School of Education student creates equitable spaces in higher education

Marisa Vernon White's professional portrait

Higher Education Leadership doctoral candidate Marisa Vernon White has built a career working in open-access higher education across regional campuses and community colleges.

Recently promoted to vice president of enrollment management and student services at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio, White’s experience in the HEL program has allowed her to take her work as a community college professional to the next level, focusing on equity and higher education as a social system.

“Our readings, conversations, and writing assignments challenged me, as a white administrator, to recognize how privilege can cloud our ability to create equitable, race-conscious policies and systems,” said White. “This is especially important in community college work, where the student body is exceptionally diverse, and the institution supports students working on different pathways to further education and careers.”

Leah Meyer Austin Award

White, far-left, and her colleagues at Lorain County Community College accept the Leah Meyer Austin Award in Feb. 2020

White and her LCCC colleagues were recently awarded the 2020 Leah Meyer Austin Award by Achieving the Dream, a national nonprofit organization focused on evidence-based institutional improvement. The award recognizes colleges that employ a holistic approach to reducing equity gaps between student groups and increasing success for all by using institutional strength, aligned policies and procedures, and a student-focused culture.

This national recognition allows White to continue her work focusing on student support and interaction with other schools.

“My work entails strategy and oversight of a diverse student affairs division, but also includes frequent engagement with other schools, national networks, and research teams,” said White. “As a new vice president, the role has also challenged me to learn the other vice presidents’ roles and responsibilities, such as finance, public relations and academic affairs, so I can support them as my colleagues and make institutional decisions as a collective unit.”

“I am proud of LCCC daily,” she said. “Our team is exceptional and incredibly committed to student success. There is a fire inside of community college teams that drives them to understand each individual student’s story, needs, goals, and concerns. Serving as a true ‘open door’ to higher education means LCCC provides access to education and careers that fundamentally change the lives for students, families, and communities.”

LCCC has worked hard to employ a holistic approach to reduce equity gaps among students. They’ve been so successful that many institutions consult LCCC to learn more about successfully supporting student access and completion.

“To achieve what LCCC has done in terms of redesign and student success outcomes is a reflection of policy revisions, hard work around acknowledging racial and socioeconomic gaps, designing holistic supports that acknowledge basic needs as critical to academic success, and ongoing assessment of our students’ needs,” said White.

LCCC’s process begins with disaggregating data across multiple factors such as race, socioeconomic status, nontraditional status, and more to confront gaps and serve all students.

“It is important to determine if overall ‘success’ or increases to completion rates are masking inequities or reinforcing gaps,” said White. “Upon enrollment, our assigned advisers get to know their students not just academically, but personally, and stay with them throughout their time at LCCC. Through this model and related systems, we get to know our students well and have established sustainable systems to remove nearly any challenge a student encounters: academic, child care, emergency aid, food pantry, connection to community resources, and mentoring.”

Focus on equity and relationship-building

Originally a practitioner and op-ed writer for American College Personnel Association’s quarterly column on the two-year sector, White hadn’t planned to pursue a doctoral degree. It wasn’t until she grew more engaged in research, writing, and teaching that she became interested in a more comprehensive understanding of college operations. The HEL program at Colorado State University appealed to her because of its ability to prepare her for full engagement in academic institutions.

“I selected the HEL program because I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. that would prepare me to not only lead institutions, but prepare me for research, writing, and teaching roles to increase presence of community college work in the higher education academic landscape as well,” said White. “I also knew I would need to attend while working professionally, and the HEL program provided a peer network and faculty support to do just that.”

White’s focus on policies, legal implications, and business structures in the HEL program has been significant in her ability to support her students and understand their various backgrounds.

“My time as an HEL doctoral student has been instrumental in this,” she said. “I now have a lens that challenges me to critically examine the impacts of these systems on students, their lives, and communities. This experience and knowledge inspire me to be a strong leader and vocal advocate in designing the best possible environments for community college students to thrive.”

The HEL program and her work at LCCC have allowed White to look at student support and the importance of community college in a new light. She hopes to continue building relationships and helping others who want to engage in higher education.

“I am happy to serve as a resource for current and future HEL students who work in or want to work in community college settings,” said White. “I genuinely enjoy mentoring and teaching others, and feel strongly that exceptionally talented, creative, social justice-minded higher education professionals can find a great professional match in community colleges. Together, we can continue to raise the voices of this important subset of higher education, and share broadly the collective impact community colleges have on individuals, families, and communities.”

The Higher Education Leadership program is housed in the School of Education, part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.