Fostering Inclusivity and Respect in Science Together (FIRST) seeks to expand inclusivity and reduce barriers in STEM at Davidson. The following is a conversation between Esther Lherisson ‘19, the FIRST Program Analyst; Haleena Phillips ‘21, a member of the FIRST Action Team; and Julia Knoerr ‘21, Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Davidsonian. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julia Knoerr: Could you both tell me a little bit about yourselves and what both of your roles are?

Esther Lherisson: My name is Esther Lherisson, and I’m the FIRST Program Analyst for the grant that we are working under. I mainly work to be a liaison for students, to professors, as well as do a lot of faculty development and mentoring of the Action Team.

Haleena Phillips: My name is Haleena Phillips, [and] I am a part of the Student Action Team. I’m a part of a group of four other students who propose sustainable projects and ideas to go against things that hinder inclusive pedagogy in STEM. So right now we have five different projects […]. [One] project of mine is the anti-oppression statement; I’m trying to get that implemented into different syllabi in STEM. I think of an anti-oppression statement as something that’s extremely significant […] It’s saying that “No matter who I support, just know that I am here to help dismantle racist topics, and that you can talk to me if you need to.”

JK: Could you talk a little bit about how FIRST was founded and also how the different organizational pieces of it function?

HP: Well Dr. [Barbara] Lom applied for a grant from HHMI, which is the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. They regularly give grants to institutions that are trying to do something inclusive or just change the way we do things now. Dr. Lom came up with the idea for FIRST, basically saying, “Hey, we can have more representation and fix things that students have worries about,” and stuff like that. So, she came up with this idea with the help of other faculty. […] It became this faculty action team, and they became the leadership team. They realized there was a kind of rift between the faculty and the students, because the faculty will never know our experience per se. So they came up with the idea for a student action team that could basically be the center person between students and faculty. 

JK: What is the importance of this work within STEM specifically, as opposed to within the humanities or the social sciences?

EL: So FIRST represents Fostering Respects and Inclusivity in Science Together. A lot of our events are focused on faculty who are STEM members, although we do allow anyone to come. We also have multiple programs, so one of them is called FIRST Rate. And this is a program for professors who either want to create a JEC [Justice, Equality, and Community course], re-design a course, or create a course that’s inclusive for everyone in the course. It is a great launching pad […], mainly because it allows for the time and the money (we do provide a stipend) that they otherwise would not be able to use in order to create and have the time to make their courses better. We also have MILE. So we have a MILE Partnership, which is similar to the one in Bryn Mawr by Alison Cook, who began the entire SALT institution. SALT stands for Students As Leaders and Teachers, and it focuses on students, on their experiences within a classroom that they would never attend ever again […]; it allows for faculty members to learn a little bit more about what the student perspective is and provides near immediate feedback.

The reason why we went ahead and focused on STEM is because of the fact that we ended up with data brought in by our Academic Assessment Coordinator [Brent Maher]. We all realized that the data [were] showing that students of color were falling behind in STEM and not continuing with STEM. We’re currently in gateway courses right now, but for now, it’s best to say that the data showed that students of color were falling behind. And we all knew that it wasn’t the students’ fault; it had to be the instructors’ fault because student experiences are shaped by professors.

JK: How have you drawn upon data from the academic assessment? From your perspective, is the role of data being able to identify that there is a problem and then figuring out how to address it?

HP: Because we were the pilot team, we had a responsibility of gathering attention to FIRST, so we wanted to have the data and [create] like a shock factor with it. What we did was we had these very informative infographics about faculty representation, what students who identify as students of color are in STEM, just basically to show people the info because you can’t fix a problem if you don’t know it’s there. On top of that, we also had a board out on the third floor of Wall. We would write questions on top, and we would leave markers for students to add to those responses, which also caused a lot of controversy because if you walk pass the board and you see something, you disagree with it, it’s anonymous; you’re gonna feel comfortable enough to just go there and say what you truly feel. So that brought a lot of attention, some good, some bad. 

EL: Our data also works to show issues in the success rates of students of color versus white students. We also use data from our events. For example, we have evaluations, anonymous ones, after each event, and we ask faculty members to rate the events so that we can make sure that we are presenting what inclusivity would be and not repeating something that many people have heard before.

