Students benefit from education that centers community, diversity

In Tuesday’s Campus Conversation, two UC Berkeley vice provosts discussed the importance of building community outside of academic departments and improving overall support for public education. (UC Berkeley video)

The pandemic magnified the profound inequities existing for students on college campuses across the country and forced educators to adjust to daily challenges that may have long-standing impacts on students, staff and faculty.

Ever since March 2020, when COVID-19 prompted the campus to end in-person instruction, UC Berkeley leaders have learned from students’ hardships, and say they hope to build a stronger and more diverse community that represents their mission for this public institution — to “help people achieve their dreams.” 

I think community is core to all educational spaces to be successful,” said Berkeley’s Vice Provost for Graduate Studies and Dean of the Graduate Division Lisa García Bedolla. “There are amazing things happening across campus, and often the difficulty is not knowing about all of it.

“So, we’re trying to facilitate those connections so people can find multiple spaces where they can explore different aspects of themselves, and experience the full breadth and depth of the university.”

On Tuesday (Nov. 8), during Berkeley’s third Campus Conversations event of the semester, García Bedolla and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Oliver O’Reilly discussed the different ways the pandemic has changed Berkeley’s approach to supporting student success. 

While the campus community has worked in a synergistic way to address students’ basic needs and access to technology during the pandemic, O’Reilly said, on a campus that offers nearly 6,000 courses per semester, the way Berkeley manages and advertises its curriculum and resources needs to change. 

O’Reilly has worked to convene 80 different academic support groups around campus — such as the Biology Scholars Program and CalNerds — to help amplify their work and make it more visible for prospective and current students.

“As a campus, we can be very opaque,” said O’Reilly, who is also a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “I’ve been here for over 30 years, and there’s not a day goes by that I don’t learn something new about campus. Now, that’s great, but some things shouldn’t take that long to figure out. … We want to change the narrative where Berkeley is a place that gives support.”

As a California public university, García Bedolla said, in order for Berkeley to live up to its values and mission it needs to reflect the diversity of the state it serves. Berkeley invested $1.5 million in a graduate diversity program that García Bedolla said funds nine departments across campus that are doing equity and inclusion work in different campus communities.

But equally as important as resources, is having intentionality around diversity in every aspect of the campus community. Leaders must also articulate a vision that people can join, to “move their boats in the same direction.”

“Our job is to educate and produce knowledge, and obviously there is a dialectical connection between those two, because that knowledge then becomes part of the educational process,” said García Bedolla, who is also a Berkeley alumna and professor at the Graduate School of Education. “And we cannot produce the knowledge needed to solve some of society’s greatest problems without taking advantage of the full scope of humanity.” 

While classes have fully moved from remote to in-person, campus services have changed since the pandemic began. Students enrolled in Berkeley’s Disabled Students Program (DSP) has doubled. One initiative created to support these students, O’Reilly said, is the DSP Faculty Liaisons program that aims to improve the way instructors accommodate DSP students enrolled in their courses.

O’Reilly said more federal support for public education would help campuses like Berkeley to fully transform the way they serve students in a post-pandemic world.

“I think that would be a game-changer,” O’Reilly said. “If (the public) could look at public universities as part of the public good, and for the social transformation that they are, they’d hear the stories of transformation that happen to students on our campus and every public university in the country.”