Incorporating Diversity Topics in the Higher Education/Student Affairs (HESA) Classroom | Shelton & French

written by: Leslie Jo (LJ) Shelton, Ph.D. & Amy French, Ph.D.

Recently, LJ’s teaching and faculty support center asked her to write an informal blurb for a new faculty newsletter on the topic of incorporating diversity topics into the classroom, which is a topic that she and Amy noted often arises in professional association spaces such as ACPA and NASPA faculty groups. This topic connects to our ongoing efforts as we grow as educators and lifelong learners, and we hope these reflection points and examples are helpful to others who are also engaged in this process. Below we offer some joint thoughts on how we conceptualize diversity within an evolving teaching philosophy. We then both share some practices we use regarding our syllabi and in-class, as well as a shared note on lifelong learning. We close by posing a few reflection questions. Although the focus of our reflections centers our experiences with classroom teaching, as former student affairs practitioners, we hope HESA practitioners might also find this useful in co-curricular spaces ranging from facilitating trainings to programming and staff development. We hope you find our reflections interesting and useful as you continue in the important work serving as HESA educators!

Conceptualizing Diversity within an Evolving Teaching Philosophy

We enter this praxis by conceptualizing what we mean by diversity in the classroom, which draws from our field of higher education/student affairs (HESA) regarding social identities as situated within a matrix of power, privilege, and oppression, particularly at the systemic level (for more information, see the ACPA document “A Bold Vision Forward: A Framework for the Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization” and the ACPA/NASPA Competencies—Social Justice and Inclusion). Before incorporating this work into the classroom, we start with ongoing intentional reflections on our positionality and reflexivity regarding our social identities and how these identities shape who we are as people and educators. These reflections are embedded in our teaching philosophies that reflect learning from thinkers like Drs. bell hooks, Bettina Love, Paulo Freire, and Eve Tuck who highlight the potential for critical education to be liberatory. We also remain attentive to knowing that how we show up in a classroom space, especially regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, is influenced by our own salient social identities and this will be different for others (ex: see work on the cultural taxation faced by Women of Color faculty such as the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity and Rockquemore & Laszloffy, 2008). Engaging in meaningful reflection and critical dialogue with our colleagues allows us to remain mindful of how our privileged and minoritized identities shape our work as educators, especially as we work to incorporate productive DEI-related learning in the classroom. In addition to this ongoing personal and professional development, some practices we incorporate include the following:


LJ: I most frequently teach master’s level students in Introduction to HESA, Student Development Theory, Research in HESA, and Reflective Practice (Internship). My syllabi are working documents that provide opportunities for students to reflect on their own social identities as an avenue to understand issues of systemic oppression and what that means for their work as HESA educators. In addition to in-class activities that explicitly explore these areas, I also strive to create inclusive syllabus language and learning opportunities via readings and assignments. Through my own ongoing professional development, I work to employ anti-oppression pedagogy and to update syllabi that include materials from traditionally underrepresented groups such as trans* individuals and Women of Color, and historically excluded topics such as Indigenous ways of knowing.

Syllabus content also includes inclusive information such as using trans* inclusive language related to student names and pronouns. For example, I provide information on how to officially change these via university records and to let students know that is not required for them to update me for our course. I also list locations of inclusive restroom options closest to our classroom and give an in-class break long enough for students to visit another building as needed. I am also working to update a statement on resources for the food pantry to serve food insecure students. These are examples of how I strive to center a humanizing approach to education and to reflect on how it is difficult to learn and thrive if our foundational needs are not met.

I also aim to make expectations clear in syllabi to provide insight into the “hidden curriculum” of graduate school, which can be particularly exclusionary for first-generation college students who may not have the capital to know how to navigate this experience. For example, I outline what I mean by effective, active participation in class (which students can be surprised means more than quantity of times speaking in a large group!) and provide opportunities for participation in multiple ways ranging from individual, small group, and large group work and some online work via the learning management system (Blackboard).