JK: What sorts of overall feedback have you received? To what extent have you seen progress towards some of your goals in terms of reducing institutional barriers and increasing inclusivity?

EL: So what I realized very, very early on, is that faculty love student feedback. A lot of what we noticed [was] that for Action Team events, or for events that hosted students as well as faculty, we had higher attendances, and we also were receiving more comments than we normally would. The comments revolved around the fact that the faculty members were happy to hear student experiences, because it allows them first-hand to look at their assignments and realize where there may be some errors or where there may be some non-inclusive things. We also have the syllabus editing event, which usually faculty members are happy to go to. And within that, we basically have myself, as a recent student, and a couple other folks who look over syllabi and provide their own interpretations on it. 

JK: Thinking about FIRST within the context of broader academic institutions, to what extent are there other organizations at peer institutions that do similar work to FIRST? Are there national organizations that have informed the work that you do or vice versa?

EL: Yeah, so FIRST actually has […] communities of I think four or five institutions that work together and talk about the issues that they have. But there are also other channels [in] which faculty members at universities are able to come together and talk about the same problem that they all have. This is organized through the HHMI program; they want cooperation as they work on talking to other faculty members and making sure that everyone is on the same page about what inclusive pedagogy is […]. And, we get together — all the institutions — once a year for our annual meeting, where we also share more ideas of what has been tried. One of the examples is that we got SALT, the program, and we changed it to MILE [More Inclusive Learning Environments]. But we created our own program, and that started with working with Alison Cook in order to do so. 

JK: With the demands for expanding diversity in hiring, have you had any conversations about the national level scale and the factors surrounding that?

EL: Well, we think about Davison in particular because that’s where our goals are, but we also created other bounds and other resources, such as the FIRST Inclusive webpage, so that we were able to leave a more permanent effect that also would be there for other faculty members who would need it or would like to look at it. We’ve also started doing things such as recording our events, and so plenty of faculty members from other universities have been coming to our events.

JK: Do you feel that overall FIRST has received support from the campus community? If so, has that been adequate? How do you feel that FIRST is supported or not by the administration?

EL: We have definitely felt the support of faculty members and administrators, as well as staff members who are interested in making our college more inclusive, especially in STEM, where we are lacking. I believe that we are having a positive influence, and we are being supported by faculty members because each year, we have an increase in attendance to events, and we get an increase of feedback. We also see our other programs growing. We see the numbers are rising in participation [by] faculty members. As far as administration, I would say that we do feel the support of administration. We work a lot with [Associate Dean of Faculty] Fuji Lozada, and Dean [of Students Byron] McCrae is also someone that we work with in order to create best practices and look at ways to make the school more inclusive. [President] Carol Quillen also comes to our events from time to time, and so she has been very supportive and has emailed to say how much she enjoys FIRST and what we’re doing. 

JK: Based on the point that the organization is at now, what do you think are the areas for growth moving forward? What would you like to see happen in the near future?

EL: We’re currently in the stage of looking at changing Davidson’s culture, creating anti-racist policies, and evaluating [Davidson’s past] in order to right some of the wrongs that happened so long ago. What we’re mainly focusing on is how to ensure that […] FIRST’s influences remain past the time that the grant is available for, which is five years. And we’re just starting year three. We just want to create a more permanent program within Davidson that is supported hopefully by CTL [Center for Teaching and Learning]. […] I’m hoping that MILE becomes a program under the CTL and that professors continue to meet in groups of 30 or more in order to actually talk about articles, inclusive pedagogy, work on it, and figure out more ways to talk to students, whether that be through surveys, open ended or not, or in office hours, where we’re also seeing a need for improvement.

HP: Yeah, I definitely hope to see it grow and have a lasting effect, even though the grant [will be] over. I hope that a lot of our projects are incorporated into Davison, and it becomes a culture. I hope that teachers are more receptive. I hope we reach teachers who aren’t as receptive so they can implement some of our stuff, because of course you’re always going to have pushback from someone, but I hope that we don’t stop because they’re pushing back and that we can reach them from a different area, like something that pleases them — but also works.