The college established partnerships with the nation’s minority-serving institutions such as the 1890 (historically black colleges), 1994 (tribal colleges) and Hispanic-serving land-grant institutions.

The Carver connection

Hosting the national MANNRS conference in 1998 was a milestone for the college. More than 800 students from around the country attended the conference and career fair in Des Moines, and the college hosted a pre-conference George Washington Carver Day on campus. In 2004, the college and its partners—Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., Deere & Co. and Cargill Inc.— repeated as host of the national MANRRS conference in Des Moines, attracting more than 600 participants.

College faculty had begun hosting Tuskegee University students for informal research internships in 1993, arranged by the Minority Programs Office. The internships proved so successful that
the effort was formalized into an annual program and opened to other minority- serving schools. Following the 1998 national MANNRS conference, the college’s summer internship program for minority students was renamed the George Washington Carver Summer Research Internship Program (read more on page 18).

The college’s minority liaison officer Nina Grant, who served from 1998 to 2007, and several graduate assistants were among the staff who helped fuel the program’s momentum. The college secured several federal grants to support its diversity efforts, and a partnership with American Indian Tribal Colleges was supported by the Kellogg Foundation. Partnerships grew with the Chicago Agricultural Charter School and university diversity programs like Science Bound.

de Baca and Klonglan worked with Sande McNabb, professor of plant pathology and forestry, and minority programs staff to gain university acknowledgement of George Washington Carver as Iowa State’s first black student and faculty member. They worked to raise his profile as a celebrated member of the Iowa State community and with partners nationwide. “Carver’s legacy is as important today as ever. Science is important. Applied science is equally important,” says Klonglan. “And science must be used to benefit all members of society.”

A culture of inclusion

The Minority Programs Office and Diversity Programs were combined into the Office of Diversity and Inclusion Programs, which is now coordinated
by Theressa Cooper, assistant dean
of diversity and director of the George Washington Carver Summer Research Internship Program, who joined the college in 2013. Cooper is the first assistant dean of diversity at the college level at Iowa State, and the college is the only one to have both an assistant dean for diversity and a minority liaison officer.

“My work is bigger than diversity and inclusion. It’s framed around cultural competency,” says Cooper. “It speaks to cultural awareness, increased knowledge and sensitivity to others. It guides the college in finding an equitable, empathic space. We weave cultural competency into the programs we offer, our hiring practices and the recruitment and retention of our students, faculty and staff.”

Elizabeth Martinez-Podolsky joined the college as a minority liaison officer in 2015. Together she and Cooper support all CALS students in developing cultural competency and building a culture of respect and inclusion. CALS students are introduced to Martinez-Podolsky at orientation and introductory courses. She helps students understand the importance of diversity and inclusion as they pursue their degrees and careers. Students with veteran status or who self-identify as multicultural receive additional communications and programs from her office.

In the fall of 2016, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences held listening sessions to get feedback and hear the stories of minority students. As a result of these initial listening sessions, the college established a student-led group to address cultural competency in 2017. The Leaders Enhancing Agriculture, Diversity, Inclusion and Trust (LEAD IT) Collective works to build strong leaders and community partners who value diversity, multiculturalism and inclusion and recognize the importance of developing intercultural competency. The LEAD IT Collective engages audiences on topics such as bias, privilege, inclusivity and other multicultural issues.

“Far too often we become consumed by the politics of the world and the negative influences that shape our communities. Thankfully I am part of a leadership group designed to facilitate the reshaping of such realities,” says Eboni Adderley, a senior in animal science and member of LEAD IT. “Not only do I get to be a change agent for others, but I experience exponential personal growth which I know will strengthen the rest of my life journey.”

As of fall 2018, the college’s multicultural enrollment stood at 10 percent.

“I see the change in the college,” says Cooper. “It is exciting to see people come into the sense of cultural competency. It is a process on a scale. We move forward, and sometimes we take a step back. But it is amazing when we see a light come on.
It is a slow fire burning, but when it finally gets going, it is so exciting.”