Diversity and Inclusion at a 21st-Century Historically Black University: What Cultural Competency Can Teach Us About incorporating Non-Citizen Latino/a students at HBCUs

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 18–19, 2016

Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College
Atlanta, Georgia


An institutional shift is underway in higher education. The pace of demographic, social, political, and economic change developing in the United States has hastened calls for a more diverse, inclusive, and representative democratic society. Academic institutions, irrespective of institutional mission, size, type, religious affiliation, geographic location, or level of educational offering, are harbingers of this social transformation. Consequently, a movement toward cultivating diverse and inclusive teaching and learning environments has emerged as the hallmark of progressive social change in higher education. Notwithstanding extensive higher education research on the subject, studies interrogating institutional diversity and inclusion programs at HBCUs have been limited (Gasman, 2013; Jewell, 2002; Palmer et. al, 2015; and Ozuna & Allen, 2016). This gap in the literature is likely perpetuated by the myth that HBCU student bodies are racially exclusive, despite these institutions’ history of inclusiveness of disenfranchised people, as well as their more recent institutional efforts to increase enrollment of non-Black students (Gasman & Nguyen, 2015; Greenfield et al., 2015; & Jewel, 2002). In fact, Jewell (2002), opines that “In the movement to diversify higher education in America, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are the bearers of an important legacy…HBCUs have managed to offer opportunities for self-actualization and social mobility to all who sought them while teaching racial tolerance and producing alumni who have distinguished themselves as tireless workers for cross-cultural understanding and social justice.” Consequently, among the diverse constellation of higher education institutions, these minority serving institutions (MSIs) may be uniquely positioned to promote efforts to dismantle de facto and de jure institutional and societal practices that limit college access, success, and, thus, social mobility (Greenfield et. al, 2015). Such practices have especially impacted intersectionally marginalized populations, including Latino/a immigrant students with diverse documentation statuses.

To address the shortcomings of the literature on diversity and inclusion at historically Black institutions (HBIs), this study examines the incorporation of non-citizen Latino/a students, a group of New Americans confronting significant political, legal, and societal barriers to college access, at Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU), the only historically Black university located in Charlotte, North Carolina. We begin by providing an overview of obstacles limiting college access for non-native born Latino/a immigrant students. Next, we offer a preliminary analysis of institutional initiatives to cultivate diversity and inclusion at Johnson C. Smith University, reviewing academic programs, student affairs initiatives, and extra-curricular activities seeking to promote integration of immigrant students into the civic and academic life of the institution. We move from there to discuss cultural competency from a social work perspective, in the context of the lived realities of this particular subset of our student population. We conclude by offering a set of recommendations for future research.

Non-Citizen Latino/a Students Pursuing Higher Education: What Do We Know?

Although all students residing in the United States, regardless of immigration status, are entitled to K-12 public education established in the landmark Plyler v. Doe (1982) decision, non-citizen immigrant students are not afforded the equivalent public benefit to post-secondary education (Abrego 2006). In fact, a provision within the The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 explicitly prohibits undocumented students from enjoying federal higher education assistance. Additionally, non-native born Latino/a immigrant students pursuing access to post-secondary education must confront a complex patchwork of state laws that determine whether and to what degree they are able to access state level public benefits for higher education such as: admission to public institutions, eligibility for in-state tuition, and entitlement to state financed higher education funding (Flores & Chapa, 2008). Moreover, higher education research further intimates that in addition to traditional societal barriers that limit access and/or exclude historically marginalized students of color from college access and successful completion, this cadre of undergraduate students likely experience intermittent cycles of stress, anxiety, and frustration due to the precarious nature of their legal status, and may also fear for the safety and welfare of their friends and families (Abrego, 2011). Oftentimes living in families where individual members may hold multiple immigration statuses, ranging from natural born U.S. citizenship to complete lack of legal status (i.e. mixed status families), immigrant students’ everyday reality includes the possibility that their families may be separated and that they and/or their family members may be subject to arrest, detention, and deportation. Moreover, the Trump administration has ominously signaled its intention to support attrition-based immigration policies, prioritizing the further militarization of the border, maintaining a voracious detention and deportation regime, and, possibly, the elimination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Established by his predecessor through executive action in 2012, the deferred action program offers temporary work authorization and deportation deferral for eligible young people brought to the country as children.

