December 03, 2022
Columns | Kendall County Now

Waubonsee Voices: Representation matters in higher education

Marleigha Evans

Many people do not know this about me, but I am originally from Jackson, Miss. I am a product of two teenage parents and the local public school system that was far from perfect. Growing up in Jackson, diversity was not something I encountered very often. Everyone in my neighborhood was black. Everyone at my church was black. Easily 95% of the people at my school looked like me and were from similar backgrounds. I grew up with plenty of love, family, and good southern food, but there was not much diversity where I was raised.

I did well in high school and graduated among the top 10% of students in my high school. Because of my academic achievements, I received a full scholarship to my local community college, Hinds Community College in Raymond, Miss. Hinds Community College reminds me a lot of Waubonsee Community College. Like Waubonsee, Hinds Community College has four campuses, and for the students, faculty, and staff, it was a second home, much like our beloved Waubonsee.

At Hinds Community College, I was in for a much-needed culture shock. For the first time in my life, I was in the minority. Sitting in a classroom full of white students who attended much more affluent school districts than me, I immediately became intimidated and experienced a social identity threat. Could I be successful in honors classes coming from my hometown? Could I hang out with other students whose families had buildings named after them on campus? Could we honestly become friends? After weeks of struggling with anxiety and stress, I finally realized that no, I would not fit in. I decided to stand out in the most beautiful and unique way I could; I decided to be myself. Being my authentic self was more important than fitting in. We all learned so much from each other and have remained friends to this day. People often say that life would be boring if we were all the same, and these people are correct.

Representation matters in higher education because it allows students to accomplish two things: encounter individuals who are different from them, many for the first time, and it allows them to discover their true authentic identity. The world is so diverse, but many times our hometowns are not. Therefore, when students attend college, it is important to be exposed to the real world that is so much bigger than Jackson, Miss., Sugar Grove, or Aurora. Exposure is a key element to creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive world.

As higher education professionals, we have to ensure that students who come to our institutions are presented with opportunities to experience the real world. We must help students understand that diversity, equity, and inclusion are not just ideals, but values they must carry with them beyond their college journey.

At Waubonsee, we celebrate diversity and understand that representation matters. Students who see someone who looks like them or shares similar characteristics will feel a better sense of belonging. These important factors can affect persistence and retention. We should all continue to work to increase diverse representation on our campuses.

I am proud to say that at Waubonsee, students, staff and faculty, and members of our community can find a place where they belong regardless of their background. I encourage you to visit our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) webpage at waubonsee.edu/dei to get plugged into a community bigger than yourself. We are intentional about creating ways to connect with people who are similar and different from ourselves so we can truly demonstrate the value and importance of representation in higher education.

• Marleigha Evans is the Senior Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Coordinator at Waubonsee Community College.