UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State World Campus has named an associate director who will focus on advancing equity and inclusiveness for its diverse student body.

Denita Wright Watson has been appointed as the associate director of equity, inclusion, and advocacy, a position newly established within the Penn State World Campus Student Affairs office. Wright Watson has experience in higher education and social services.

The position’s focus is to create programs and events to build affinity among students from different backgrounds and life experiences, said Ashley Adams, senior director of Penn State World Campus Student Affairs. The associate director is also responsible for providing advocacy and support to students in need, regardless of their identity.

Adams said she long has thought of how students’ identities — such as race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and sexuality — can factor into their learning experiences.

“In student affairs practice in higher education, we tend to identify who students are by how they show up on our campuses and how they engage the university,” she said. “It was important that we do that at Penn State World Campus, too. We want to be on par with the student experience on campus. Equity and inclusion absolutely matter to students, regardless of the mode of delivery.”

The most recent Penn State World Campus student data, from the University’s fall 2019 census, show that almost 10% of its 14,687 students are Hispanic/Latino. More than 6% are Black/African American, and 5% are Asian.

Wright Watson, who previously worked at Penn State Great Valley as a program manager for the campus’s engineering division, said she is excited to start her new role. 

“I embrace opportunities to bring people together for open, courageous dialogues that bring about greater understanding,” Wright Watson said. “People naturally tend to shy away from uncomfortable conversations, but I see the beauty in them and recognize them for what they are — opportunities to learn and grow.” 

Wright Watson is working to create identity-based affinity groups, such as for Black students, Latinx students, and students who are parents. Affinity groups are meant to be supportive, safe spaces where students who share an identity can build connections and learn from one another, she said.

Wright Watson hopes the groups provide members with personal and professional growth, and that members’ interactions produce dialogues that can benefit the broader community, she said.

She recently held listening sessions with students interested in starting those affinity groups to collect feedback.

“For Black and Latinx students, I wanted to acknowledge that we are in a time where social justice issues have left many of us frustrated, angry, or hurting, and those feelings can present themselves in our work, our personal lives, and our academic settings,” she said. “My intention in the listening sessions was to acknowledge this range of feelings and create groups that offer encouragement, support, and a platform for expression and growth.”

In the listening session for students who are parents, students spoke about the challenges of balancing their online learning and their children’s learning and gave suggestions for how the University can provide support, she said.

Wright Watson is creating a series of discussions called “Tough Talks,” in which students with different identities participate in a moderated conversation to explore each other’s backgrounds and find common ground. She said she is also working on a health-related program to promote awareness and early screenings for health matters that may affect students.

Earlier this semester, Wright Watson worked with the Gender Equity Center at the University Park campus to co-sponsor virtual speaking events, and she created a program to help students advocate for themselves in the face of social justice and microaggressions in the workplace.

“I look forward to facilitating more of these dialogues, advocating for students, and instilling in them tools to advocate for themselves,” Wright Watson said.

Her position was created at a time of heightened awareness around social justice inequities in the U.S. and when more students are turning to online learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That makes it even more incumbent on online learning practitioners to take notice of students’ identities and support them, Adams said. 

“As online practitioners, we need to make an extra effort to center our students’ identities,” Adams said. “If you’re only paying attention to those students when they show up in your course, you’re not helping them.”

Visit the Penn State World Campus website for more information about its student affairs office. 

Photo credit: Danny Hulse