This uncertain political environment and the anticipation of further executive and administrative action exacerbates students’ anxieties about their future and leaves mitigation of college access—and normalization of their status in general—unresolved, and varying considerably across political jurisdictions. Consequently, colleges and universities adopting diversity and inclusion programs and practices that facilitate the substantive incorporation of non-citizen Latino/a immigrant students, particularly in political jurisdictions that prohibit and/or limit access to public post-secondary benefits for immigrant students, must be attentive and responsive to the complex and dynamic nature of their political, economic, social, and legal realities, which not only informs whether and to what degree students are afforded access to post-secondary education, but also determines whether institutional agents are serving the unique needs of this student population.

The JCSU Way: Transforming Latino/a Student Access to Higher Education in the “New South”

The vast majority of higher education research concerning the experiences, recruitment and retention practices, and incorporation of Latino/a students at HBCUs has focused on institutions in Texas. However, Johnson C. Smith University, a private Historically Black University in Charlotte, NC, has set upon a trailblazing path to recruit, offer admission to, and provide financial and social support services to qualified non-citizen Latino/a students under the administration of President Ronald L. Carter. One of the first major university-community initiatives tasked with recruiting Latino immigrant students was undertaken in partnership with the Latin American Coalition, through their College Access Para Todos program. These first-generation students, many of whom are non-U.S. citizens, were awarded merit-based institutional scholarships that covered the cost of tuition and fees, thus removing one of the most significant impediments to accessing higher education for this underserved student population. As a result, eighty-one Latino students were admitted to the University during the 2011-12 academic year. Through the 2015-2016 academic year, the University has enrolled more than 200 Latino/a students, many of whom have graduated, entered the labor market, and/or pursued graduate or professional school.

In 2011, in accordance with its institutional mission statement and informed by an administrative mandate set forth by the current administration, the University established the Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity and Inclusion with the objectives of developing “a set of policies and procedures which recognize and affirm the unique characteristics as well as identify the needs of a diverse campus population which reflect differences based on race, ethnicity, physical ability, socioeconomic background, religion and sexual orientation.” The committee, comprising administrators, faculty, student affairs professionals, and students, was tasked with developing and communicating a shared language about diversity, difference, and inclusion, as well as envisioning how this language would be disseminated throughout the campus community and incorporated into campus wide programming. The committee also extended its mission of creating an inclusive teaching and teaching community to include the promotion of meaningful partnerships with organizations representing the diverse interests of Charlotte residents and communities.

In addition to the Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, the University launched the Office for Multicultural Students Affairs to serve as a support system and accommodate the needs of international students arriving from the Caribbean, Africa, and Latin America, including undocumented students (oftentimes institutionally classified as international students). This office sponsored several academic and cultural programs, such as weekly events during Latino Heritage Month and an annual Caribbean festival, which provide opportunities for informal interaction and cultural exchange between the increasingly diverse student populations and the broader campus community. In 2014, Latino students at JCSU made history by founding the first chapter of a Latino Greek-letter organization at a historically Black university, Lambda Theta Phi Latin Fraternity, Inc. A year later JCSU continued its transformational commitment, when Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, Inc., chartered its first chapter, Zeta Theta, at a historically Black institution.

Building upon these administrative initiatives, several academic programs, departments, and colleges welcomed the increasingly diverse student body by instituting substantive changes to existing curricula, establishing new special topics courses and certificate programs, and hosting forums responsive to the specific interests, experiences, and educational needs of the Latino/a community. Assistant Professor of Spanish Dr. Leslie Clement Gutierrez co-founded with a group of students Undocumented Allies of North Carolina, a grassroots organization based in Charlotte that challenges “contemporary racist nativist dominant discourses and practices surrounding undocumented migration (communities) globally.” She also established an innovative new curriculum, Spanish in Law Enforcement, “designed for various professions that serve, support, and/or protect Spanish-speaking communities such as Latino advocates, police officials, lawyers, paralegals, parole officers, and US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) personnel.” The political science program launched a new special topics course entitled Gender, Race/Ethnicity and Class in the American Political System, which examines the political incorporation of immigrant Latinos, particularly in the South. Additionally, the Metropolitan College developed a non-degree academic certificate program for English As a Second Language adult learners, Caminos Hacia El Exito. This eight-week program provides non-English speakers, oftentimes family members of undergraduate students enrolled at the institution with diverse levels of competency, the opportunity to learn how to communicate effectively and other basic English skills to help with their daily lives. In December 2016, the College also established the Latino Advisory Board, bringing together community stakeholders, including faculty, students, advocacy groups, and student affairs professionals at the University, to further expand the scope of the Latino community-University engagement initiatives.

