Making Inclusive Excellence a Priority in Parent and Family Programs: How We Started Our Journey at Clemson

We will start out by saying, creating a parent/ family program with inclusive excellence is a fluid and continuous process. We aren’t where we would like to be yet, but we have made significant improvements in the last few years.

To begin, here is a bit of context: Student Transitions and Family Programs at Clemson University took over retention programs for underrepresented students in 2014. At that time we had many conversations as a team on what this meant and how each and every staff member was going to need to critically examine what we were doing and what we could improve upon to strive for inclusive excellence.  We started to consistently look at what we were working on and would challenge ourselves to make it better. We were lucky to have experts in inclusive practices in our office space, and we utilized their thoughts and knowledge. At that time our unit consisted of underrepresented student retention, family programs, orientation, student leadership (for orientation and welcome week), and veteran and military programs. For the purpose of this post, we will focus on the overhauls we established within the parent and family programs unit. There were three major areas of focus: family publications, family events and our Parents’ Council (PC) (as you read through this post, you’ll notice this name changes).  

We will start with the easy and more simple shifts we were able to make.

We looked through all of our print and electronic communications that would go to families.

  • Do they represent various students? Can all students/ families see a student that looks like them? 
  • We also looked at our words. Were we saying “he or she” as we were referring to students or were we using more inclusive terms such as “they?” 
  • Were we speaking “student affairs language” or were we speaking to people who don’t hear all of our normal verbiage every day? We know what it is like to read materials from an expert in an area and feel like we’re reading another language. We had parents read and provide feedback. 
  • If families aren’t at orientation to receive printed communication pieces, or if there are split families, are we still offering simple ways for them to obtain the information?  

We looked at our programming/ events for parents/ families. We really had a lot of work to do with this one.  

  • Were there events being offered at different price points? Were there free events
  • Do families see events that they can identify with? Religion? Race? Small scale? Large Scale? 
  • Were the events being held on inclusive dates or are you interfering with a religious holiday? If they were falling on a religious holiday, what could we do to show support of religious affiliated events? 
  • We had to evaluate our accessibility. Were we offering ways to get around campus? Were we offering accessible parking to our events? Were we communicating this well on the front end? 

The next piece is where we did a lot of work. We had a group that we referred to as our Parents’ Council (PC). This was not your typical PC that you see at other institutions, with strong ties to alumni and development. This group of families was more rooted in volunteering, helping at events and programs such as Family Weekend, Orientation, Move-in Day, Letter Writing Campaigns, etc. From day one this name made me cringe because #1 The name “parent” was not representative of the role that family members play in their student’s life, and #2 This board was not a group that is your typical PC at other institutions, so I was constantly having to explain it. This group was doing some great things for the institution, but there was a serious need of improvement towards inclusive excellence with them and how they would interact with others (students, families, staff, etc.). The families were in most cases some of the very first people that new families were meeting when coming to campus. These families would be wearing Clemson polos and Clemson nametags- families don’t know they aren’t actual employees! We needed to make some decisions on what we could do to ensure the families on the board were striving to create the same atmosphere that we were striving for as a department. Below is an overview of some of the ways we created change. 

Recruiting Process 
We were very intentional. We were actively talking to and building relationships with families that look different from one another. We started doing heavy outreach to our campus colleagues from our various multi-cultural groups for recommendations of families to serve on the board. We met with campus colleagues that had initial relationships with the families we desired representation from. We had to ask ourselves, “are we making these colleagues aware of how we valued the groups they advised and were we making it known that we want them to have a seat at the table?” 

Application Process 
To be considered for the board, families must complete a brief application. We added a diversity statement that appears at the beginning of the application to help illustrate that diversity and inclusion is one of our values. We also mentioned elements of training that would be mandatory to complete to be a member on the board. One of these training sessions was about inclusion, facilitated by our Clemson multicultural center staff. If families weren’t supportive of completing this training, we knew they weren’t a good fit for the board to begin with. We then repeated this statement and mandatory training in the application itself and at the end of the application there was a save the date for the training. Through these changes, it was hard to deny that creating an inclusive environment is a top priority of the STFP staff and the PC board. 

We worked on the questions on our application. We asked “what representations of students and families do you believe you would feel confident in advocating for? (Out- of state, Greek, first generation, race, LGBTQ, military, learning disabled, athlete, bridge student, etc. etc. etc.)” This question was key for 2 reasons. #1 it made families aware that we CARE about this. #2 It made them aware of what we mean when we say diversity. It didn’t let them get off with a generic response, or to assume one aspect of diversity such as race. We wanted to emphasize that we view diversity as a larger construct then the first-thought-of areas such as race, religion, sexual orientation etc. 

On-boarding Process 
As we all know, time is limited resource in our profession, and we as a staff didn’t have the time to do this. We partnered with our Harvey and Lucina Gannt Multicultural Center team and did a training on Implicit Bias at their very first PC meeting. The training wasn’t intended to do a completely alter what people think or how they act. We did want families to understand and become aware of some things we had observed them saying or doing.  We knew families had good intentions, but some of their actions were off-putting towards others. This training was largely focused around Intent vs. Impact. To be honest, we had no idea how they would respond to this and I was a bit nervous of a potential uproar. We were pleasantly surprised, as the response was pleasingly the polar opposite. The families LOVED this training. They wanted ALL STAFF, FACULTY and most importantly their STUDENTS to go through the same training!  

Invite to all Clemson Diversity/ Inclusion training
When Clemson hosts a training related to diversity and inclusion, we forward the invitation to our PC board and invite them to attend. We had a group that was very excited to go to the LGBTQ Ally training which we took as a big win!

Name Change
As I mentioned earlier in this post, we recognized the need to change the name Parents’ Council to a more inclusive name. Being completely transparent, this took a lot of time. Clemson is a very traditional institution rich in history. This was one of those historical groups with thick roots. We wrote and rewrote a proposal to get it just right, and then sent it up the chain of command. We gave a few options on names we deemed appropriate for not only who the group embodies, but also for what the group actually does. We ended up getting approval (after many years!) and changed the name to the Clemson Family Advisory Board (CFAB). Our board has single parents, divorced parents, grandparents, widows and now they can feel actively represented by the name of the group they are a part of.  

As previously mentioned, we have made some huge contributions to parent and family programs at Clemson. It hasn’t been easy, it hasn’t been fast, and it certainly isn’t a completed project. The team continues to seek opportunities to be inclusive and we evaluate our efforts often. If you are in a place like we were where you knew you need to make a change, here are a few tips that really helped us in this process.  

  1. Set the tone VERY early with any parent/family volunteers 
  2. Create intentional relationships with both campus colleagues and with families 
  3. Become aware of what your campus is already offering. Can it be shifted to families or incorporate families?
  4. Recruitment- be intentional from the relationships built, to the application and to the training. Get the right people in the right seats. 
  5. Continuously evaluate what you are doing and how you can improve 
  6. Patience- Recognize that some things will take a lot of time. 
  7. Start with the low hanging fruit (publications, events) and make realistic changes in the beginning. 
  8. Find your allies within your current parent/family volunteer groups/boards and use them in the process to push your agenda. 

We assume if you are reading this, it is with the intention of evaluating your program and seeing where you may be able to improve. If so, you are already a step ahead of many!  We wish you and your team the best of luck as you continue working toward a more inclusive environment!  

“Inclusion is not simply about physical proximity. It is about intentionally planning for the success of all students” 



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