Dr. Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran assumed the role of 17th President of Kalamazoo College in July 2005. She brings to her work a record of distinction in the realm of higher education and early child development, both in this country and in Nigeria where she taught and served as an academic administrator for more than 14 years.
Her legacy at K includes innovative reinvigoration and integration of theK-Plan as well as academic improvements that include the new open curriculum, the Shared Passages Seminar series, three new academic majors, two new intercollegiate sports, the social justice leadership program, and new career and professional development opportunities like the Guilds of Kalamazoo College. The diversity of the campus community reflects the world where K students will live and work. And the difficult systemic changes have begun that will make the learning environment equitable and inclusive for each member of K's diverse learning community. Her legacy also includes new campus spaces that students and employees use to solidify the sense of community that characterizes Kalamazoo College.
A native of Los Angeles, Dr. Wilson-Oyelaran earned her B.A. in sociology from Pomona College, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in education from the Claremont Graduate University. She was no stranger to international education, having completed an undergraduate study abroad experience in England where she studied the education of immigrant children. She was also the recipient of the Thomas J. Watson Traveling Fellowship, which enabled her to execute independent research in Ghana, Nigeria, and Tanzania. After completing her doctoral work in early childhood development, she accepted her first academic position at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in Nigeria, teaching in both the departments of education and psychology. Ife, where she served as a department chair and Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, would be her academic home for 14 years.
Dr. Wilson-Oyelaran's scholarly focus is in child development and education in cross-cultural context, and she has published widely in this area. While in Nigeria she served as a consultant for UNICEF (Nigeria) and designed a series of baseline surveys that became the model for assessing the status of children under five throughout the country.
In 1988 when her family left Nigeria for the United States, Dr. Wilson-Oyelaran became visiting scholar in education at North Carolina Wesleyan College and then associate professor and chair of the department of education at Winston-Salem State University. In 1995, she became Dean of the College at Salem College, and rose to the position of Vice President of Salem Academy and College and Dean of the College. She also served as acting president of Salem College for a brief period.
Her honors and awards are legion and include the Kent Fellowship, American Council on Education Fellowship and the Visionary Leadership Award presented by the Claremont Colleges Intercollegiate Office of Black Studies. A strong proponent of equity and inclusion, Dr. Wilson-Oyelaran has been honored nationally and locally for her work on behalf of young women and girls. She is the recipient of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education (AACTE) Gender Equity Architect Award, the Salvation Army's Strong, Smart, and Bold Award, and the YWCA Woman of Vision.
She is married to Dr. Olasope Oyelaran and they have raised four wonderful children-Adedoyin, Oyindasola, Omosalewa, and Oyeyinka.
Could you begin by describing some of the projects and activities Kalamazoo is involved with that are working to promote inclusive and diverse environments on campus?
As part of the strategic plan that was finished in 2006, one of the priorities was to make a campus community that was inclusive and represented a diverse student population. We have dedicated a lot of time in this journey, and the journey continues. The most important thing has been to provide professional development opportunities to faculty and staff on diversity and inclusion to give them a lens of personal and institutional behavior.
We have also implemented a recruitment strategy that has resulted in a more diverse student population on campus (e.g., religious, international, gender/sexual orientation, race/ethnicity) relatively quickly. We are one of the most diverse campuses in Great Lakes region, and just 10 years ago that was not the case.
We have also undergone curricular revisions – as your campus becomes more diverse, issues arise in the classroom that need to be addressed. For example, in our language department we discussed whether we should have a different track for students who are native speaking students. This led to an interesting conversation and debate within the department that included issues of representation in the content of the curriculum as well as different pedagogical strategies. After many conversations and meetings we developed a better strategy to address the needs of native (Spanish) speakers. Following these conversations, we had an opening, and one of the things we looked for was someone who had experience for native speakers. Now are able to offer a few different opportunities for classes.
Our campus has engaged in an assessment of the campus climate. Following the assessment, we received a thorough report and discussed in depth with the campus community. A working group that is focused on how we create a sense of belonging for all students has been developed.
While the graduation rate of students of color [on campus] is good, and better than the national graduate rate, but it could be better. We have started to do more work with first-gen students to access resources including linking them with faculty so they can see themselves in places where they may not have before.
We have a lot of different strands as it relates to diversity and inclusion on campus.
What role does diversity play in international education?
The first thing I would say is that in the 21st century education everything is enhanced by diversity. Our students are going to lead and work in a world that is more connected and everything works across borders. The perspective an individual may bring is welcomed into the conversation and valued.
