Story Graduation Initiative

Diversity in the Classroom: How CSU Faculty Are Connecting With Students

Christianne Salvador


​Students perform better when they feel connected to their campus. CSU faculty are forging strong relationships with students based on trust, support and similarities.​​​


​​​​“Students feel comfortable approaching me and gain a sense that they, too, belong in academia," says Gabriela Chavira, Ph.D., professor of psychology at California State University, Northridge (CSUN).

As a long-serving Chicana faculty member, Dr. Chavira is often approached by underrepresented minority (URM) students seeking advice and guidance.

When students feel connected to their professors, campuses and courses, they have a greater chance of staying on track to graduation. This is especially important for URM students who often face barriers, such as imposter syndrome, that make it challenging to succeed.

As part of Graduation Initiative 2025, closing achievement gaps between URM students and their peers is a priority of the CSU. The university is working to narrow the gaps by maximizing each student's unique background for a worldly and more comprehensive learning environment.


Increasing faculty diversity

Research shows that when students have professors as role models who share their cultural background, they are more likely to develop a trusting relationship with their instructor, have higher test scores and graduate from college. Increasing faculty diversity is one of the CSU's strategies for bolstering student achievement.

One way the CSU increases faculty diversity is by recruiting homegrown talent. With the most diverse student body in the nation, the CSU is encouraging students to further their education and earn a doctoral degree through the California Pre-Doctoral Program. The program provides scholarships and mentorship to help get students into graduate schools, with particular support for those who come from underserved communities. The goal is to get the scholars to come back to the CSU as faculty after earning their Ph.D.

The Chancellor's Doctoral Incentive Program (CDIP) also prepares promising students for faculty positions at the CSU by equipping them with the qualifications, motivation and skills needed to teach the university's diverse students. The program provides financial, career and academic support and is the largest program of its kind in the U.S. ​

Chavira, who is a product​ of the California Pre-Doctoral Program, says all students benefit from having a diverse faculty. Diversity in faculty, in addition to a diverse student body, can expand perspectives and cultivate new ideas.

“It leads to better class discussions and increased critical thinking for students," she says. “[They] also feel better prepared to enter a diverse workforce when taught by ethnic minority fa​culty." 


Culturally relatable classroom content

Faculty are seeing higher success rates among students who are encouraged to relate their cultures to their course materials.

“When courses are culturally validated, it collectively improves student confidence and self-worth," says Kimberly D'Anna-Hernandez, associate professor of psychology at California State University San Marcos. “Validation allows students to harness their strengths and be a part of a collaborative learning process."

The “cultural validation" pedagogy—embedding culturally relevant content into the curriculum—includes having guest speakers from marginalized communities or assigning small projects affirming students' identity. Students become empowered to highlight the strengths of their backgrounds and in turn, they see how their personal experiences can enrich the world around them.

Validation also gives students a sense of belonging on campus, which is especially beneficial for URM students who have traditionally felt excluded from higher education.

CSU faculty receive training in cultural validation pedagogy from members of CSU STEM VISTA, a program dedicated to closing achievement gaps in STEM. At CSU San Marcos, for example, VISTA members are working with the Pathways to Academic Success & Opportunities (PASO) program to teach faculty strategies for culturally validating courses.

Over the past two years, reports show that PASO courses have a 9 percent higher pass rate than other first-year courses.


Pairing students with mentors

Effective mentorship can be one of the most influential forces to increasing a student's chances of staying in school and graduating on time.

Forging strong relationships between student and mentor requires trust and similarities. The CSU is fostering connections by pairing students with mentors of similar backgrounds to create a sense of community.

At California State University, Dominguez Hills, the Male Success Alliance is promoting brotherhood among male students of color. Young men engage in peer-to-peer mentorship while receiving academic and personal support from faculty. Since its founding in 2009, the program boasts a combined 90 percent retention and graduation rate among its members. (Read about one student's success story with the CSUDH Male Success Alliance.)

At CSUN's PODER (Promoting Opportunities for Diversity in Education and Research) program, each faculty mentor connects with a biomedical student to develop research—based on their combined experiences and backgrounds—aimed at improving health equity.

The CSU's courses and programs help students explore cultures, life experiences and worldviews different from their own. By embracing diversity and understanding the value of their own backgrounds, students graduate from the CSU more well-rounded and adaptable to the people, perspectives and ideas shaping the evolving workforce.​