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Home » Discover Rackham » Developing DEI as a Critical Skill

Employers within academia and beyond increasingly expect graduates to demonstrate a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and to be able to work skillfully across differences. In response to student requests for more opportunities to develop their DEI knowledge and competencies, Rackham Graduate School launched a DEI Professional Development Certificate Program during the 2017–18 academic year. 

Debbie Willis developed and led the program before becoming U-M’s assistant vice provost for equity, inclusion, and academic affairs in spring 2022. She worked closely with Laura Schram, Rackham’s director of professional development and engagement. Recently, they co-authored what is believed to be a first of its kind study to assess the outcomes thus far of the program, which entering this academic year has seen 567 students complete the certificate. Their article was published in Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education, and the two discuss their key takeaways in this Q&A. 



What methodologies did you use to determine if the program is being successful, and what were your main findings?

Laura Schram: To evaluate the program, we used three methods. First, we used a tool called the intercultural development inventory (IDI) suggested by our colleagues at the Trotter Multicultural Center to assess how students’ intercultural development changed over the course of the program. We also asked students to make self-assessments of how they learned and grew after each training session. Finally, we conducted three focus groups with program completers to explore what they think led to learning in the program. 

Taken together, we found that students perceive that they learned about DEI in significant ways (increased knowledge, application, caring, etc.) through their participation in the program. In addition to their own self perceptions of increased DEI knowledge and skills, the IDI program evaluation data suggests that those who participated in the program developed their intercultural competency skills in substantive ways. Finally, our focus group findings suggest that the factors that made the program particularly impactful for DEI socialization included having skillful instructors, meaning presenters who were knowledgeable about DEI concepts and modeled vulnerability, and students’ frequent opportunities for reflection during and after training sessions.

Debbie Willis: The only thing I would add is that we felt it important to include both internal and external measures to evaluate the program. And our internal tool was grounded in theory, using Dee Fink’s model as outlined in her book Creating Significant Learning Experiences.

A photo of Debbie Willis next to the quote, Students continually asked for more and often asked to go deeper into the concepts and requested advanced training.

Outside of qualitative data, what did you hear from program participants that stood out to you?

DW: One thing that stood out to me was the unintended benefit of community. Students were grateful to meet other students outside of their departments and all across campus that they could connect with about issues around diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice. Many of them shared that they met with other students in the program often and turned to them when they faced challenges. Several of them shared that this community was very important to them, and they’ve made great lifetime connections and friends. 

What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned about this work since starting the certificate program?

DW: I was most surprised about the demand for DEI professional development and the hunger from the students for this training. They continually asked for more and often asked to go deeper into the concepts and requested advanced training. I thought students would push back on the number of hours we were asking of them and the capstone project. They didn’t. I was also surprised that we received many requests from staff and even faculty to join the DEI Certificate Program.

LS: I think what surprised me the most was that the program did have such a substantial impact on students’ intercultural development, or their abilities to work across differences. When Debbie and I partnered on designing a rigorous program evaluation for the program, I was frankly skeptical that we’d be able to impact students much through just 30 hours of engagement with us. I was pleasantly surprised at what a big impact the program had on students’ learning.

As presenters and facilitators of the program, what did you learn in terms of what kinds of offerings were most effective?

LS: Vulnerability is powerful, especially when we’re learning about DEI. We heard loud and clear in our focus groups that presenters who were willing to share their own mistakes and biases were the ones who students felt they could learn the most from. After hearing this in the focus groups, we actually completely redesigned our unconscious bias training such that the presenters must tell a story about their own biases. The training we do today is completely different from the one presenters offered in the past based on what we learned about the importance of presenter vulnerability.

DW: I totally agree about vulnerability. It’s the key to really reach students with these topics. It came across so clearly. I also learned that it’s important to be in tune with the issues in the world and on campus that affect the students and bring those into our training. Though our core curriculum remained constant, we were also able to adapt and pivot to include current issues.

Did your program offerings—or students’ reactions to them—change significantly following the summer of 2020 and the movement for America to reckon with past and present racism?

LS: We doubled down on our commitment to anti-racism training after the summer of 2020. We even modified our program learning goals to explicitly name anti-racism as a major goal of the program. 

DW: Yes, we were pleased that after the racial reckoning in 2020, we were now able to explicitly name anti-racism. We had been covering it all along. We started LEAD—Leading Equity And Diversity—a series of conversations where attendees had the opportunity to hear from a diverse group of guests who lead and/or support DEI and social justice initiatives. In June 2020, we committed to hosting a webinar on racial equity and anti-racism each month for a year and asked participants to join us for a one-year commitment of their own. Almost 600 people responded to the Commitment to Racial Equity/Anti-Racism form. We had a large number of people register for the webinar each month, sometimes over 1,000. And while most were here at the University of Michigan, we had participants from over 100 schools and colleges across the United States. Our past LEAD webinar recordings can be found on ourLEAD Webinar Playlist.

A photo of Laura Schram next to the quote, We heard loud and clear in our focus groups that presenters who were willing to share their own mistakes and biases were the ones who students felt they could learn the most from.

According to your research, is the type of training and socialization this program provides equally important for those who wish to pursue careers in academia as it is for those whose career goals lie elsewhere? 

DW: Yes, absolutely. In fact, there were so many students pursuing other careers that, in the first year, we adapted one of our core curriculum workshops to directly address those who were not considering academic careers. In addition to our Writing a Diversity Statement workshop, we added a Demonstrating Your Commitment to Diversity workshop that was tailored to students not pursuing academia.

LS: A big proportion of our DEI Certificate students—about 40 percent—are master’s and professional students. These are folks going on to be social workers, entrepreneurs, public health professionals, data scientists, nonprofit leaders, and more. People working in jobs beyond the academy know that DEI knowledge and skills are critical for leading diverse teams or working with clients from different backgrounds from their own. These skills are valuable no matter what job you pursue beyond grad school.

Do you feel there is a benefit for students to pursue this type of training with other students from a wide variety of disciplines as well as within their own departments or programs?

LS: Students in the program come from all across the university, which means we have a high degree of diversity of thought in every workshop. That promotes students’ understanding that there are different ways of knowing and different applications of the material we teach. That said, we also hear from students that DEI conversations within their own departments and programs are extremely important, since students spend the majority of their time in their home departments. Every field has their own DEI goals and challenges, and having deep discussions with others in your field can lead to coalition building and a shared vision for advancing equity within a discipline.

Could you each offer one key piece of advice you would share with others looking to implement a similar certificate program?

DW: Yes, assess your campus. Who are the champions of DEI now? Really consider how you can work together with other units on your campus. Become familiar with their mission and their goals. Then ask them to partner with you. It takes a collective and collaborative effort for a program this complex and elaborate to be successful. I would also say it’s critical that they talk to the students. The DEI Certificate Program was created after listening to students, the pilot of the program was revised before we rolled it out, and the students have informed our programming throughout the program’s existence. 

LS: Find allies across your campus to help you build a program that can promote significant learning. We could never have done this program with Rackham staff alone. We have had collaborators from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, the Trotter Multicultural Center, the Ginsberg Center for community service and learning, and even the University Career Center. We also have had several faculty present a workshop for us. Find the folks who are committed to DEI in their work as educators on campus, and build something together with them. You don’t have to do it alone.