CSE community comes together to champion diversity

New CSE Diversity and Inclusivity Alliance aims to create a more welcoming environment for all

November 19, 2019

Meghan Cahill nearly dropped out of school within her first month at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. No matter how much she studied, the concepts in her homework and test material just didn’t make sense. Cahill was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in second grade, which made it hard to excel in timed exams. 

But, thanks to advice from her CSE 1001 instructor and accommodations provided by the University’s Disability Resource Center (DRC), Cahill decided to stay.

“I never thought that the University would be willing to give me accommodations for my ADHD,” she said. “After going to the DRC, I was blown away by how much they were not only willing but wanted to help me.”

Now a junior studying chemistry, Cahill became the first student to officially join the recently formed CSE Diversity and Inclusivity (D&I) Alliance, a grassroots effort between the college’s students, staff, faculty, researchers, and alumni to bolster a supportive culture and community in which people from all backgrounds can thrive. 

The Alliance officially kicked off in October, and it already has more than 200 members representing all CSE departments, including students, faculty, postdoctoral researchers, staff, administrative leaders, and alumni. 

“I decided to get involved in diversity and inclusion work because no one should have to give up on their dreams because of their identity,” Cahill said. “I shouldn't have had to hit rock bottom before someone offered me help.

"I wanted to do D&I work because I didn't want anyone else feeling how I did that first semester.”

Cahill is on the D&I lead team, spearheaded by co-leaders Cara Santelli and Edgar Arriaga, professors in the Department Earth and Environmental Sciences and Department of Chemistry, respectively. 

“Everyone is represented here at the Alliance, because this is what science looks like and this is who we are,” Cahill said. “It is all of our work to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to have their voices heard.”

More than a number

The D&I Alliance began as a series of conversations surrounding diversity and campus climate among CSE community members in spring 2018. It has since grown and is supported by CSE administration.

Recently, a strategic plan was introduced to provide a framework to move forward. It outlines efforts such as training, events and seminars, increased communication, and more.

Arriaga, one of the original advocates for the Alliance, stresses that the initiative isn’t just for those in marginalized communities. Change needs allies, or those who take action to support others who face barriers to success, even if they themselves do not face them. 

“It’s not just about a person of color or a person of the LGBTQ community. It’s about all of us,” Arriaga said.

“We are here because we want this climate to be better, so this Alliance is about engaging every single one of us to be part of this effort," he said. 

While diversity programs at large schools can often be driven by statistics, the Alliance isn’t only about achieving the numbers. The D&I lead team says that this movement is rooted in culture, in changing the way people think and reversing norms that have been present for so long.

In order to develop and accomplish this, the Alliance has formed working groups in five areas: student and postdoc, faculty and staff, education and professional development, communications, and funding. 

“What this Alliance is doing is so critical,” said CSE Dean Mostafa Kaveh. “We’re all working toward excellence in this college—in our teaching and learning, in our discovery, and in our innovations. This is why CSE students, staff, and faculty must feel this is where they belong so we can all work together toward this excellence.”

The importance of inclusion

CSE alumna Jennifer Arsjad, who was heavily involved in diversity efforts during her time in CSE, said the most important factor in students deciding to stay in school is having a feeling of belonging. 

“Belonging is when you feel valued, when you feel heard, and when you feel part of the community,” she said.

“Scientists and engineers like talking about facts and figures, but everyone has a story,” Arsjad said.

Originally from Indonesia, Arsjad struggled to fit in during her first year at the University of Minnesota. When she started getting involved in more student organizations, she began to feel valued, but she said this isn’t the case for a lot of students.

“We need to think about how we can equip our students to quiet that inner voice that tells them ‘You can’t do it’ or ‘You should not speak up,’” Arsjad said.

According to Arsjad, this starts with building a community that lifts up the voices of people who might not usually be heard, which is why the D&I Alliance is open for anyone in CSE to join. 

“We plan to move forward together to make sure we improve the climate for everyone here in CSE and really in the entire university,” said Santelli, the Alliance’s other co-leader. “The first step forward for individuals is to join the Alliance, and there will be plenty of opportunities for anyone who wants to be involved.”

Story by Olivia Hultgren

Read more about the CSE Diversity and Inclusivity Alliance and see the Strategic Plan on the Diversity and Inclusivity Alliance webpage.

If you are interested in joining the Alliance, complete the D&I Champions Google Form

If you are interested in working with an Action Group, fill out the D&I Working Groups Google Form.

If you’d like to support diversity programs in the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering, visit our CSE Giving website.