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Connecticut colleges working to narrow student-teacher diversity gap

Chief Diversity officer for the CT State Community College system John-Paul Chaisson-Cardenas in his office in New Britain on April 16, 2024.
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Chief Diversity officer for the CT State Community College system John-Paul Chaisson-Cardenas in his office in New Britain on April 16, 2024.

Under the fluorescent lights of his small office, John-Paul Chaisson-Cardenas is working to reform the higher education system from within.

And on one recent morning, that work started with a lot of meetings. When a reporter visited his office, Chaisson-Cardenas was engaged in his typical routine, interfacing with faculty and staff across the numerous campuses of the Connecticut State Community College system.

Chaisson-Cardenas took over two years ago as the chief diversity officer for the state's network of community colleges. His background is in what he calls change management. He previously worked to diversify school systems in Washington state and Iowa.

Higher education is a place where you can find yourself, but it’s not a place where enough diverse faculty members find themselves today, he said.

“It’s not only about bringing people in, right? And that’s where we tend to fail as institutions," he said. "We recruit people of color, people with disabilities, but we don’t change the system.”

Community colleges in Connecticut have historically attracted more diverse student bodies than private institutions. At Gateway Community College in New Haven, federal data shows more than half of attendees are students of color. But only about a quarter of faculty members fall into that category.

Chaisson-Cardenas said part of his philosophy for making lasting change is getting people to rethink existing practices around recruiting and hiring, which sometimes produce only short-term gains.

“Connecticut is a very small state, right?" he said. "And sometimes, in general … Connecticut tends to lean on who I know to make hires. And that's exactly how we create systems that don’t respect diversity.”

Cristian Montanez, vice president of Gateway Community College’s student government in the school’s library on March 14, 2024.
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Cristian Montanez, vice president of Gateway Community College’s student government in the school’s library on March 14, 2024.

Cristian Montanez said he chose community college because it’s an accessible pathway into higher education.

He currently attends Gateway Community College, and serves as vice president of the school’s student government association.

He says his Puerto Rican family emphasized how important it is to get an education.

“For me, my education is about learning how to be a person, more than I already know how to do it ... " he said. "I grew up in a family where my mom went back to community college when I was a kid, so education has kind of always represented a fundamental factor in being a person.”

Research shows that having diverse faculty makes students of color more comfortable, and more likely to stay in school and succeed beyond higher education.

Adjunct professor Sohair Omar says her own experience backs up that research. Omar is the interim director of institutional research and effectiveness at the Naugatuck campus of CT State.

“I had a student last semester who wanted to schedule time to go over a test," she said. "Prior to my class, he was a recent convert to Islam, and after the study session it was time for prayer and we prayed together, and I thought it was sweet, and I don't think he would have the opportunity with someone else. So it is really important that the students who we serve are also represented in the faculty.”

CT State is taking steps to bridge the student-teacher diversity gap. At the Manchester campus, the school offers a faculty fellowship program. And a statewide leadership academy aims to help young professionals of color become teachers.

Chaisson-Cardenas said changing faculty diversity numbers isn’t just about hiring. He’s also training current staff about why inclusion is important.

“We have to actually work with our faculty and staff so they understand that it’s not as easy as being kind," he said. "There’s actual skills that you have to do.”

Part of his goal is changing the philosophy within higher ed. And he’s making progress, one meeting at a time.

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