by Jason L. Taylor, OCCRL
Dr. Eboni M. Zamani-Gallaher is a Professor and Coordinator of the Graduate Certificate Program in Community College Leadership in the Department of Leadership and Counseling at Eastern Michigan University and is the incoming President of the Council for the Study of Community Colleges, an affiliate of the American Association of Community Colleges. Her teaching, research, and consulting activities largely include psychosocial adjustment of marginalized collegians, transfer between two- and four-year institutions, and access policies. In addition to dozens of articles and book chapters, Dr. Zamani-Gallaher is currently co-editing the 4th Edition of the ASHE Reader on Community Colleges with Drs. Jamie Lester, Debra Bragg and Linda Hagedorn. She also co-authored The Case for Affirmative Action on Campus with Denise O’Neil Green, M. Christopher Brown II, and David Stovall (Stylus Publishing) and co-edited, The State of the African American Male: A Courageous Conversation with Vernon Polite (Michigan State University Press). In October, OCCRL’s Jason Taylor interviewed Dr. Zamani-Gallaher on her work related to educational equity.
Mr. Taylor: How do you think about equity and what does equity mean to you?
Dr. Zamani-Gallaher: Well, I have a couple different replies. In terms of what equity means to me, I think of this contrast between equality and equity. One example I often use is, let’s say I caught a cold and you have a cold, but let’s say I also have Lupus and we both go to the doctor. And the doctor says “Well, here is some Robitussin DM for both of you.” We’ve been treated equally, however, because of my preexisting condition [Lupus], being treated equally does not necessarily speak to equity; the Robitussin DM treatment is not equitable. We talk about treating people equally and expect that if we treat them equally then we are promoting equity, but we are not.
When I think about the issue of educational equity, to me that means that we need to take a hard look at the disparities across different types of institutions. It is a systemic pipeline issue for me. We see disparities in K-12 education when you look at per student expenditures, student-teacher ratio, school resources, funding, and other indicators. This is something that extends from one tier of education to the next, and we see it play out in students’ college readiness, which students are able to compete, and which students have access to postsecondary education.
When I think about the issue of educational equity in higher education, I don’t think of it in a vacuum. It is something that is far-reaching and very connected to the other educational tiers. And so, for me, equity is about how you reconfigure things. It’s about how you shake up the status quo, how you talk about meeting the needs of specific learners, and how you can accommodate folks.
Mr. Taylor: You are currently editing the 4th Edition of the ASHE Reader on Community Colleges and sifting through literature on the community college published in the most recent decade. What conversations and ideas are emerging in this literature related to equity?
Dr. Zamani-Gallaher: This iteration of the ASHE reader has a separate section that deals with diversity issues. But equity is not just relegated to that section. You’ll see issues around equity bubble up in the sections on transfer and general education, remediation, and faculty, for example. There are some intersections in terms of race and ethnicity and gender, but there are also articles related to different types of subpopulations of students in community colleges that don’t get a lot of attention—athletes, veterans, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ) students, for example. Our goal with the ASHE Reader was to expand upon the previous Reader with regard to those types of readings.
Mr. Taylor: Your personal scholarship contributes to our understandings of educational equity. Could you introduce us to some of the current equity-focused projects that you are working on?
Dr. Zamani-Gallaher: Recently I have spent time looking at issues pertaining to LGBTQ students within community colleges, as well as a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) transfer students, both related to educational equity. There are two pieces I’m working on relative to transfer STEM majors and looking at the intersections between race, gender and class with STEM. Another project, something that is in the early stages, is a piece with two colleagues looking at African-American and Hispanic males in study abroad at community colleges to understand to what extent study abroad could provide self-authorship for students who participate.
Mr. Taylor: You have written extensively on the topic of race in higher education, so I am interested in your work on STEM transfer. Can you describe your current research in this area and what issues are emerging from your research?
Dr. Zamani-Gallaher: In our study, we found significant associations for race/ethnicity with STEM major, transfer hours earned, and two-year credit hours earned in terms of positive relationships for White and nonresident alien/race unknown students. However, there was a negative association of transfer type by race/ethnicity illustrating the relationship between multiple institutional attendance and increased swirling among students of color in STEM. Additionally, we found significant between group differences in transfer type, GPA, and transfer credit hours earned by gender and race/ethnicity among transfer STEM majors. Case in point, transfer credit hours earned was predictive of transfer shock for STEM students of color.
Mr. Taylor: You also mentioned your work on LGBTQ students. In a 2011 New Directions for Community Colleges, you co-authored a piece on LGBTQ students and argued that very little is known about this student population in community colleges. Can you comment on your work in this area and what you’re learning?
Dr. Zamani-Gallaher: Let me give you some context for my work in this area. A few years ago, I told a colleague, Dibya Choudhuri, a counseling faculty member who subsequently co-authored the article with me, about a student that had come to see me during office hours. My student mentioned that she witnessed a colleague who was a college counselor refuse care and advisement to a community college student client. My student shared how the counseling colleague asked the student, ‘Well are you sure you’re gay? And if you are then, you know, I can find somebody else to work with you now, because I can’t.” Hearing that just floored me, and I thought well, she’s at a community college so let me see if I can find her some resources. At the time I could find only one article, and it wasn’t a data-driven piece. I wondered how this could happen, so I began stock piling anything and everything I could on LGBTQ students, much of which was written from a four-year institution context.
