Earlier this month, Dr. Wendi Manuel-Scott had a virtual chat with Sharrell Hassell-Goodman, a doctoral student in the Higher Education program and co-chair of ARIE's Student Voice committee. Hassell-Goodman discusses her hopes and expectations for ARIE since it was formed and how Mason can keep students at the center of these initiatives.
Dr. Wendi Manuel-Scott:
Sharrell, you've been involved in ARIE since the beginning. Now that we're almost at the two-year mark, have your hopes and expectations of ARIE shifted? If so, how?
I'm in an interesting place. I've been a student, I've worked for university, I went back as a student again, and had the opportunity to teach. Right now, I'm working on my own research. and I'm back in full-time mode as a student. Being connected to ARIE’s work, it’s been so important and so refreshing to see that the university was willing and bold enough to take these initiatives on.
Coming from a student perspective, it's exciting. But I’m also still wondering how Mason will maintain ARIE's commitment at its core, considering the changing landscape and the new priorities of the state. Since change takes a while, students might question if ARIE’s work will actually come to fruition. This is especially true because students aren’t always aware of what goes on behind the scenes before something is made into a tangible action item. So, I am in between being hopeful but also realistic. So, to be honest, I'm at a crossroads as I start to see changing dynamics, particularly when ARIE first started in July 2020. Students, including myself, had expressed a lot of confusion, hurt, and disappointment around racist, homophobic, or sexist experiences in academic spaces. In response, ARIE began to unpack how to maintain an environment of inclusion and ensure we're not doing any harm to students because of identities that they hold. ARIE started to give a lot of students hope for creating a place that allowed us to question racism, homophobia, and sexism in our space, particularly at Mason. The university is reflective of a diverse community. So how does that reflection permeate throughout all aspects of the academic experience?
The student voice committee had many discussions about how to create change. We knew there were students experiencing harassment in the classroom and felt like they couldn’t do anything about it because they were not getting the support that they needed. Experiencing discrimination as a student is kind of a precarious place to be, particularly when you're seeing things change and policies created in which it feels like equity is not a priority. I think Mason was on its way and is still on its way. I think some students are just nervous about whether they will see tangible changes. So, that's where I'm at. I’m questioning if this is really going to be a reality, but I’m also hopeful for the plans that have been articulated thus far.
Dr. Wendi Manuel-Scott:
I appreciate that. I appreciate the very nuanced and careful way that you express that as well. Do you think students would want or appreciate reassurance regarding the university’s commitment to ARIE? What would that look like to you?
Yes, I do think that would be helpful, particularly because some of the things that students are asking are reasonable, tangible, and easily obtainable. Students have the simple recommendation of making sure that faculty and staff are trained around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Students also ask that there's a space they can give feedback if they're experiencing discrimination in the classroom or another campus environment. These are both reasonable expectations. For years many students have asked that their peers be educated through a course on diversity, equity, and inclusion. This should be a main priority. If ARIE doesn't adhere to this commitment, then they're not only disregarding the current student population, but they're not paying attention to the prior students who've tried to make those changes to no avail. I think the ARIE initiatives should really think about and prioritize how we adhere to students’ requests and how we implement changes in the near future. This way, students can be reassured that ARIE is taking their concerns seriously.
The other thing is, I think sometimes students don't understand why requiring training is so difficult when education is a space of higher learning where everyone is supposed to advance their knowledge, skills, and awareness. If you are committed to this idea of learning, as an institution, then why shouldn't that be an expectation for our faculty, staff, and anyone who interfaces with students? It’s beyond just language and terminology, it's about creating climates where students feel safe, heard, respected, and valued. And if we don't follow through on those basic institutional commitments, then we fall short in creating the Mason that we want and proclaim to be.
Dr. Wendi Manuel-Scott:
If we added an undergrad to this conversation, do you have a sense of one area they would want to really underline or emphasize that we haven't mentioned yet?
Their interface with community engagement looks different. I'm not an undergrad living on campus, so my concern around community policing versus a traditional approach to policing looks different. I don’t want to speak for students, but I know there was concern and distrust around traditional policing tactics and about committees being created where things go to die rather than change. One of the ways that community policing came up for students is they feel targeted or over-surveilled because of their identities. So how do we think about the ways in which police show up in times of danger? How do we move beyond simply language changing? We also need to think about the impact of systemic racism.
