Cultural Competency: EMBRACING DIVERSITY
Nicole Stokes, Ph.D., who recently joined Saint Joseph’s as associate provost for diversity, equity and inclusion, comes to Hawk Hill with 25 years of academic and administrative experience and deep expertise in the field.
What drew you to the position at Saint Joseph’s? What is it about the way the University is positioned at this moment in time that made it the right choice?
Nicole Stokes: I was immediately drawn to this position and to SJU because it was clear that diversity, equity and inclusion were important priorities. This was demonstrated within the institutional strategic plan and the enthusiasm and support for the associate provost for diversity, equity and inclusion search and onboarding. In the past, I have been asked by other higher education institutions and non-profits to conduct assessments, consult and advise their leadership teams on their "next steps" for starting or advancing diversity, equity and inclusion work within their organizations and among their constituents. From what I have observed of SJU so far, we are doing everything right and in alignment with best practices. There is demonstrated institutional priority and resources allocated; there is a direct and stated connection of diversity, equity and inclusion work to the institutional strategic plan; there is broad-based support and enthusiasm for engaging in and growing diversity, equity and inclusion work on campus. These are basic but significant ingredients for success. Additionally, with the support of President Reed, my predecessor laid an incredible foundation for this work. Since beginning my tenure in February, I have felt such a warm welcome from students, alumni, faculty and staff from across the institution. I am thrilled and excited to be here and moving this work forward.
Why is now the perfect time in your career to take the step into the role of associate provost for diversity, equity and inclusion?
Stokes: I am thrilled to see how DEI work has evolved. Early on, there was a lot of focus on access and diversity by numbers. Today, this work is more nuanced and the conversation among higher education and corporate industries have moved toward creating inclusivity and community. I believe that the next steps will be to create inclusive and equitable environments that are nimble enough to serve diverse needs in ways that equitably serve all community members. I have more than 25 years of administrative and teaching experience in higher education and I have served in a variety of roles within academe, including residential life, college access and opportunity programs, academic advising and as a registrar. Later I served as a member of the sociology faculty, associate dean for arts and sciences and my prior appointment as associate vice president for institutional effectiveness and diversity at Holy Family University. My teaching philosophy, internal and external service and scholarship have reflected my strong commitment to equity. They also demonstrate my desire and passion to meet all people where they are and to support student academic success and the overall university experience for all of our constituents. I am a social scientist and I value data that is meaningful and can inform our practice. Without useful data, we (as university leaders) are driving a car without a GPS system. My work has always been data informed and driven (in terms of purpose) by the people we serve on a daily basis.
With a lifelong career in higher education, how do you think the industry has done overall in advancing diversity and inclusion?
Stokes: This is a pivotal juncture for higher education in a variety of ways. It is imperative for higher education to be nimble in response to the changing demographics of the students we serve and the careers and industries that we are preparing them to join. Most importantly, higher education has to be proactive in using data-informed measures to get ahead of these shifts. DEI work engages university students in concrete and tangible ways with a skills-based approach to diversity and inclusion framed as increased opportunities for intercultural and global competence.
Can you elaborate on how a diverse university will better prepare students for the future labor force?
Stokes: Saint Joseph’s students are encouraged and trained to cultivate a growthmindset and to think about diversity issues beyond the usual suspects — race, ethnicity, social class, gender and sexuality. The goal of our work is for our students to have an enhanced appreciation of why intercultural competence matters and how to apply learned skills to everyday interactions while on campus and beyond into their chosen professions.
This approach to DEI work aligns well with research and best practices for global education as outlined by the American Council on Education’s Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement, the Association of American Colleges & Universities, and the Asia Society Center for Global Education. As a result, we define cultural competence as “the ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures and with intentional attentiveness to diversity and inclusion.”
We also identify that practicing cultural competence is a three-step process that begins with the learner acquiring cultural knowledge — defined as increased familiarization with selected cultural characteristics, histories, values, belief systems and behaviors. Step two is cultural awareness — defined as the learner developing an understanding of attitudes and values of another diverse group leading to openness and flexibility toward differences.
This is where the growth-mindset begins to truly develop. Step three is cultural sensitivity — defined as knowing that cultural similarities and differences exist without assigning values judgments to this fact. Here, the learner moves to acceptance of similarities and differences on their face without categorizing either as “good” or “bad;” “right” or “wrong.” These skills are a critical part of the overall university experience and the career expectation that our University is preparing future career professionals who are global-ready and culturally competent to work within a diverse environment.