Culturally Competent Mentoring and Advising of Non-Citizen Latino/a Students:
What We Can Learn from Social Work Practices about Cultural Competency and Immigrant Incorporation in Higher Education

Historically, social work has incorporated cultural competency in social work practice with regard to clients (individuals, families, and groups) and client systems (neighborhoods, communities, agencies, institutions, and societal policies) (Sue, Rasheed, & Rasheed, 2016). The growth and migration of the Latino/a population in the United States has prompted social work education to impart, through a cultural competency lens, a specific skill set and knowledge base to social work students for working effectively with this population. Cultural competence is defined as “The process by which individuals and systems respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, spiritual traditions, immigration status, and other diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values the worth of individuals, families, and communities and protects and preserves the dignity of each” (Lum, 2011). This perspective affirms the dignity of individuals, families, and communities (NASW, 2015).

One of the goals of the social work program at JCSU is to prepare culturally competent social workers to work with diverse client populations. Culturally competent best practices guide departmental programming, curriculum design, internship training, advising, and mentoring. The principles of the ecological perspective have shaped the way social work faculty mentor and advise Latino/a students within the major. According to Negronirodriquez, Dicks, & Morales (2006), cultural competent mentoring and advising Latino/a students requires consideration of five components: (1) the institutional commitment and support; (2) the learning environment; (3) the advisor; (4) the advising process; and (5) the mentoring relationship. Implementation of this framework empowers Latino students to cope with challenges and stereotypes, socialize into social networks, and assist with the acculturation process.

Although the University has not formally incorporated cultural competency best practices into its professional development training for faculty and staff, we conclude that if this innovative framework were adopted:

  • Faculty and staff would learn how to recognize how cultural structures and values may oppress, alienate, and/or produce differential experiences depending on individuals and groups proximity to privilege and power.
  • Self-awareness would be enhanced among faculty and staff to eliminate personal biases/values in work with diverse groups.
  • Faculty and staff would be able to demonstrate understanding of how differences shape life experiences.


Notwithstanding institutional efforts to incorporate non-citizen Latino/a immigrant students documented in this study, further research is warranted. However, there is little doubt that existing institutional and academic initiatives have greatly contributed to the diversity of the campus community, precipitated interest in development of curriculum responsive to the lived realities of this cohort of students, and promoted the cultivation of institutional space where Latino/a students are empowered to create educational experiences that reflect their values, heritage, and aspirations. Additionally, we’ve learned that an additive model narrowly tailored toward modestly increasing the population of a given underserved community is inadequate to advance diversity and inclusion. Cultural competency, as applied in social work best practices, provides institutional agents—student affairs professionals, faculty, and administrators— with a more effective model, as well a basis for evaluating the efficacy of their diversity and inclusion initiatives.

In conclusion, we offer the following recommendations for Historically Black Colleges and Universities serving this unique student population:

  • Expand research on Latino/a students’ academic achievement, experiences, and perceptions of diversity and inclusion at public and private HBCUs in New Destination States.
  • Expand research on HBCU recruitment and retention practices targeting non-citizen Latino/a immigrant students, particularly in institutions outside of Texas, where the majority of the existing research is produced.
  • Incorporate “immigration status” into University’s Diversity and Inclusion statement, signaling an institutional commitment to expanding college access to this uniquely vulnerable student population.
  • In partnership with the Latino community, develop a plan to recruit and offer financial and social support services to this student population.
  • Offer professional development training and resources for faculty and staff in culturally competent advising and mentoring for first generation Latino/a students with various legal statuses.
  • Hire and/or identify student affairs professionals and administrators who view administration, academic programming, and extracurricular activities through the lens of cultural competency (JCSU Metropolitan College’s Caminos Hacia Exito offers a unique model that can be replicated in other institutional settings).


Abrego, L. (2006) “I can’t go to college because I don’t have papers”: Incorporation patterns of Latino undocumented youth. Latino Studies, 4(3), (212-231).

Abrego, L. (2011). Legal consciousness of undocumented Latinos: Fear and stigma as barriers to claims-making for first and 1.5 generations. Law & Society Review, 45(2).

Benitez, M., & DeAro, J. (2004). Realizing Student Success at Hispanic-Serving Institutions” New Directions for Community Colleges2004(127).