Amy: I regularly teach master’s level HESA students Introduction to Student Affairs, Leadership and Administration, Student Development Theory, and Practicum. I also have the opportunity to teach the doctoral students Student Development Theory. I conceptualize my syllabi as living documents intended to accomplish a few distinct tasks, the first of which is to clearly articulate the intended inclusive environment designed for all of us (student and instructor) to learn and grow together. This constructivist approach to learning is intended to invite scholars to bring their ideas, experiences, and knowledge into each of our classroom discussions. I am drawn to the dialogic approach to teaching and am committed to fostering a classroom environment where my students exist in their full embodiments and identities and are encouraged to engage in classroom discussions, challenge course content, and develop as individuals to prepare them for the field of student affairs.

Second, my syllabi are designed to offer a roadmap for the course. This roadmap starts with my name, contact information and office hours. There’s an additional note added to the office hours section inviting students to reconceptualize office hours with me. Smith et al.’s (2017) research highlighted the way students perceived office hours to be “weird” (p. 14) and used by students only for specific instances, often out of emergent need rather than the intended purpose of facilitating student engagement. I provide a link to a scheduling app called Calendly on my syllabus to assist students with scheduling meetings, and we unpack the stigma associated with office hours on the first day of class and occasionally throughout the semester as needed.

Lastly, I develop my syllabi with a keen eye toward authentic representation and ensuring that I assign materials from traditionally underrepresented groups in a manner that fosters growth and awareness without tokenizing authors or students. In terms of supporting students with (dis)abilities, I go beyond the university required accommodation language to include examples of ways that (dis)abilities may positively contribute to our learning environment. For example, “wiggle breaks” are encouraged and defined in my syllabi as opportunities for all of us to listen to our bodies and move about as needed to expend necessary energy and/or resituate our bodies to stimulate our brains and learning.


LJ: Building a classroom community is also central to effectively grappling with challenging subjects together, including DEI-related learning. I start the semester with students submitting a “personal notecard” that is private with me so they can share their name, pronouns (optional), and information such as any challenges they foresee in the semester (students may report caregiving concerns, health issues, etc.). Also, on the first day of class, we all create nametags that allow students to share the name they use in class (versus what may be in university systems), and the option to share pronouns if they would like to do so. I role model this in my own introduction and sharing as we create a classroom community together. We also add personal touches to nametags by putting “doodles” that reflect our experiences with the class topics. When students share these on the first day of class, they often reflect their own experiences, including those related to social identities, which helps build class community as a springboard for connection during challenging conversations. Once I get to know students, I am also able to update lesson plans that are responsive to who is in the space.

On the first day of class, we co-create classroom expectations with a working classroom contract, including guidelines around how we will communicate together and how to navigate difficult conversations. Throughout the semester, we also engage in identity-based activities and hold space for our thoughts and feelings in response to DEI-related current events that impact us personally and professionally. We also work on a “choose your own learning adventure” assignment that provides students with the opportunity to select assignments that are most meaningful to them, and reflects multiple ways of demonstrating knowing, such as storytelling, which can be a powerful way of learning and connecting for students from various cultural backgrounds. In addition, to allow students to see themselves in current HESA professionals, I collect short videos from generous colleagues around the world who share their educational and career paths and talk about their salient social identities, along with any advice for the students. I also seek feedback from students in various ways, including anonymous-optional mid-term formative assessments, to assist in responsive teaching related to DEI efforts. Overall, I try to demonstrate an ethic of care so students know they belong and can take creative intellectual risks in a supportive space.


Amy: I do many of the activities LJ mentioned above on the first day of class, too. Considering that the program I teach in uses a cohort model, I seek new ways to build upon first day activities in unique ways at the beginning of each semester. For example, in my Leadership in Student Affairs course, I orchestrate a paper airplane contest on the first day of class. The students go through a series of prompts and make a total of four airplanes: the first they create on their own with no resources available, the last they make in a small group with ample resources. If all goes as planned, the last airplane goes farther than the first prototype. This is a fun activity to demonstrate teamwork, the power of the cohort, and the need to utilize available resources.