In my recent research, we interviewed students from six different community colleges, but in each case their LGBTQ student organizations were fairly new. It was only after students galvanized and made it known that they were not invisible that some of the administrators paid attention; Only one of the six colleges had an established LGBTQ student organization for a while; other colleges had LGBTQ organizations for a couple of years only.
What emerged from the data we felt related to performativity and this phenomenon illustrated conceptual underpinnings of performance theory to our work. I think of performativity in this study given that students were being themselves on campus but unable to be ‘free to be me’ when they left campus. In our study, we interviewed traditional aged LGBTQ college students, many of whom were still dependents of their parents and fearful that they would not have support to complete school or gain access to resources available to them. Many of them had transfer aspirations and needed support beyond transfer. They talked about, ‘When I get to the Big U, then I’m going to come out.’ Therefore, they lived dual lives [on and off campus]. There was no antipathy or overt push back toward LGBTQ students on the community college campuses, but at the same time, it was like the pink elephant in the room, overlooked or an afterthought. So, to the extent that the students weren’t initiating efforts, then an organization wasn’t taking root. But once faculty and staff started to get on board, safe zone rosters and other kinds of programming started.
Another tension is there’s a real challenge in trying to keep students engaged. Students who are most engaged move on and organized efforts to recognize and support LBGTQ students lose momentum. While these student organizations are still in early developmental stages, it is hard to see how sustainable these efforts will be if folks aren’t being groomed for the changing of the guard. Who is going to step up and provide leadership for the LGBTQ organization?
Mr. Taylor: Given what you are learning, do you have recommendations for community college administrators and faculty members?
Dr. Zamani-Gallaher: There are some considerations specifically for community college student services. There are certain needs and challenges that LGBTQ students have and student services personnel can be intentional in terms of how they go about sharing information, promoting a welcoming environment, providing socialization opportunities and support groups, for example. These things do not all have to be student initiated, but faculty and staff can actively explore providing these opportunities—things like clubs, social organizations, mentoring programs, ally programs, protocols and actual policies related to gender expression, gender identity, and hate crime protocols. So those are a few things that stand out.
Another important piece is putting your money where your mouth is and finding some fiscal resources, dedicated to human resources, so there can be a stand-alone LGBTQ resource center or office. I think this would be a big step and there is a way that, even in our resource-strapped times, that institutions can reconsider how they can take advantage and leverage technology by trying to create a virtual sense of belonging or sense of community, so that students know how to select institutions. Prospective students could sense if the hallways are hostile or that the campus climate is chilly. There are also opportunities for some social networking, blogs, and websites. I think having some sources of information as it relates to LGBTQ concerns will go a long way to demonstrating an inclusive climate.
Mr. Taylor: What motivates you as a scholar to engage in research on marginalized students and educational equity in the community college context?
Dr. Zamani-Gallaher: That is a good question. I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois, and I remember my very first semester taking the community college course that was actually co-taught with Debra Bragg of University of Illinois and Jim Palmer of Illinois State University. They decided to team teach since Dr. Palmer’s campus was so close to U of I, so I had the great honor of having both of them at once. The interesting thing is that I was in that class against my will. I had no interest in community colleges, and I actually was one of those folks that would probably perpetuate the stereotype of community college; I definitely had a deficit lens coming into the program. I went in to see my advisor for an advising meeting and he suggested I take the community college course, and I asked, “Why?” He said, “Well, you know, if you’re interested in being a higher education scholar, it would probably be a good idea to look at two- and four-year institutions.”
I registered for the course. Drs. Bragg and Palmer had us do a literature review assignment, and they gave us a lot of liberty to choose a topic related to the community college, and I learned more about community colleges. At that time, nearly two thirds of Latinos were in community colleges and a little over half of all Blacks in college were at community colleges. For whatever reason, that just is like, “DANG!” You know? The lights went on and I started reading more and more and I just thought, “No wonder community colleges are called ‘peoples’ colleges.” I had kind of thought of myself as somebody who was egalitarian and fair-minded but then I realized this is an actual tier of education that is really kind of putting its money where its mouth is for different people from different walks of life. They provide access for folks who otherwise may not have had any other kind of postsecondary opportunity. And so, I just, I was turned on and I actually shifted focus and switched advisors; everything changed after that one class. That was 17 years ago.
I also think there is something about studying community colleges that I find to be empowering. When I think about myself in terms of what makes me who I am—being black, being female, being a first generation student, coming from a working class family—I know a little bit about what it is like to be on the margins and I can’t help but ask why everybody can’t be in the full fold of participation. I have very little tolerance for seeing any aspects of education where any segment of students are not in the full fold of participation. That’s how I ended up doing affirmative action policy work, for example. So I guess when you asked why is it that I like to study this, it is because I actually see myself in each of those populations.