What is the pay with international education-study away at Kalamazoo is that we will send 7-8 student to China a year – how much richer is that experience when someone from Jamaica, Botswana, Louisiana, Kalamazoo is participating? By making things more complex and considering the dynamic of the students, it changes the nature of the conversation. Sending diverse students out together makes that study abroad experience richer.
For over 50 year Kalamazoo had an outstanding study abroad program, but what we didn’t have was international students who were matriculating students. We have grown that to 10% now and have worked to ensure that population is diverse. I believe that if you have the representation in the classroom and people feel they have a voice in that conversation, the conversation will be richer.
We also have a shared passage seminar that students take that revolves around dealing with difference in some kind of way. The sophomore class deals with international issues, and if that conversation includes diverse voices, that conversation will be richer. Both in terms of content and curricula, it [the classroom] is enriched by diversity.
We’re a resident liberal arts college where most students live on campus or near campus, and what we can provide is students who can live and work together with diverse populations. What happens when you take the diasporic communities (African, Latin) and people together but have had very different life experiences? Some of the hardest lessons are within diasporic communities.
As an example, we didn’t have an ethnic studies (African, Latin) program on the campus, but several years ago a group of students, mainly from the Chicano community, brought it to the administration, and the first challenge [we had to address] was within the Latino group – different nationalities and backgrounds. After that was the rest of the students of color on campus. Now we have a critical ethnic studies curriculum that looks at the issues that impact all students. It was rooted in the complexity of diversity. How are the Jamaican, African American, and African student navigating that space?
We’re trying to do a lot of work where there are opportunities in international education and intercultural work on campus and when those opportunities can come together. We’re doing more but it’s an interesting intersection. We received a grant from Mellon Foundation to look at some of these issues (next year off the ground). Our hope to bring someone to work on pedagogy. One of the outcomes from the assessment from the student focus groups was that the classroom was still a hard site for them. For faculty who care about student success but aren’t prepared for the kind of diversity of students, it can be difficult to get their arms around what that means. We want out faculty to be able to facilitate inclusion in the classroom and among students themselves.
It’s a Journey! There have been bumps in the road. When protests happen it means progress. They [students] wouldn’t put in the effort to protest if they didn’t see value in doing so.
Diversifying the students who participate in international education has been discussed in the field for many years. How would you grade the progress that has been made in this area?
We’re getting better, but there’s still a lot of work to do. For us, the study abroad part reflects the groups on our campus. We’ve done an assessment on this, and we found that in any three-year period anywhere from 23-30% participating in study abroad were students of color, and that’s about where they are in overall numbers. They’re 22% now. For the first time this year, we’ll be tracking first-generation students, and for me this is a group I want to pay attention to. This is a group whose parents don’t have the cultural capacity to advise them on the college experience. And if we’re not doing a good job at communicating the value of study abroad for future success, it would be very easy for students of color and first-generation students to see this as an add-on. How an institution markets this to the students and parents is critical. For a student who is first in her family to go to college and from inner city, and now you’re telling me to go to Spain but I’m making sacrafices to get here? We need new messaging for new populations, but we’re doing the messaging we’ve always done.
I also think that we have to remember that the fastest growing population of college students is adults over 25 going to school part-time with family responsibilities. These individuals still need to develop a global perspective and interact in a global comm. How do we meet the needs of those who aren’t able to travel? What are we doing with technology to interact with people in other cultures and to meaningful engage? What are we doing with curriculum?
If they’re reading Hamlet here and somewhere else what are the possibilities?
Our goal is develop participatory global citizens, and how do we make that possible for all students and not just the cohorts that come to Kalamazoo or Swarthmore? In our case, we’ve been particularly successful in reaching our students from diverse backgrounds because of the early messaging. International education and study abroad are rooted in the DNA of Kalamazoo. Someone is as likely to say to them, “where are you going to study abroad? “as “what do you want to major in?
In orientation presentations, they’ll hear it from our office, and everything assumes that students will study abroad. You can be a physics major or an athlete and study abroad. The study abroad office has been integrated into what we do at Kalamazoo. It makes it easier for us to say to non-traditional study abroad students “it’s a normal;” it’s in the fabric of what we do here.
What role do you think diversity will play in international education over the next 5 years?
