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Moving Beyond a Values Statement: Centering Equitable Strategies for a Flourishing Adult Learner Ecosystem

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
DEI is a hot topic right now in the time of #BlackLivesMatter, #StopAAPIHate, local and federal court discussion of reproductive rights, emerging legislation targeting LGBTQ+ education, and living in a post-pandemic era. While it may be a new practice for many to engage DEI strategies in their work, it is a philosophy and practice I strive to incorporate into all facets of my life as I see communities impacted by systems of oppression from the macro to the micro level. Understanding that these issues are ever evolving, CAEL’s new ALLIES Framework recognizes the need to adopt a culture of change for institutions to better serve their adult learners.

Living in the Margins
As a first-generation college student and a child of Filipino immigrants, I knew firsthand how difficult it was to navigate college applications, finances, and the postgraduate process. College readiness, financial literacy, and career planning were foreign topics in my household (things I’m still grappling with to this day). I didn't have anyone to guide me, and I often had to figure out life by myself. Culturally, it was also not a practice to burden others for help, so I became accustomed to avoiding seeking support. As you can imagine, it was pretty isolating. Based on my former work in higher education, this is a situation in which many students from systemically marginalized populations find themselves. The added layers of responsibilities as an adult learner only exacerbate the problem.

So how do underrepresented communities manage to move beyond the margins? 

From Barely Surviving to Thriving
I was lucky eventually to come across a cultural center early in my academic journey, but not everyone is as fortunate to encounter these resources at the start. As Domain 8 in the new framework suggests, providing student support early on can transform the adult learner experience, especially as access to this type of information may be limited.

Initially, I struggled to connect how engaging with the identity-based center would benefit me. While it was nice to become connected to people with similar cultural backgrounds, I needed more out of it than finding a community. It wasn't until I spoke with a staff member about financial aid and work-based learning opportunities available through the center that I became intrigued. Before then, I was seriously losing motivation to continue with my studies, as I was at a loss about my next steps and doubted my capabilities. Through the center, I found others who shared my experience and, for the first time, I felt seen. Until that moment, I didn’t realize how important it was to have representation from my Asian Pacific Islander Desi American community and support from individuals who valued my “community cultural wealth”-- a term to describe Black and Indigenous People of Color’s collective knowledge, skills, and experiences used to highlight their assets and combat deficit approaches (Yosso 2005).

This scenario is just one of the many methods through which one can directly view DEI in action. In my time before CAEL, I found myself looking at how I could be of service to my community as a student affairs practitioner in the same ways these staff members showed up for me. 

Building an Inclusive Approach to Your Work
My background in the last seven or so years has been in student affairs and support services at a few different postsecondary institutions and nonprofit organizations. At my last institution, I oversaw a cross-cultural center and encountered a large number of adult learners usingour services. To provide some context, the university was situated on a former military base surrounded by a large farmworker community. I worked with many student veterans, nontraditional-aged transfer students, students in mixed immigration status households, and students who have taken longer to complete their degrees due to financial constraints.

Because of the particular needs of these adult learners, it was important that my center cultivated programs, services, and partnerships relevant to their experiences. In order to adequately accomplish this, my team and I sought to build coalitions across similar institutions and local organizations to share knowledge and resources. For example, during the height of COVID-19 and discussions of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) legislation, my center collaborated with the neighboring community colleges to host a virtual panel discussion with scholars documenting their undocumented experiences through their book, “We Are Not Dreamers.” Our programs were always open to external communities, but it was the first time we had intentionally partnered with those institutions to develop a program of that scale. Participants found it extremely powerful to be able to unpack their hardships and also find joy in their community in a time of quarantine. In another instance, my center worked with a nonprofit to provide a series of financial empowerment workshops that outlined key topics such as managing debt, budgeting, salary negotiations, and retirement planning. What made these sessions unique was how they highlighted systemic inequities in money management and worked to address how to navigate those processes based on the attendees’ personal experiences. 

As CAEL’s new ALLIES Framework notes, impactful partnerships like the ones I developed at my previous institution provide a holistic approach to supporting adult learner education and career pathways. Additionally, equipping faculty and staff with professional development ensures they are prepared to foster academic environments with adult learners in mind. These concepts in tandem are effective approaches to implementing an equity-focused strategy for adult learners.

In my role supporting postsecondary institutions at CAEL, I enjoy seeing the spirit of my DEI values come to the forefront of the new ALLIES Framework as institutions adopt these guiding principles in support of the adult learner’s experience. 

Allymyr Atrero is manager of initiatives for CAEL.

References
Yosso, T. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69-91.

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