I do my best to remain attentive to who is in the space each semester in terms of our identities and in terms of student interests. I encourage students to participate in various reflective activities throughout my courses. I also seek ways to validate minoritized identities while challenging majoritized ones. As a storyteller, I routinely weave in vignettes from my professional and graduate school experiences. Usually these are rather comical in nature but have a point that connects to the material assigned that week. I do my best to humanize the course and to extend my care and concern for student growth and development.

I bring my whole self to the classroom environment and try to remain abreast of what is happening in the world. For example, in spring 2021, I assigned readings on Asian American college students for a Current Trends course. That same week the Atlanta spa shootings occurred, where eight people were killed, six of whom were Asian American women. We held an open discussion in class to process, share, and from that class session we created an action plan. We worked with the division of student affairs to plan a vigil and became active in the Stop Asian Hate movement. I have also sent emails responding to national and global crises and made myself available to talk and be in community together (often over food of some kind). I find that when I am at a loss on how to respond or do not know what to do in certain moments, it is best to name that with the students. I try to be honest and transparent and seek ways to move forward together.

Additionally, I do my best to employ universal design in my classroom. Some of my practices include intentionally arranging the tables and chairs weekly, infusing certain media into classroom lectures, assigning small groups, leading in-class activities, presenting material using multi-modalities, utilizing the accessibility tool in MS Office for all communication, and ensuring the learning management system (Canvas) is organized and operating in an accessible manner. The more that I can do as an instructor to implement universal design in spaces, the more inclusive the space becomes for all students.

Lifelong Learning

Overall, our goal is to create a space that invites people into conversation as we learn together. Being a part of a learning community is a special opportunity and responsibility that allows for creativity and connection, which leads to a dynamic space to explore DEI-related learning. We certainly make “bloopers” along the way, and we aim to role model learning from these moments, so students feel empowered to embrace the messiness of this process as well. We enjoyed learning from one another about this ongoing journey and believe that lifelong learning is richer and more enjoyable when in community together. We would love to continue this conversation with others, and offer some final reflection questions:

Reflection Questions

  1. How can we continue to encourage open and honest discourse that centers humanity instead of perpetuating the colonized educational practices rooted in silencing and oppression?
  2. How do we champion efforts of inclusion for underrepresented and minoritized communities within our HESA work?
  3. How can we teach HESA students to navigate a balance between incorporating a critical, liberatory philosophy in their daily practice while also negotiating the realities of current higher education systems?
  4. As an educator, how might you continue to focus your efforts on diversity, equity, and inclusion?  How do your social identities contribute to your response? And, who might you be in community with as you grow in this area?

References and Suggested Readings

ACPA-College Student Educators International & NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. (2015). ACPA/NASPA professional competency areas for student affairs educators.

National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity (NCFDD).  

Quaye, S. J., Aho, R. E., Jacob, M. B., Domingue, A. D., Guido, F. M., Lange, A. C., Squire, D., & Stewart, D-L. (2019). ACPA College Student Educators International – A Bold Vision Forward: A Framework for the Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization.

 Rockquemore, K., & Laszloffy, T. (2008). The Black academic’s guide to winning tenure–without losing your soul. Lynne Rienner Publisherss.

Smith, M., Chen, Y., Berndtson, R., Burson, K. M., & Griffin, W. (2017). “Office hours are kindof weird”: Reclaiming a resource to foster student-faculty interaction. InSight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching. 12, 14-29.

Tuck, E. & Wayne Yang, K. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization:

Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 1-40.


Leslie Jo (LJ) Shelton, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Program Coordinator for the Higher Education Master’s program at the University of Arkansas. She is a qualitative researcher who primarily studies college student learning and development. Her main research areas focus on how HESA educators can better serve students with minoritized social identities, as well as exploring the student experiences and learning outcomes of HESA graduate preparation programs. 

Amy French, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Higher Education and Student Affairs at Bowling Green State University. Her scholarship is rooted in social justice. Specifically, her work focuses on college student development including understanding the experiences of college students with minoritized social identities, emerging professionals with (dis)abilities, BIPOC faculty experiences, and assessment of higher education and student affairs graduate preparation programs.