Elena Herron ’08 got acquainted with Colorado College’s diverse community right away — one of her First-year Experience professors was Rashna Singh, an English professor from India. “I always felt I could tell her what was on my mind,” says Herron. “Our class dealt with imperialism, and Rashna and I really connected on the issue. We both understand what it is to be from an oppressed culture.”
Herron, who comes from a predominantly Hispanic high school in Denver, says that coming to CC was initially a bit of a culture shock. “People’s attitudes about education were so different. So were their perceptions of money, fashion, and socially acceptable behavior.” But she found that having a minority professor, even though from a different culture, helped her come to terms with her feelings of discomfort and dissent with her classmates’ opinions. “She encouraged me to present my views because they were so different.
I felt comfortable with Rashna, like I had an ally in the classroom.”
Since 1988, CC has attracted minority scholars to teach on campus through its Riley Scholars program; it sponsors an average of four Ph.D. candidates or post-doctoral students each year, each of whom works and teaches part time on campus. There are four Riley Scholars on campus this year. (Singh is a visiting professor, one of two minority visiting professors who are not Riley Scholars. CC also has 16 tenure-track faculty members and one adjunct faculty member in the four traditionally underrepresented American ethnic groups.)
One of the current Riley Scholars, music Professor Miles White ’92, says, “The Riley Program is a wonderful program for a college trying to diversify its student body. Many colleges only give lip service to diversity. CC has a genuine commitment to diversity and has diversified greatly since I was here as a student.”
Increased diversity at CC benefits the entire student body, say both students and faculty. “The presence of minority professors on campus is just as important for white students as it is for minority students,” says C.W. Dawson Jr., Riley Scholar-in-Residence in philosophy and religion. “Some students tell me they’ve never had a black teacher or professor. That type of interaction and exposure is very important.”
But the Riley Program does more than just increase diversity. As a member of the Consortium for a Strong Minority Presence at Liberal Arts Colleges (CSMP), CC invites scholars who apply through the CSMP to interact with students in the classrooms of CC while they pursue scholarly research.
Paid for through CC’s operating budget, the scholar-in-residence program attracts two types of scholars: those who have completed their doctorates, and those who are in the finishing stages of their dissertations. Both options allow the scholars to teach a few blocks over the course of the year.
“The purpose of the program is to expose minority scholars to the life of a scholar/teacher at liberal arts colleges,” says Dean Victor Nelson-Cisneros. “We want to make these scholars aware of the opportunities available at a liberal arts college and expose them to the reality that our faculty does engage in research, and that the college supports them in those efforts.”
Riley Scholar William Groves, a physical chemist, says research institutions guide their science Ph.D.s toward traditional post-docs, which emphasize research and run longer than the one-year span of CC’s program. However, he agrees with Nelson-Cisneros that CC’s Riley Program offers unique benefits in the sciences. Initially drawn to working under the Block Plan, Groves says he’s been able to work on his own research into Alzheimer’s disease while interacting with students conducting their own research projects.
“Eventually,” says Groves, “I would like to be at an institution where I have the opportunity to do research and guide students.” He hopes the Riley Scholars Program grows in both scope and outreach, noting that “Minority faculty shouldn’t influence only students within their departments, but outside their departments as well.”
History Professor Reiko Hillyer also says the program helps her to balance her work between teaching and research. “The Riley fellowship gives me time to finish my dissertation. At the same time, I’m not stuck only teaching, or only doing my research. The rewarding interaction with students reminds me of why I do this at all.”
Five of CC’s current tenure-track professors were hired by CC departments after their Riley experiences. “The best part of the scholarship is that your interests are validated by the recognition that an institution is willing to support and foster your interests and your work,” says Alberto Hernandez-Lemus ’87, former Riley Scholar and current philosophy professor. The other tenure-track professors who were Riley scholars are Mario Montaño, Bryan Rommel-Ruiz, Vera Fennell, and Claire Garcia.