It is imperative for higher education to be nimble in response to the changing demographics of the students we serve and the careers and industries that we are preparing them to join.”
What interests you most about the Jesuit approach to education?
Stokes: As a Jesuit university, we set a high bar: to educate and care for the whole person, across all diversity and aspects of identity. Our University is clear about our community standard that biasbased conduct, targeting people based on perceptions about identity or beliefs, creates barriers to inclusion, access and trust. Bias-based activity affects not only the targeted individual or group, but often adversely affects our entire University community and is not tolerated by any members of our community.
What opportunities and challenges do you see ahead for Saint Joseph’s?
Stokes: I see tremendous opportunities ahead for the University as we progress with this work. Based on the recent health crisis, I have witnessed how SJU has pulled together to make decisions with our students, faculty and staff front of mind as we all are trying to navigate this new normal, support the members of our community affected and get us through this national crisis with our community intact.
As a faith-based institution, the University puts tremendous value on tradition, which can, at times, pose challenges when confronting change. Our University, and the larger community of which we are a part (the City of Philadelphia), is changing, moving towards a more diverse population. The University has responded with this comprehensive and innovative approach to diversity and inclusion as a means for preparing culturally competent and globalready graduates for Pennsylvania’s (and beyond) future.
What are your goals for the next year, three years, and five years?
Stokes: My consistent goal for our work ahead is for all members of the SJU community to see tangible evidence of our work throughout the University. Specifically for our students, I want them to be able to articulate in concrete ways how SJU developed their growth mindset and intercultural competence. When they are alumni, I hope they will reflect on their years at SJU and be able to speak to both the academic and co-curricular experiences that broadened their worldview and gave them the prerequisite skills to critically assess, problem solve and to be successful among a diverse and global workforce. I would consider this “a job well done.”
What might surprise people to know about you?
Stokes: I don’t take myself too seriously. I am passionate about my work and the issues that inform my work, but I believe that we can work hard while laughing and enjoying the people around us. I truly believe passion and humor are contagious. I love what I do. This is why I made the active choice to work and teach at public and private institutions with strong institutional missions and core values toward serving student needs. I take my role in that educational process very seriously and with great responsibility and care.
Like many of the students we serve, I was a first-generation college student and can relate to the many stresses and insecurities associated with that identity. I am blessed with a strong family who supported me in every way and who encouraged me to take advantage of every educational and professional opportunity presented to me. In addition to my family, I have been also blessed for most of my academic career with caring, thoughtful and generous teachers and mentors. They gave of themselves and their expertise to help me on my journey and to place many opportunities in my path. I believe that the best way to honor them is to be generous with others. In my work with students, faculty colleagues, staff and administrators, I apply a similar approach. It is important to me that in all of my interactions all people are respected, treated fairly and valued for their contributions to our work and the overall mission of the University. My leadership philosophy and working style have been shaped by many factors that have occurred throughout my personal and professional life but it is also reflective of my personal core values and ethical responsibility to be a good human who contributes back to society in tangible ways.
Diversity, equity and inclusion is a top priority of the University and Dr. Reed. What important steps has the University taken to advance DEI during your time in this role and prior to you assuming this role?
Stokes: My predecessor, with the leadership and support of President Reed, laid an incredible foundation for this work. The climate survey and the underrepresented student reports provided me with many insights and a good starting place to continue this work. Based on some of the information from these documents, I would like to begin by asking students, faculty and staff about their perceptions about how to move diversity, equity and inclusion efforts forward at SJU. This is essential and early work that needs to be done in order for our campus to achieve institutional buy-in around our approach for articulating this work moving forward and connecting the academic and co-curricular campus experience under a cohesive strategy for diversity, equity and inclusion at Saint Joseph’s University.
All across America and beyond, protests have erupted in response to police brutality and racism. How do we build on what the protests have gained and ensure that this important message is received and real change happens?
Stokes: As a sociologist and a diversity and inclusion professional, I can reflect and say with certainty that we are at a pivotal societal moment where real social change is possible if we seize it. The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis speaks to the structural racism and continued violence in our society against African-American men in particular. In addition to these gross historical and legal injustices, COVID-19 continues to exacerbate these inequities. As we plan to reopen various sectors of society (including institutions of higher education), we must start having these difficult conversations about these and the disproportionate impact of this pandemic. Our Saint Joseph’s community has an opportunity to lead and tap into our Jesuit values and institutional commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion as a path forward toward making social justice and racial equity a reality for all in our society.
Kelly Welsh ’05 (M.A.) is executive director of communications.