Mr. Taylor: What do you see as the biggest threats or challenges to equity in higher education? As educational scholars and practitioners and policymakers, why should we be concerned about equity?
Dr. Zamani-Gallaher: One reason why we all need to be proponents for and foster educational equity is because we can’t afford to have a throwaway group. I mean, there is going to be a new majority that is comprised collectively of people of color, so racial and ethnic minorities are going to be the new majority. That’s already happened in some states like California, particularly when you look at school-aged children, which is our future. And so, when we think about a call to action for embracing equitable outcomes, the only way we’re going to be able to compete in terms of this global knowledge economy is to foster educational equity.
When I think about what‘s going on in my own state of Michigan, it’s pretty scary to not have an equity agenda. You have to have the equity agenda because we have lost roughly 20% of our jobs in the last 10 years. In fact, the Census Bureau talks about how Michigan experienced a decade of decline between 2000-2010. We rank in the bottom quartile among the 50 states for postsecondary attainment. Michigan has been an outlier, an anomaly, because of the automobile industry. While the domestic auto industry is back on track now; it all but died just three years ago; it literally almost came to a crash if not for the government bailout. So for Michiganders, we definitely have to get behind an equity agenda because when we look at the highest level of education or educational attainment of our adults and we compare it to what’s going on nationwide, we have more citizens who have only a high school diploma and no college than most states.
There is also a pendulum swing in terms of shifting realities and opportunities for higher education. Relative to a generation ago, fewer students find postsecondary education within reach. This is the case from a financial standpoint but also in terms of who participates relative to other background characteristics. There is a case to be made for higher skill and higher demand labor, but student outcomes on college and career readiness are pretty dismal. You can’t have a conversation about equity and not talk about access and affordability. So, we have these challenges to access, which makes attaining an equity agenda much more challenging and cumbersome than is desirable.
Mr. Taylor: What opportunities exist that can support educational scholars, practitioners, and policy makers who wish to promote and implement an equity agenda?
Dr. Zamani-Gallaher: There are ways in which we can, at a local level and at a state level, press reset and think about how to revitalize our higher education institutions. Community colleges in particular can be well positioned to help revitalize local and/or state economies. We’ve just got to figure out some ways to mitigate the variation in our economic circumstances right now and to circumvent some of the disadvantages that we see, because they compound barriers to access. I know in my state, one of the things we definitely need to develop is the college-bound culture. There has long been a disincentive to go on to postsecondary education in Michigan because you could get a good job on the automobile manufacturing line, for example. There are some ways in which all of us have to be reflective and think about how we can encourage agency in students at a time when policies and appropriations are being streamlined.
Mr. Taylor: Can you comment on existing innovative practices and strategies that promote equity?
Dr. Zamani-Gallaher: When we think about how we can improve equity and access, one opportunity is to think about translating what is equitable access into retention and success. So, for instance, I think that we have an opportunity to have a dialogue and to shift the paradigm on our roles and responsibilities as administrators and faculty, but also on how our individual institutions can improve access. And so, I believe there are ways in which we’ve got to be more creative around financial mechanisms to support students. There are opportunities to address certain inequities. For instance, with our current STEM transfer work, we’re looking at addressing the confluence between race and gender inequities. So, I think there can be opportunities for targeting institutional responses to address access issues and hopefully to propel more students to be successful.
Mr. Taylor: You have a lot of experience teaching and engaging with community college leaders, and a large proportion of OCCRL’s newsletter audience is community college leaders. Can you reflect on what you have learned from community college faculty and administrators about educational equity?
Dr. Zamani-Gallaher: One thing I have learned is that what might be considered an issue of inequity in one college might actually be moot someplace else. When I consider what the primary mission is of community colleges, while most institutions want local economic growth, they are still looking to prepare folks to be globally competitive through the kind of training that they get there. But based on the institution, there are different levels of commitment relative to how institutions create these campus communities that are responsive and that promote equity and foster inclusion.
There are definitely differences in terms of the number of disadvantaged populations in various communities; so, there are some things we can learn as we look at all those nuances. What is thought of as a meaningful kind of academic inclusive intellectual environment, is not necessarily the same at all colleges because of different academic cultures. I think about how we can champion different initiatives that support and recognize an equity agenda. For instance, just because a community is fairly homogenous, that doesn’t mean community college leaders and faculty can’t champion educational equity, that they can’t support initiatives that foster individual expression concerning gender, identity, disability, learning style, political expression, veteran service, etc. Even though community colleges tend to mirror their immediate communities, it is important to provide inclusive curricular and co-curricular programming that will facilitate a worldview beyond that which is localized. That way people can be prepared if they leave their local community, so they are able to thrive in a global economy. Even if they choose to stay in the community, they can have an understanding of and embrace equity and understand how it is a public good.
Eboni M. Zamani-Gallaher may be reached at email@example.com.
Jason L. Taylor is a Ph.D. Candidate in Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and currently works as a Graduate Research Assistant for OCCRL. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.