I think students are very excited about some of the initiatives around renaming buildings and prioritizing Mason's landscape, which is a start. Students also talked about going through the “Mason shuffle” instead of receiving the services that they need, which involves being directed to four and five offices instead of being able to easily go to one person at times. This is particularly challenging for those students who are working full time and commuting. They have to go to four or five offices within a day to get an answer. Since Mason has taken on some of the most historically marginalized populations, we have a lot of students that are children of immigrants, who are commuters, who are caregivers for loved ones who are working full time jobs. In addition to being students and are trying to matriculate, and maybe have matriculated from a community college to a four-year institution, one of their most precious resources they have is time. If we exploit their time going to different offices, then we’re not really thinking about ways that we can support these students who need support. And what about student retention? We’ve created this space that has attracted diverse groups of students, so how do we show that we care and honor them in ways that other institutions might not be set up for? I think that Mason is set up for it in a lot of ways. But how do we take it to the next to the next level and really show that we see them, hear them, understand them, and want to encourage their success?
Dr. Wendi Manuel-Scott:
I think you're spot on. It's one thing to say you care about students. That you value who they are, and all the identities that they bring with them. But that needs to be embodied right through policies and practices, and it needs to be apparent through the very structures of the institution. When that falls short, in a sense, that reveals a perceived lack of care and respect for students. So, I appreciate you sharing that.
Your response also makes me think about another identity that you've been very transparent about. I recall that you shared during one of the town halls that you are a student with a disability, sometimes seen as an invisible disability. I wonder if you have thoughts about Mason’s responsibility to students with disabilities.
Yeah, absolutely. I do think the Office of Disability Services is doing a wonderful job trying to meet demands and expectations, but how do we think about larger infrastructures that could be made more accessible? I think that we're starting to make progress. But how do we go to that next phase of acknowledging students with disabilities in terms of the way that the physical campus structure is laid out? As we think about future construction, as we think about accessibility beyond being able-bodied. So how do we think about long term plans and being more supportive as we've gone online?
Moving forward, I think it’s important that we realize the long-term impact or how some policies make things more challenging for certain communities. I think that's where we really start to see the impact of policies, procedures, and structures. As we make these changes, we should consider how it would affect all end users of all identities. That’s something we don't always think about or put at the forefront, but rather something that we respond to once we see it as an issue after the fact.
Dr. Wendi Manuel-Scott:
I think that's so right. We want to be intentional about making sure that we understand those Nexus points in terms of their identities, and we're providing services that speak to the whole student population.
Okay, final question. One day, you will look back on your magnificent time at George Mason University, and your contribution to Mason. What will you be most proud of?
I mean, I'm giggling at that. I guess I'm giggling because I don't necessarily stop and reflect on that and say, “Oh, I'm so proud. I did XYZ” because I also don't feel like I've done anything. I’ve just tried to connect with different communities that are interested in making changes, being a part of collectives, and seeing what is something that I can leverage my abilities towards making Mason a better place. I am so incredibly proud to be a Mason student. I am so blessed to be here and to have these opportunities. The fact that we're having this difficult conversation and Mason is willing to do it is a reason I'm so proud. No, there's other places that wouldn't dare gauge or create an ARIE initiative and would make changes only by student demand. So, I think it's very brave that Mason has even chosen to move forward on this initiative. But it's even more inspiring that there's so many faculty, staff and students that are committed to doing the work.
As much as I'm kicking back or giving feedback, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I'm honored to be in a space where I can do that. I don't fear retaliation for being honest about where Mason stands. If we can continue to respect, honor, and center students and make Mason better, then Mason will be here for the long-term and be a space that even more students want to be at. Mason is such a unique campus and with unique students, I get that. But if we're not doing anything about that uniqueness, then we're just saying it. And eventually, we're no longer going to be unique for that, because we're not really keeping up with the changing dynamics of the environment, to continue to pay attention to the uniqueness of student needs.
I think that is the difference. We can't just be happy that they're here by circumstance. Instead, we should make the most of this amazing opportunity with such special students. Mason is an amazing place that has amazing possibilities and potentials… and now is our time to do it. Even though it's going to be tough because we can't control contextual factors. How do we make sure that this campus, this space with ARIE, is still safe for students?