Bohon, S., & Macpherson, H. (2005). Educational barriers for new Latinos in Georgia. Journal of Latinos and Education4(1), 43-58.

Brazil-Cruz, L., & Siria, M. (2016). The importance of networking and supportive staff for Latina/o first-generation students and their families as they transition to higher education. Association of Mexican American Educators, 10(1).

Carter, R. (2012, August 9). Equity for People of Color. Charlotte View Point. Retrieved from: http://www.charlotteviewpoint.org/article/2826/Equity-for-People-of-Color.

Coello, F. (2016). Minority serving institutions and the DREAM: Supporting undocumented students in Illinois. Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

Conrad, C., & Gasman, M. (2015). Educating a diverse nation: Lessons from minority serving institutions. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Dwyer, B. (2006, Winter-Spring). Framing the effect of multiculturalism on diversity outcomes among students at historically Black colleges and universities. Educational Foundations.

Faculty Council of the University of North Carolina at Chapel. On support for in-state tuition status for all North Carolina residents: Resolution 2013-18. Retrieved from: http://faccoun.unc.edu/files/2011/03/Res2013-18OnInStateTuition.pdf

Flores, S., & Jorge C. (2008). Latino immigrant access to higher education in a bipolar context of reception. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education.

Gasman, M., Baez, B., & Turner, C. (2008). Understanding minority serving institutions. NY: State University of New York Press.

Gasman, M. (2013). The changing face of historically Black colleges and universities. Philadelphia: Center for Minority Serving Institutions, University of Pennsylvania.

Greenfield, D., Innouvong, T., Agluhub, R., Richard, J., & Ismail Y. (2015). HBCUs as critical context for identity work: Reflections, experiences and lessons learned. New Directions in Higher Education, 2015(17).

Gurin, P., Dey, E., Hurtado, S., & Gurin, G. (2002). Diversity and higher education: Theory and impact on educational outcomes. Harvard Educational Review, 72, 330-65.

Gurin, P., Dey, E. L., Gurin, G., & Hurtado, S. (2004). The educational value of diversity. In P. Gurin, J. S. Lehman, & E. Lewis (Eds.), Defending diversity: Affirmative action at the University of Michigan. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Harper, S. (2009). Access and equity for African Americans in higher education: A critical race historical analysis of policy efforts. Journal of Higher Education, 80(4), 389-414.

Holliday, J. (2016, October 29). Answering the Call. Charlotte Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.charlottemagazine.com

Hubbard, S. M., & Stage, F. K. (2009). Attitudes, perceptions and preferences of faculty at Hispanic serving institutions and predominately Black institutions. The Journal of Higher Education, 80(3), 270-289.

Hurtado, S. (2007). Linking diversity with the educational and civic missions of higher education. The Review of Higher Education30(2), 185-196.

Jewell, J. (2002). To set an example: The tradition of diversity at historically Black colleges and universities. Urban Education, 37(1).

Johnson C. Smith University. Statement on diversity and inclusion. Retrieved from: http://www.jcsu.edu/about/statement-on-diversity-and-inclusion

Metropolitan College, Johnson C. Smith University (2016, September 20). Metropolitan College supports the success of the Hispanic community. Retrieved from: http://metropolitancollege.jcsu.edu/news/metropolitan-college-supports-success-hispanic-community/

Negronirodriguez, L., Dicks, B., & Morales, J. (2006). Cultural considerations in advising Latino/a students. Journal of Teaching in Social Work26(1-2), 201-221.

Palmer, R., Maramba, D., Allen, T.O., & Goings, R. B. (2015) From matriculation to engagement of Latino/a students at a public historically Black university. New Directions for Higher Education, 2015(170).

Roach, R. (2005). HBCUs reach out to Latino students. Diverse Issues in Higher Education, 22(16), 28-29.

Stebleton, M. J., & Alexio, M. (2015). Examining undocumented Latino/a student interactions with faculty and institutional agents. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 14(3), 256-273.

Vasilogambros, M. (2016, March 16). The folly of undereducating the undocumented. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com

Worf, L. (2014, March 13). Top students caught in immigration debate find spots in private colleges. WFAE 90.7. Retrieved from: http://wfae.org

Wright, E. (2013). JCSU’s Global Outreach. Creative Loafing. Retrieved from: http://clclt.com

Go to the table of contents for:
Spring 2017: Teaching a New Generation of Students