Helping Students Connect and Create Community
Karess Gilcrease first came to Ohio State Newark because of its synergistic community. She saw a place where people helped each other and worked together — a quintessential small campus where she could make an impact.
As an instructor and academic success coach in the Office of Retention and Student Success Initiatives, Gilcrease serves as a mentor in the Scarlet and Gray Excellence (SAGE) Learning Community, which is a cohort of 40 students of color who are in their first year of college. Academic and social programming within the learning community assists students in achieving academic success and developing a sense
of belonging on campus.
“Being able to make sure students of all diverse backgrounds feel safe, feel included, feel wanted, and feel like they can persist and can achieve a degree is really important to me,” said Gilcrease.
The student population at Ohio State Newark has become — and continues to grow — more diverse. Enrollment of students of color has seen a rapid increase over the last 20 years. From 6% in 2000 to 17% in 2010, the university now stands at a record 34% enrollment of students of color in 2020. However, it is widely documented that the benefits of a college education are reaped to a lesser extent by students of color than their white peers.
To improve outcomes for students of color, Ohio State Newark responded with programs like SAGE and other learning communities where students can connect and share experiences, build relationships and feel more confident navigating their college experience. Numerous initiatives exist throughout the campus within the Office of Student Life, Office of Multicultural Affairs and Center for Student Success to support students of all ethnicities, national origins, religions, ages, gender identities, sexual orientations and economic situations.
But while the campus population has diversified, the surrounding area has not. Gilcrease knows that creating a welcoming environment on campus isn’t enough. That’s why she joined and accepted her nomination as secretary of the newly reactivated Licking County chapter of the NAACP.
“After hearing my students’ experiences within the community, I personally felt compelled to get involved for them,” she said. Accounts of discrimination range from being followed in stores to subpar service in restaurants to overt harassment. “I really wanted to make those students feel comfortable within the community they were living [in on-campus housing] and within the community they were commuting to school.”
Joining the NAACP was a natural fit. The organization’s purpose, she said, is to make life more equitable for all people, and education, her forte, is one part of its plan. Gilcrease is quick to remind us that diversity isn’t limited to students of color. Taking into account students who have different religious backgrounds, different gender identities, different physical abilities and even different learning abilities is necessary for inclusion. She also notes that the NAACP is nonpartisan and, “No one is anti-anything but racism and oppression. We want everyone to come together to be able to successfully support both our students and our community.
“I hope that people understand that diversity, equity and inclusion work is something that is supposed to be inclusive of everyone,” Gilcrease continued. “That understanding of inclusivity really is important to focus on because I think that people forget, even if they are not a part of a specific community, that they are still part of that work; they’re still part of creating an inclusive environment for all.”