Powerlist: Breaking Barriers

Oregon’s universities and colleges are forming partnerships with businesses to nurture a new generation of diverse graduates and help bridge the urban-rural economic divide.

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This past December, Ryan Buchanan, CEO of marketing firm eROI, was attending a private business event in Portland when it struck him how many white men were at the meeting. He had observed the same lack of diversity at many other business events he had networked at in the city. Feeling compelled to publicize the issue, he wrote a blog about how the Portland business community is too white and too male.

 “The post was a call to action to get peers to dispel the myth that there isn’t a diverse talent pool,” says Buchanan. The blog resulted in positive change. Shortly after posting the piece, Buchanan met friend Ben Sand, CEO of the Portland Leadership Foundation, who together with Buchanan decided to found a paid internship initiative for students of color.

Launched in June this year, the Emerging Leaders Internship Program has placed 35 students with Portland businesses. Participating companies include Salt & Straw, Metal Toad, Perkins & Co., Lane Powell and Wieden + Kennedy. Students are paid $15 an hour for a six-week placement, which guarantees direct access to high-level managers.

Universities and colleges have embraced the initiative, says Sand. Higher-education institutions that are participating include Warner Pacific, the University of Portland and Oregon State University. “These institutions jumped all in and said we will go and find talented students,” he says.

Oregon’s universities and colleges are under a mandate to increase diversity of their student populations, and internships can help these students gain confidence and skills essential in the world of work. In 2011 the state adopted the 40-40-20 law, which sets a goal of having 40% of adults earn a bachelor’s degree or higher by 2025, 40% earn an associate’s degree or postsecondary credential, and 20% earn at least a high school diploma.  To reach that goal, higher-education institutions have to enroll more diverse, first-generation and low-income students.

Incubating diversity

Oregon’s colleges and universities still have a long way to go to meet the mandate, particularly among ethnic minorities, who are less than half as likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree compared with the overall adult population. But these institutions have become incubators for fostering diverse talent pools. And they are far more diverse than the state’s business sector, which is still dominated by white male professionals at the management and executive level.

Andrea Cook, president of Warner Pacific College, says businesses often fall back on the same resources during the hiring process that can prevent them from reaching diverse students. The Emerging Leaders Internship Program is one initiative to pair up students with businesses that are interested in hiring more diverse graduates. “One of the things businesses run up against when they think of hiring diverse populations is they oftentimes say, ‘We don’t know where to find them.’ We need to be working on a pipeline and giving visibility both to businesses and students about opportunities.”

The makeup of Warner Pacific’s student body has changed dramatically over the past eight years, reflecting the growing diversity of Portland’s high schools. The college’s urban campus is located close to a large Asian population in the city’s southeast neighborhood. Half of the college’s students are from ethnic minorities, 50% are the first in their families to go to college, and more than 50% are eligible for federal financial aid.

Supporting such diversity poses its own unique challenges. These students are at high risk of dropping out of university and college because of high tuition fees. Many students also do not have family support and often lack confidence to navigate the college system. To help retain these students. Warner Pacific offers frequent mentoring. “We recognized how we need to think about providing students with wraparound services that engage them and support them because they don’t have anyone in their family who has gone before them who knows how to navigate all this,” says Cook.

Small town universities in the spotlight

In other parts of the state, colleges face the same challenges of integrating diverse students and helping them graduate into a predominantly white business culture. On the immaculate campus of Western Oregon University in Monmouth, a small city just south of Salem, Rex Fuller has been out meeting community leaders since he became president in July 2015. Fuller was previously provost at Eastern Washington University and has spent the past 26 years in academia. “Part of my job as president is to talk to businesspeople and the community about how we have graduates who will meet their needs,” says Fuller.

About half of the students at Western Oregon University are first generation. The university has an emphasis on trying to hire diverse staff members who reflect the background of the students, says Fuller. The university also created a bilingual education program in partnership with the Salem-Keizer school district. The program aims to produce bi-lingual graduates to teach in K-12 schools in the mid-Willamette Valley. Fuller welcomes feedback from businesses on the relevancy of its curriculum. “I would like to hear from the leadership of the community about what their emerging needs are so we can anticipate new programs or new populations we need to attract to remain relevant to the needs of Oregon.”

In the eastern part of the state, a business leader is turning his hand to building stronger partnerships between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors and the region’s public university. Tom Insko, an Eastern Oregon native, spent 20 years working in the natural-resources sector before taking the job of president of Eastern Oregon University in July 2015. He brings a business focus to a university that serves economically depressed rural communities and has struggled financially from declining enrollment over the past few years.

Insko says he is “passionate” about closing the rural-urban divide in Eastern Oregon. The university serves communities that are not just poor but also ethnically diverse. The population of the county of Morrow, for example, is 36% Hispanic or Latino compared with 12.7% for Oregon as a whole. Many of these students are the first in their family to go to university. Almost half of the university’s students who reported on parental education in the fall term of 2015 said they were first generation.

Business partnerships

Insko sees partnerships with the business and community as critical to the future success of the university. He started a minor in global food systems management to make the curriculum more relevant to the agricultural-based communities in Eastern Oregon. “We have food manufacturers in the Port of Morrow but haven’t had a program. So we developed a minor,” he says. The university also has a new minor in outdoor recreational leadership to reflect the growth in the region’s recreational-based economy.

 The president created a new position of executive director of innovation and outreach to connect faculty and programs with businesses and nonprofits. “It is critical to have actively engaged businesses. It is not just important for the business and community to need EOU; we need business and community to support us.”

An expansion of the university’s internship program is also high up on Insko’s agenda. Students who get work experience are twice as likely to be successful in their careers, he says. The president wants all the students to get some form of business exposure. He supports internships but also businesses coming into the classroom to interact with students.

He gives the example of the possibility of a small business that is struggling with branding receiving marketing advice from students. “We have great opportunities to connect that business with the class experience: The students get to develop a marketing plan; the small business walks away with a comprehensive marketing plan.”

Liberal arts colleges have not traditionally fostered close relationships with the sector. But the diversity of students entering the higher-education system foreshadows the emergence of a whole new generation of diverse talent, which will be lost if the business community remains a bastion of white men. 

Says Warner Pacific’s Cook: “For so many years students who are first generation, low income and diverse have not had opportunities and have been left on the sidelines. The human capital there is huge. As I look at the economic disparities, I realize if we don’t educate and provide opportunities for these students, it will affect our country for generations to come.” 

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