Here’s a fun fact about Director of Multicultural Affairs Randi Congleton: She attended the oldest agricultural high school in the country (it’s called W.B. Saul High School, in Philadelphia). With dreams of becoming a veterinarian, she went on to Penn State University, where a series of opportunities began to refocus her goals toward working with college students.
One might say her epiphany arrived as she was working in Student Affairs for the first time while pursuing her Master’s degree in Community Services at Michigan State University. Working with college students, she “Fell. In. Love!” she laughs.
Dr. Congleton—whose background includes youth development as well as collegiate departments including Greek Life, Academic Affairs and Student Affairs—came to Chatham in spring 2017, after earning her PhD in Education and Organizational Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
As part of her work at Illinois, Dr. Congleton coordinated the summer pre-doctoral institute for new students of color. “We supported them in building community, conducting research, and professional development,” she says. “The strength lay in connecting students across disciplines, so that they had not only their cohort, but also this whole other community.”
“I’m very much about institutional responsibility. What can we do a bit differently? How can we think about our own biases, that may not be fully informed, but that get in the way of understanding challenges faced by students who do not come from generations of having gone to college, of having wealth?”
“The concern—and this is across higher education,” Dr. Congleton says, “is that we’ve been focusing too much on diversity (how many different students can we get in the room), and not enough on inclusion (are our institutions prepared to really support them when they arrive on our campuses).”
In addition to her position as director of Multicultural Affairs, Dr. Congleton is a member of Chatham’s Diversity and Inclusion Council. Asked to share some of their initiatives, she mentions that they’ve been considering a policy for institutional large-scale donations and naming of buildings, as a result of some student concerns around the naming of Sanger Hall. “If we’re considering putting a name on a building,” she says, “we need to do our due diligence into considering that person’s background and the extent to which it reflects Chatham’s ideals.”
The Council is also working with Assistant Professor of Criminology, Social Work, and Psychology Nicole Bayliss’s undergraduate capstone seminar course, which in 2016 did a comprehensive review of gender inclusive language across campus, including policies, forms and websites. “They put together a report and made a set of recommendations,” says Dr. Congleton.
“The college campus space is not normative for all communities. My concern—and my passion—is about how do we create equity on campus, and how do we listen to the voices and meet the needs of those students—men and women of color, who identify with the LGBTQIA community, or with disabilities—who may not have been traditionally heard? How does the system need to be different to help change the lives of the students who come here?”
Shortly after her arrival in March, Dr. Congleton was approached to co-sponsor a multicultural graduation ceremony, which she considered a smashing success. “We invited family and alumni. (Chatham) President Finegold said a welcome, and we held a brunch with a keynote speaker. The alumni put kente stoles (traditional Ghanaian garments often used in celebratory ceremonies for African-American students) on graduating students, and we worked with Academic Affairs to put together stoles for students who weren’t African American. We had serapes for students from Latin American cultures, and made a stole for a student from Laos with her country’s flag on it. It was a really nice way for alumni to welcome the graduates into the community of being a Chatham alum.”
This fall, Dr. Congleton is co-teaching a course along with Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology Jennifer Morse on facilitating intergroup dialogue around social justice issues. The course is open to undergraduate and graduate students, and next term, they will have the opportunity to facilitate a course for their peers who are discussing social justice issues—thus putting theory immediately into practice. The students will also have opportunities to lead workshops across campus for their peers.
It’s a good example of how Dr. Congleton sees the way forward. “I’m really looking at how we can engage folks across campus and build coalitions to do this kind of work,” she says. “It has to be done thoughtfully. We can do more harm than good if we are not intentional about how we talk to others about social justice issues.”
And she is optimistic. “There’ve been so many volunteers!” she says. “Not only students but also faculty and staff have stepped up to help, even if just to say ‘I’m nervous and don’t know what to do, but I think this is important and I want to be a part of it.’ Getting as many people invested as possible is how we’re going to make this work.”