How Scripps’ Staff and Student Leaders Are
Advancing Equity on Their Own Terms

 

By Emily Glory Peters 

 

In its beginnings, the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to be something of an equalizer—a rare global phenomenon that created a universal shared experience for all of us.

 

Yet it didn’t take long for disparities to surface. Inequities in education, income, and access to health care put people of color at higher risk of viral disease and death. Women of color lost jobs at a record rate. And in 2020, the killings of unarmed Black Americans George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor prompted outraged responses from leaders across all sectors—declarations that racial inequity is real, destructive, and must be uprooted.

 

While assertions from Scripps’ leadership were no exception, they underscored another profound reality: Leadership and the advancement of racial equity are linked. For the College to deliver on its promise to graduate individuals who will be leaders in society, the critical consideration of what barriers certain populations face versus others—especially in higher education—was more pressing than ever.

 

Recognizing Scripps’ responsibility in this work was especially significant for Marissiko Wheaton, assistant dean and director of Scripps Communities of Resources and Empowerment (SCORE), when she accepted the role last year.

 

“As a women’s college, Scripps has inherently served as a home for those who have been denied access to other spaces and institutions. In carrying that spirit today, it’s important we extend this access to all underrepresented, intersectional identities that come here to learn,” she says. And while history has shown that a wall pushed down is hard to raise again, she adds, it’s a leader’s role to ensure that the push persists.

 

“We should never be satisfied with anything that limits other deserving students’ Scripps experience, because to be proud of the College’s history is to be proud of the constant drive to increase equity and access,” says Wheaton.

 

The twin traumas of the pandemic and the nation’s “racial reckoning” set the scene for Wheaton’s arrival at Scripps in August 2020. Her principal duties were to help students build an inclusive community through student-led clubs and organizations (CLORGs) and to provide leadership development opportunities using a social justice framework. It’s a complex charge in the best of circumstances—let alone through a computer screen during Scripps’ temporary switch to remote learning—but she was up for the task.

 
In some respects, Wheaton’s life was preparation for the work at hand. Of mixed Japanese and Black ancestry, she spent her childhood in South Central Los Angeles amid rising racial tensions between communities where she shared multiple identities. The experience fueled her future research in social injustice, culminating in her doctorate work at the University of Southern California, where she dove into student leadership, activism, and the study of how equity—or its absence—was influencing underrepresented students.
Wheaton says that drawing from this expertise was key to evaluating the best way to support Scripps students. But she also had to think critically about how the recent racial upheaval, COVID-19, and the innate demands of college were impacting these students’ lives. One conclusion was clear: All students were affected, but those with marginalized identities were exceptionally affected.
 
“Students of color, those with disabilities or mental health issues, those unable to feel safe discussing race or their sexuality around their relatives at home—they needed unique accommodations,” she explains. “There is no way I could have made my way through last year and have developed the programs I did without asking them, ‘What are you navigating? What are you hungry for?’”
 
Inspired by these conversations, Wheaton soon created new resources.
 
Students were able to participate in mental health healing circles, a counselor-led discussion series for those grappling with the uptick in anti-Asian violence, and even a dialogue unpacking the ways that Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) and Black students could work together toward greater racial equity. As 2020 stretched into 2021, Wheaton began to see students of all backgrounds take greater ownership of their Scripps experience—and their ability to make it more inclusive of others.
 
“The challenges of the last year and a half clarified that you can’t be a leader in the same reactive ‘always having an answer’ way. You have to process, have more flexibility, and create concentric circles of conversation for others to unveil issues and confront them together,” she says. “That’s what allows the greatest number of students to know they’re seen, heard, and understood—and Scripps students are leaning into this kind of leadership style.” In turn, more of them are shaping their own processes to evaluate challenges and pursue solutions on their own terms.
 
Take Blessing Nkechi-Etse Roland-Magaji ’24. Like Wheaton, she came (remotely) to Scripps last year bearing more than one identity: a Nigerian-Irish immigrant, educated in the American South, the first of her family to attend college, and one of Scripps’ few Black femme students in STEM.
 
It was tough, Roland-Magaji says, to find ways to cope with impostor syndrome. Her high school experience in Texas had left scars from racially charged encounters and a dearth of resources for students who, like her, came from a minoritized socioeconomic background. While excited about studying at Scripps, she struggled initially in her first chemistry class, feeling like she had less experience navigating the subject as comfortably as some of her peers. She wondered: What if other first-generation or BIPOC students felt the same? How could she help bridge the knowledge gap for others interested in pursuing STEM studies?
 
An opportunity soon arose to help her explore that question: a new racial justice and equity fellowship at Scripps.
 
