Winston-Salem State University sets a high bar when it comes to a DEI strategy. Associate Provost and CIO Raisha Cobb shares what institutions can learn from WSSU.
There’s a famous story from Winston-Salem State University’s inception Associate Provost and Chief Information Officer Raisha Cobb believes encompasses her institution’s mission. When Simon Green Atkins founded WSSU in 1892, someone asked him “why build a school for Negroes?…what are you going to teach them?”
Atkins responded, “‘What do they teach at Harvard? And what do they teach at the world’s great universities?’”
In many ways, that exchange encompasses the inclusive mindset at Winston-Salem. Although the institution is part of the HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) system, its staff welcomes students of all races and prioritizes collective student success.
If there’s any institution equipped to help minority students thrive in the workforce, it’s Winston-Salem. Thanks to an HBCU grant from the Department of Education, WSSU possesses the necessary resources to increase African American and low socioeconomic status students’ participation in STEM fields including nursing, healthcare management, computer science and many more.
According to Cobb, the mission of academia is to make good citizens while building the intellectual capacity to thrive in society. Meeting that mission means focusing less on elitism at the institutional level—and more on equity.
“We have to meet people where they’re at and help them have a seat at the table,” Cobb said. “We need to make sure they have the skills and tools needed in order to be successful.”
One of the biggest misconceptions in conversations around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives is that getting that seat at the table means making personal sacrifices or losing out on opportunities.
“That’s where we see barriers to inclusivity,” Cobb said. “It’s the notion that I have to give up something in order for you to have a seat at the table, and that’s really not the case.”
Instead, she suggests the mindset should be working together as a team to accomplish more for an organization. Placing an emphasis on DEI combines different perspectives and experiences while bringing together the best collection of skills.
WSSU’s own HR strategy believes in building a workforce that helps students of all backgrounds and ideologies thrive, while also creating an environment that motivates staff to feel like they’re pulling towards a common goal. Today, DEI isn’t just a belief; it permeates everything Winston-Salem does for its faculty and students.
Making DEI a Strategy
Over the past three years, Winston-Salem tasked itself with creating a more strategic DEI plan, encouraging faculty and staff to get more certifications. That training created an awareness of opportunities for improvement.
From a hiring perspective, Cobb said the institution looked at itself critically to determine how to drive a more diverse applicant pool while ensuring equitable representation when identifying qualified candidates and hires.
Part of expanding the candidate pool includes embracing a variety of beliefs and faiths without attaching stigma.
“I try to look at it as here’s a job I have that needs to be done,” Cobb said. “Do you have the skillset to complete it? If you’re able to do the job, I think you should have a fair opportunity to interview.”
One of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to DEI is that it’s not just about bringing together people of different backgrounds—it’s about truly understanding and embracing different lifestyles and practices.
In some cases, this includes allowing employees to take different holidays off. In other cases, it includes increased sensitivity for parents with family obligations, ensuring they take ample leave without feeling like they’re missing out. Cobb believes leaders ultimately need to accommodate all types of employee lifestyles to make everyone feel part of an organization.
“Our job as leaders is making sure people have the tools they need in order to be successful, especially if you’re being productive and giving back to the organization,” Cobb said.
Another critical DEI opportunity is reversing the trend of African American men opting out of enrolling in college nation-wide. That challenge, according to Cobb, is one that WSSU aggressively takes on.
“We have to look at what we can do to help change the momentum by putting in programs and student success activities to address that,” Cobb said.
In a 2021 DEI report, WSSU outlined a number of initiatives, including retention efforts around their male population. One program titled “The Male Experience” is a mentoring program meant to provide unwavering brotherhood by promoting personal, academic and professional support.
For freshmen, the institution has “Brother to Brother Barber Shop Talk,” a bi-weekly conversation about life, mental health and any barriers hindering young men from being successful. Cobb says programs like these are important for first-generation students who attend their institution.
“We create a safe space where no other students of color will have a majority of people who look like them while finding people who share their interests and lifestyle,” Cobb said. “You have a community here.”
Unleashing the Genius
While Winston-Salem’s model for hiring and inclusion practices are a model for higher ed institutions (and corporate America), Cobb knows many recruiting processes will be challenging for her institution’s graduates.
WSSU has a high number of first-generation students in attendance who don’t have parents that had white-collar careers. As a result, the job placement process is brand new, with students needing help with resumes, interview skills and how to dress for success.
In the past, job-seekers of color were told to blend in with other applicants more by changing their names to make them more race-neutral—even suggesting women should straighten their hair. Today, that’s a thing of the past and—Cobb’s glad to see it.
“I hate that some people feel like they can’t be who they are in order to move forward in getting a job, or just in life,” Cobb said.
Instead, Winston-Salem creates workshops that help students go through the full-cycle of the application process. WSSU focuses on repeated simulation, delivering valuable experience in a safe environment to make job seekers more competitive post-graduation.
Cobb refers to this as “unleashing the genius.” It’s a belief that embraces authentic expression in whatever ways the student prefers. It’s a message that resonates across campus and translates to the work environment when students are the best possible version of themselves possible, capable of breaking down barriers to success.
“We’re working on the building blocks with our students to get them prepared to have a seat at the table, not trying to overshadow who they are,” Cobb said. “Because who you are is important.”
In addition to training, Winston-Salem’s initiatives also include partnering with companies on both internship and postgraduate recruiting. These companies specifically seek out HBCU students in order to bring new perspectives to their organization, and are a big reason why WSSU maintains one of the highest-earning graduating classes in the state of North Carolina.
“If you’re a global organization, then you want the different perspectives and experiences that you know students can bring,” Cobb said.
More than just Checking a Box
DEI has become a major initiative across the country, and there are many stages to implementing a strategy effectively. But what’s important for institutions, according to Cobb, is they don’t simply check a box and say they’re doing DEI, but actually put it into practice on a consistent basis.
It’s something that takes continuous effort over the long haul to permanently improve the institution. Cobb advises schools to provide ample opportunities for student expression in safe spaces.
For example, she notes institutions should encourage the formation of affinity groups where students connect with peers with similar interests. This creates community, forging a far deeper connection amongst the student body.
Cobb also recommends enabling leadership, administrators and students to work together, ensuring progress reflects the support and inclusion students desire.
Many institutions have DEI hiring practices in place. That, according to Cobb, is a good start, but it needs to extend to everything an institution does from procurement to curriculum development.
Embracing DEI on campus isn’t just about creating an inclusive environment. It’s also about having difficult conversations when the time calls for it. Cobb said one of the biggest areas of growth for WSSU occurs when the institution identifies processes that require correction.
However, it’s those critiques that ultimately keep an institution accountable and get closer to achieving its DEI goals.
“When we do things that counter what we say we are, I think that’s the hardest part about being a leader because you’re dealing with criticism,” Cobb said. “But it’s necessary because it keeps us truthful and honest.”
Before creating a DEI strategy, be sure to include all stakeholders at the table. It not only helps create alignment, but also ensures policies are carried out effectively.
“You need staff and faculty at the table when you’re creating these plans,” Cobb said. “If not, it’s not going to live or become part of the fabric of your organization.”
There’s no straightforward path toward mastering DEI. But making small, incremental changes goes a long way towards making the campus a more inclusive experience for all.
“I wish there was a perfect formula,” Cobb said. “But I think it’s ongoing and something that you have to continually invest in. It has to be a priority.”