University Boosts Commitment to Equity With DEI Leadership Program

Graduates to present final projects in Thursday showcase

OXFORD, Miss. – Graduates of the University of Mississippi‘s first Leadership for Equity and Inclusive Excellence certificate course will showcase their final creative projects from 3 to 5 p.m. Thursday (Dec. 14) in the ballroom of the Paul B. Johnson Sr. Commons.

The Division of Diversity and Community Engagement offered the six-week online course to faculty and staff to provide professional development in diversity, equity and inclusion. Thirty-seven participants successfully completed the inaugural course.

“We wanted to develop them as leaders, but we also wanted to challenge what they thought they knew about DEI,” said Jazmine Kelley, the university’s diversity education and strategic initiatives director. “We were able to develop some materials that really made them question how they looked at topics like sex, gender, sexuality … that made them reimagine how they thought about disability awareness and access.”

To complete the course, participants crafted a final project, showcasing their acquired knowledge and issuing a call to action in support of their community of interest.

“They tackle topics around diversity, equity and inclusion, social change, social action and community engagement,” Kelley said. “The intent was to develop leaders for equity and inclusive excellence, but doing it in a way that was a bit atypical.”

Jennifer Sanford

Jennifer Sanford, program manager for iStudy in the Division of Outreach and Continuing Education, created an audiovisual presentation advocating for education reform within the prison system. The iStudy program, which Sanford manages, provides support for incarcerated students in the university’s Prison to Pipeline program, giving them access to earn college credits.

“This course, with its focus on equity and inclusivity, emerged as the perfect avenue to equip me with the necessary tools to contribute meaningfully to this cause,” she said.

Sparking meaningful discussion was also the intention behind Cassandra Hawkins’ final project, a podcast episode addressing the issue of food insecurity. Hawkins is the associate director of data and quality management at the Institute of Child Nutrition.

“I chose food insecurity to engage in dialogue that would resonate with a broad audience and inspire change,” Hawkins said.

She credits the course with helping her to speak out about important topics.

“Overall, it was an eye-opening and empowering experience that equipped me to advocate more effectively,” Hawkins said.

Participants described the course as a transformative experience that changed how they perceived inclusivity.

“Engaging in this course meant not only undertaking serious self-reflection, but also participating in challenging discussions that broadened my perspectives” Sanford said.

“The course fostered a paradigm shift in my understanding of leadership. I found myself thinking differently about leadership and inclusivity.”

Cassandra Hawkins

Hawkins said the course exceeded her expectations.

“I gained a deep understanding and a robust tool kit for effective leadership,” she said. “The course also provided an opportunity for self-reflection, helping me recognize my biases and how they might impact my work.”

One of the main goals for the course was to instill the importance of DEI across all the university’s academic and service units, Kelley said.

“We’ve got people from all across campus,” she said. “From pharmacy, from outreach… you name it, and we’ve probably got someone that is representing that facet of campus.

“When I think about the impact, that’s what I think about – just how awesome it is to have these different champions in places where, I, being one person, wouldn’t be able to influence or touch in the same way.”

The graduates get a certificate and access to the Diversity Education Hub, offering updates on awards, funding opportunities and pertinent news regarding diversity and community engagement.

The university plans to offer the course again in fall 2024, and this year’s participants encourage fellow Ole Miss employees to enroll.

“I wholeheartedly recommend this course to colleagues seeking a comprehensive understanding of leadership intertwined with principles of equity and inclusivity,” Sanford said. “If you’re into making a real impact and embracing change, it’s a must.”