Diversity and inclusion have risen to the top of the agenda for colleges and universities in recent years, following high-profile protests and a demand for representation based on protected characteristics and income level. While many institutions of higher education have made great strides in reviewing curricula and increasing the head count of underrepresented faculty, some are still considering how best to weave diversity, equity, and inclusion fairly into the fabric of their student body. It’s happening, but it needs to happen more quickly and as part of a concerted strategy.
To truly diversify, universities across the world must work together to attract and nurture overlooked talent, reaching out to students from marginalized rural and urban communities. When we step back and note that tomorrow’s leaders can be discovered outside recruiters’ traditional criteria, we find that this is the smartest investment that we can make to solve some of the most critical problems facing our world. These young people represent human talent that cannot be disregarded, and these students will pay dividends to society far in excess of the cost of their education.
Because of their background, these students often possess a special sensitivity, sensibility, and passion to make a difference. Typically, these students are highly motivated and have a strong desire to take on the social, environmental, and health-related challenges facing humankind using creative perspectives drawn from life experiences directly linked to the circumstances and communities in which they have been raised.
The US, through its size and diversity, is in a leading position to unearth this bountiful raw talent and bring these students’ gritty determination and innovative insights to bear on many global problems whose solutions might otherwise elude us. And as so many of today’s challenges cross traditional geographic boundaries, this is especially important. We need a plurality of perspectives drawn from many different socioeconomic contexts if we are to find, test, and implement the enduring solutions we need.
Throughout its history, as a constituent of the University of Cambridge, Lucy Cavendish College has been dedicated to attracting and then unlocking the potential of exceptional students from underserved communities. There are many universities and colleges in the US from which we are gratefully learning and with whom we are keen to share experiences.
At Lucy Cavendish College, we take a bold stance when it comes to admissions. We admit a majority of our undergraduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and our priority is now also to increase our number of international students from underrepresented communities and countries. Our doors are open wide to students who exhibit leadership traits, determination, and an enterprising mindset and who are eager to contribute to the future of the organizations of which they will become a part. We do not lower grade requirements for those applicants coming from disadvantaged or underrepresented backgrounds, nor do we think it beneficial to do so solely to increase diversity. We think it is important that all students know they are accepted based on their high level of academic potential and that no one is given a less demanding, “backdoor” entry. We find this helps to dispel anxieties about imposter syndrome.
At the college, however, we do go the extra mile to help potential students succeed. For instance, we make available online programs to promising students in the last two years of high school to help raise their academic attainment so they can meet the high, standard-entry requirements of Cambridge University.
Once they arrive, all our students participate in three support programs: an academic skills program, a careers and enterprise program, and a well-being program. These are designed to ensure that they reach their full academic potential, graduate into the jobs to which they rightly aspire, and lead a well-balanced and fulfilled life on campus during their studies. Philanthropic funding also supports a detailed, online, onboarding program and the provision of the essential books on summer reading lists before their first term starts.
A completely free in-person “bridging week” is also offered before the first week of their first term to ensure that first-year students and new graduate students have the best possible start to their time in college and thrive in the university from the get-go. Bridging weeks help new students to orient themselves in their new context, and to socialize so they can start forming their friendship and support groups. But the primary aim is to introduce them to the academic rigors of study at Cambridge.
So they meet their directors of studies, who will oversee their academic program, and their tutor, who will support their well-being. They visit their departments, where they’re going to be having their main lectures, and the labs and specialist libraries they will need to use. We demystify some of the processes and language used in Cambridge so that it doesn’t feel alien: matriculation, general admission, formal hall, bops, and bumps. That way, before the term starts and the academic work is underway at an intense pace, they have an opportunity really to get to know the campus, the people that are in their cohort and with whom they’ll be living, and the team of people in the college who can support them in whether to set up a bank account or buy a secondhand bicycle or indeed answer any queries they may have. We try to make the initial experience as practical and fun as it is academic.
When we started it, we were the only college to do a bridging week, and now other colleges are realizing this is a good thing to do and have started implementing the same. It’s a positive trend that means students will have a solid start to success.
Many colleges and universities are today intent on providing an interdisciplinary education to ensure that their graduates meet the needs of employers and can address the tough, important issues facing humankind and the planet. But it is important to help students make the connections between the different disciplines to which they are exposed. In our integrative model, the knowledge and pedagogies from multiple disciplines are brought together within the context of a “living-and-learning” environment. The college puts undergraduate students into “households” that consist of students taking different courses. This is an informal arrangement that encourages the development of friendships, a better understanding of different areas of study, and professional networking across disciplines.
Students who are studying at the master’s or doctoral level understand that we particularly welcome graduates who are taking interdisciplinary courses focused on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
The college uses interdisciplinary achievement as a criterion in selecting its postdoctoral members and its research fellows. Here, we look for ethical decision making, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge in complex, multidimensional, and multidisciplinary settings.
After graduation, we believe it is very important to keep in touch with these alumni. Alumni engagement encourages the free flow of information about college news and acts to expand volunteer leadership positions. Alumni are then better able to fulfil critical roles as mentors and can be the source of internships and work-shadowing opportunities for current students from similar backgrounds. It is important to build these relationships and partnerships as they help students to identify the pathways they too might take upon graduation.
Our alumni also support fundraising programs for students in need. They contribute to ensure that students make the most of their time at Cambridge while keeping avenues to professional networks up to date.
For more than five decades, our global alumni have returned to their home countries to serve in business, health, the public sector, and not-for-profits where they have earned well-deserved accolades for innovative leadership. Others have risen to prominence in international organisations such as the UN or have become successful entrepreneurs.
All institutions of higher education must look beyond those who simply meet the traditional academic and financial requirements of acceptance. It is not enough to hope that these students alone will find the answers to the increasingly daunting problems facing humankind. We have an obligation to help highly motivated, academically qualified young people from low-income, often marginalized communities to acquire the theoretical knowledge and the practical and problem-solving skills they need to make meaningful contributions to society. And exchanging ideas and experiences on how best to identify and support such students, whether they study in the US or the UK, enriches the formal and informal curricula for all students.
Professor Dame Madeleine Atkins, PhD, has been the president of Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge, since 2018. Previously she served as chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which regulated and partly funded all universities and colleges offering degrees in England—a position she held from 2014 until 2018.