“Not everyone starts at Scripps on the same playing field. I felt that if, as a college, you accept students of color who may not have the same [access to] extensive resources as others, you have to create measures for them to succeed,” she says. “In preparing for the fellowship, I knew I’d have to think critically about these issues that were important to me and take action based on that evaluation. For me, that meant delving into the deepest parts of my thoughts to determine the impact I could make for myself, my peers, and students later on.”
 
After being named as the program’s inaugural fellow, Roland-Magaji launched what she describes as a “fact-finding mission” to explore the interplay between inclusive pedagogy and how the pandemic and surrounding circumstances have impacted underrepresented STEM students. Under the guidance of her fellowship advisor, Professor of Chemistry and Associate Dean of Faculty for Racial Equity Mary Hatcher-Skeers, Roland-Magaji is surveying all Scripps students who took chemistry during the 2020 academic year to gauge what factors have affected their academic success.
 
Marginalized people shouldn’t feel solely responsible for speaking up.
 
“I’m looking into what the last year has meant for these students, especially Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) or first-generation, in terms of their financial instability, increased work or family responsibilities, grading experiences, and their comfort level with professors in sharing these issues,” she explains. “A second survey in spring 2022 will explore the in-person experience to see how things have changed.”
 
Ultimately, she’ll present her data to College leadership with an intent to advocate for increased resources for those students who face greater challenges on their journeys to academic success. It’s this very pursuit of equity that Roland-Magaji feels has outfitted her as a leader who can implement critical thinking to create measurable outcomes—and that has prompted her to do more.
 
In addition to her current fellowship, last year she served as first-year class president with the aim of fostering an inclusive community—the precise goal of Wheaton’s work through SCORE. Roland-Magaji will move on from her role as first-year class president this fall, but she will continue to work with Scripps Associated Students, the student governing body, as their faculty/staff relations chair to connect students with resources as they transition back to residential life. As her involvement on campus continues, she’s confident that she’s modeling a form of active leadership others can replicate.
 
“Marginalized people shouldn’t feel solely responsible for speaking up. But if you do have the capacity to be involved as a leader, you can work together with others who care or who have also navigated these spaces and advocate for what you need to make the Scripps experience great for everyone. Otherwise, how will the administration know?” she says. “As a leader, I’ve realized that this vulnerability is important and necessary—and that I have the confidence to speak to people in places of authority to create change.”
 
As students returned to campus this fall, the mood has been quieter than past homecomings—yet hopeful. The events of the last two years have shifted needs, exposed inequities, and compelled the Scripps community to look inward. At the heart of the matter is acknowledging any ways that the College has protracted systemic inequity—and considering how to leverage this influence to bring about its end.
 
For Wheaton, the work has only just begun.
 
“As part of Scripps’ Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access (IDEA) Initiative, I’m working with Professor Hatcher-Skeers and Denise Nelson Nash, vice president and secretary of the Board of Trustees, to push forward a series of priorities toward Scripps becoming an antiracist campus,” she says. Under the IDEA Initiative’s Committee on Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity (CIDE), Wheaton and other members have helped create three subcommittees: Decolonizing Scripps, BIPOC Student Support, and Microaggressions, charged with identifying instances of inequity and advising College leadership on recommended policies, procedures, and practices. Progress is being made: Wheaton and her colleagues have already hosted microaggression trainings with faculty and administrators, expanded support for Black and Indigenous students by introducing affinity CLORGS, and begun work on strategies to improve BIPOC faculty representation.
 
I truly believe that nothing can be done without the voice of the students.
 
Above all, Wheaton is mindful that racial inequity did not begin with the pandemic or the murder of George Floyd. It’s deeply rooted, tangled in the history of higher education, and requires a long-haul strategy to dismantle. This, she observes, can only happen when the lived experiences of those most affected are amplified.
 
“For me, relationship building is so key. That’s what I’m best at and can help students with—taking identities that don’t match and creating conversations so they can develop coalitions, work across communities, and aggregate issues they want to address,” she says. “I truly believe that nothing can be done without the voice of the students.”
 
A continued partnership between the College and its student leaders is perhaps the most powerful balm for pandemic-related healing. As Roland-Magaji notes, Scripps is a refuge for many, a community for those who do not have a safe place to be themselves elsewhere.
 
This is the kind of inclusion she wants to see. She’s hopeful that College leadership will continue to support the thoughtful consideration—and critical action—of its staff and student leadership as they mold a more equitable campus.
 
“There’s so much more we can do so marginalized students don’t have to search for places they belong but instead automatically feel like they’re not only in a community, but home,” she says. “It sometimes takes another person believing in you to help you grow—to know that if Scripps believes in me as a person, then I can do anything. That’s my dream for Scripps.”