Strengthening STEM Through Inclusion

Shavonna Hinton, Columbia Engineering’s inaugural assistant dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion, wants to open up access in academia and beyond

Nov 04 2021
Shavonna Hinton, assistant dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion

As Columbia Engineering’s inaugural assistant dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), Shavonna Hinton will lead strategy and implementation of the School’s plan to increase parity and inclusivity in both academic and research activities.

A New Yorker’s New Yorker, Hinton grew up taking in the rich diversity that the Empire State has to offer. Professionally she brings a wealth of experience addressing equity and access in STEM education; she has previously worked at Cornell University’s College of Engineering as the associate director of admissions and diversity recruitment, where she helped the college in reaching parity for male and female representation across an undergraduate population of over 3,000 students. She also has supported STEM education programs for teachers, community leaders, and colleges and universities at non-profit organizations, including Girls Who Code and AI4ALL.

Her work implementing a diversity, equity, and inclusion action plan requires a clear vision and a great deal of collaboration. Guided by the release of the Columbia Engineering commission report, which outlined six key DEI action plans and goals along with three key areas of impact (Faculty and Student Recruiting and Support, Improvements to Culture and Environment, and Integration of DEI into Education, Research, and Innovation), Hinton plans to work with different offices across the board, including Columbia Engineering Outreach, to build relationships with communities both locally and nationally. She also wants to amplify Columbia Engineering’s role in promoting diversity and equity within the wider field of engineering, working to intentionally introduce diversity, equity, and inclusion considerations into our education, research, innovation, and outreach activities.

We spoke with Hinton about how to target DEI challenges that are unique to STEM, aspects that are often overlooked in conversations around DEI, and her vision for Columbia Engineering’s diversity initiatives.

Can you talk a little about your background?

I always say, “I’m the most New York, New Yorker you'll ever meet,” but not in the traditional sense. I was born in Western, NY, and since then I have spent time learning and growing in all the different areas of the state. From the Southern Tier to Central NY, North Country and New York City, each place has a unique character and culture. However, the sum of all these places is still New York State. To that end, I’ve learned over time how place and context matter. Two seemingly similar people can perceive the world in two entirely different ways, and recognizing those differences is what can bring wholeness to us all.

Similarly, the work I’ve done in STEM education across the K-16+ landscape has worked to enrich my understanding of more systemic issues in education at large. The various roles I’ve held in both public and private sectors of education have allowed me to develop a narrative that I feel more clearly articulates how we can tackle the challenges of educating students today.

To truly commit to being a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive space requires just as much work (if not more) than it took to get to the point where folks recognized there was a desire and need for someone to support these efforts in the first place.

Shavonna Hinton
Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

What’s your vision for DEI initiatives at Columbia Engineering?

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, as a field within higher education, particularly within STEM, is still an emerging field. As such, one of my first goals is to make sure that everyone has a shared understanding of DEI and why it matters within our community. There is value in this work, but communicating what “DEI” is in a way that folks within STEM can understand is not always easy. Understanding this, I want to ensure those who choose to engage with and support our DEI goals have the right context frame of reference to talk about issues of equity, inclusivity, and diversity with peers and colleagues.

I see my role as collecting and developing standards and best practices for the way we support DEI efforts across the School. I want students, staff, and faculty to see my office as a resource to go to when they’re interested in learning about DEI, want to take the initiative to develop DEI programs, or work with a population they may not readily identify with. Additionally, I aim to support the diverse populations that already exist here so that everyone feels encouraged and capable of achieving success as a member of our community.

My role supports the entirety of Columbia Engineering, and with that comes a great deal of responsibility in making sure that when decisions are made, we think about how that impacts individual members of our community. For example, a decision can impact different students of different backgrounds in different ways. Moreover, a decision that favors students also will impact faculty and staff. To that end, I see it as my responsibility to address these challenges with our community and bring a greater depth of understanding for potential solutions by integrating DEI considerations.

This could be perceived as a bit idealistic, but that is what it takes to bring consideration, empathy, and a large deal of pragmatism when working effectively in DEI. This, in my opinion, is the function of DEI personnel at large.

What are some unique DEI challenges in STEM? What steps do you think Columbia can take immediately?

There are several areas where we can take important steps in the short term.

Gender parity in the field is key. It is not hard to find women who want to become engineers. However, it is on us at Columbia Engineering to make sure the culture of our community is one where women will consider us. We have to ensure that the practices and policies we have in place empower us to effectively recruit and retain those who want to be a part of our community.

We also need to focus on the specialized nature of STEM and its implications on bringing diversity into the field. To become an “expert” in the field requires years of training, commitment, and dedication to a very niche area within an already challenging field in academia. Getting that buy-in early from students who we’ve not traditionally seen in the space is challenging, and at each point along a student’s educational journey, they can either choose to continue to push the limits of their knowledge or give up.

This phenomenon is more commonly thought of as the “pipeline issue.” I would argue that the pipeline for diversity in STEM has always existed, but it has not always been primed or nurtured in a way that ensures success. In this way, it is not a pipeline problem but instead a challenge and call to action for educators to create clear, sustainable pathways and opportunities in STEM at every stage. Within Columbia Engineering, partners like the Outreach team are crucial in building those relationships with the community at the K-12 levels. At the college stages, we are working diligently to foster and support partnerships with MSIs (Minority Serving Institutions) to encourage persistence within the BS to PhD pathway. We also currently offer and are developing a variety of programs designed to support PhD students, amplify those at the postdoctoral and early career stages, and support new faculty. Finally, encouraging our faculty at large to expand beyond their research and classrooms and think about how to promote engineering to a larger audience will ensure that more students not yet engaged in STEM think positively about the possibilities that engineering can bring.

We want to integrate DEI strategy into research and teaching. We are a well-resourced school with numerous centers, labs, and highly regarded faculty who have the opportunity to intentionally introduce discussion around diversity, equity, and inclusion into the areas they actively research and teach. My hope is that we can intentionally foster innovations, pursue research, educate, and promote continuous advancement in our community.

What are some aspects you think often get overlooked in conversations around DEI?

Something that I think is known well by folks in positions like mine, but not readily understood or fully recognized by those I work with, is that DEI is not just an acronym. To truly commit to being a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive space requires just as much work (if not more) than it took to get to the point where folks recognized there was a desire and need for someone to support these efforts in the first place. Moreover, there is no one way to “do DEI.” It starts with looking at the culture of the space you’re in. You can’t bring someone in and expect that we will fix the diversity pipeline issue overnight. In essence, systemic and structural change is not easy. To that end, I’ve found that there seems to be a commitment not just from leadership within the engineering school, but institutionally across Columbia University, in improving the work of DEI.

It is disappointing that it took persistent tragedy, pain, and heartbreak in the midst of a global pandemic across communities in America to get here. I am excited Columbia Engineering has shown commitment in amplifying the role we will play in creating equity, fostering inclusivity, and embracing diversity in more intentional ways. There is already positive energy around the work of DEI, and I hope to leverage existing initiatives and develop new opportunities with the support of our community to position Columbia Engineering to truly live up to the potential I know we have.

How can people who are interested in getting involved connect with you?

Folks can reach me at [email protected].

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