Students studying in the Academic Success Center
Bringing students together to build academic success. (Photo taken before COVID restrictions.)

Southwestern College’s multi-year effort to reform curriculum, create a sense of student and employee belonging with hiring and policy reforms and remove institutional barriers to enrollment have earned the college a nationally recognized Institutional Excellence Award.

The National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education announced Southwestern College’s selection as the national award winner for two-year colleges at its virtual convention this month. The association, which is the voice of diversity officers for more than 1,000 organizations nationally, recognized Southwestern College for its institutional transformation through the study of diversity.

“Long before the most recent revelations that racism is alive and well in this country, Southwestern College acknowledged its own history and started working towards a racial reckoning by having uncomfortable conversations that brought awareness and solutions to the inequitable policies and practices in our college–and in our academic community,” said Governing Board President Leticia Cazares.

Leaders across the entire Southwestern College organization have been reviewing data to understand the barriers for student and employee success. Among the research was a finding that more than 4,000 students had been prohibited from registering for classes because they owed $100 in fees or less.

As a result, the college changed its policy to allow these students to enroll, and the college partnered with a third-party vendor to help students owing more money to enroll in a payment plan.

Understanding the importance of having employees and faculty who reflect the community Southwestern College serves, the district has been rewriting job descriptions, requiring special implicit bias training for all hiring committee members and expanding the pool of applicants to screen people “in” rather than screening them out.

“We celebrate the diversity of our community, and we are working diligently to bring new talent and fresh ideas to Southwestern,” said Superintendent/President Dr. Mark Sanchez.

The greatest impact to improving the success of all students is to expand equitable and inclusive practices in the classrooms. The college has enrolled its second cohort of faculty in the Advancing Equity Teaching Academy where  participants deepen their awareness of equitable education and enhance their ability to teach diverse students through a culturally responsive lens.

College leadership and the Governing Board have also sought support from throughout the community to assist in providing a holistic experience for all students. The college began the SWC Cares initiative that includes a food pantry–which went mobile during the pandemic–hotel vouchers and emergency grants. The College Police Department initiated training and community policing reforms to strengthen relationships with students.

The advancements Southwestern College has made toward equity, diversity and inclusion is the result of intentional efforts to bring more voices to the table, leaders said.

“Our community can be assured that Southwestern College is committed to building on a strong foundation of inclusion and we will continue to examine our institutional practices and structures while doing the deep work of building an equitable, antiracist organization,” said Janelle Williams Melendrez, Southwestern College’s executive officer of equity and engagement.