I think it can only become more important. If you look at the demographic of the high school student population, we know we’re very soon going to come across the majority/minority tipping point. If we are recruiting the traditionally need-based students, that new population is going to look different. More first-generation, more students of color – who could be 3rd generation students and well-to-do – more children of immigrants who came as young people – and much of their education has happened here but foundational experiences in countries of diverse locations. [International education] will be more important because that population is changing.
The adult population will become more diverse. Diversity is going to characterize higher education rather than be an initiative. For a while we were trying to get there, but it’s going to be the norm. What does that mean when we say what is international education? How do we leverage the diversity in our classes to start with? How does it change the way we think about the abroad experience? What is the content of that programming?
I still think to some degree, on some campuses the international abroad experience is exoticized and not deeply embedded in the educational experience of the students. Students don't have to reflect critically upon it [their experience abroad]. It’s a group of 30 students with a faculty member and not immersive, and that’s going to have to change. It’s going to be hard to exoticize that experience when 3-4 of those are native of that country. We won’t know what the challenges are because the will unfold. We will have to think about, for example, the Korean adoptees going back to Korea and the Korean American students who look to study abroad in Korea – how are their goals different? How do we support them as their reactions and experience might be different?
What do you see as the biggest challenges to increasing inclusion, access, and diversity in international education?
There are the standard barriers. Economics is a real barrier. Some campuses – this is true on ours – there are more financial barriers than there are other barriers. We need to do a better job at what support is there. New messaging that links this to career success in the 21st century is important. There will be more concerns about safety and acceptance. Parents of students of color or religious minorities may ask, “is my child going to be safe?”
Institutional barriers and outreach continue to be a challenge. They get mixed messages from their faculty members. I think that’s less a problem for Kalamazoo, but at many institutions students feel like they have to pick whether to miss something important on campus.
Many institutions have “Diversity Initiatives” and “Internationalization Initiatives”. Do you see synergies between these two initiatives?
There are synergies and there are differences. I would like to see more conversations between people who do the international work and the diversity/intercultural work. The communities have been siloed and don’t talk to each other as much as they should. There is important work that needs to be done there. More critical thinking about diversity, diversity includes the intersections of race, socioeconomic status, gender, and they all intersect in different ways. And we can let go of some of those identity divides; there are some good conversations that come up in these areas.
Trying to have our multicultural and international education work together has had to be more intentional. The physical space about who is based where – the physical space sends messages. Students have created interesting solutions. We had a seminar on Black hair and brought the diasporic women together even as there were still issues in other areas. The students have been able to think creatively about the worlds they live in to break down those barriers.
The other challenge is there is a sense of competition of resources. You have the space, and you also have the budgetary issues that may pit these offices against each other if not consciously but unconsciously. What are we doing unconsciously and consciously at the institutional level that maintains the siloes or doing nothing to break them down? What kind of rewards system can we put into place that encourages people who work together where the students are better served? Keeping these things in mine, we might get to a better space.
How do you feel the quality of international education programs are affected by having participants from diverse academic, economic, ethnic and social backgrounds?
Both by the representation and the sense of inclusion – the sense that you’re voice is heard, your part of the community. If both of those are present it enhances the quality of both the experience and the program content. Students also need to have the opportunity to be more reflective about the experience. There will be varied experiences, but it’s not just about having the people there, it’s also about having them not feel marginal in any way.
What role do you believe your international experiences have played in your personal and professional aspirations?
Absolutely seminal. As an undergraduate I studied abroad in England because I didn’t have foreign language ability to study elsewhere. But my focus was on immigrant students. Most of my time was spent with West Indian and Caribbean communities and children from those communities. Those experiences lead to me wanting to explore these issues more. I went on to spend six months in Ghana and six months in Tanzania, which changed the way I see the world. We’re doing better but have a lot of work to do.
After doing my Ph.D. work, I went back to Ghana to teach for 14 years and consider myself tri-cultural. The experience informed what I think higher education can be. It was incredible training for an academic administrator. Academic administration is intercultural work – you work with faculty, students, boards. The signals and language are different. It’s informed my work that has been very productive.
Do you have any final thoughts you would like to add?
I think it’s important to stress the real importance for higher education to take this [diversity and inclusion and international education] very seriously, and to think creatively and in out-of-the box ways about how we prepare our students. I don’t care about how old they are, or the perceived limitations – we need to think creatively about the challenges before us in the world, whether that’s the environment or how we coexist with other religious groups. We are failing as educational institutions if we don’t think creatively about the ways we get our students the skills they need to be global citizens.