Cultivating Diversity in Agriculture and Life Sciences

Theressa Cooper, assistant dean for diversity in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, started her new job on Feb. 1, after working at the University of Tennessee for nine years. In her new position, she oversees diversity programs such as the George Washington Carver Internship Program, diversity training for faculty, staff and students, recruitment of both graduate and undergraduate students, leading the CALS Diversity Committee, grant writing, connecting with minority serving institutions, and, eventually, as a faculty member in the Department of Agricultural Education and Studies, teaching. As she considers developing a set of goals, Assistant Dean Cooper is first learning what CALS is all about, including the current culture and climate. She will evaluate programs and develop a plan with goals that move CALS forward.

How have you adjusted to a new campus and to Iowa State University?
For a southern girl, I think I’ve done a pretty good job. I’m from a small town in Texas and Ames has that same hometown feeling. Moving in the winter was difficult, but I’ve learned to layer. I bought snow boots so I feel right at home. People are people wherever you go and they make all the difference.

What goals have you set for yourself and what makes them achievable?
Personally, I just wanted to get acclimated. I believe in blooming wherever you’re planted. Regarding work, I wanted to learn and discover all about CALS, its everyday actions and I really value the processes taking place. My goals are to increase diversity of the faculty, staff and students by learning from the past and implementing new ways of knowing, thinking and doing culturally competent diversity work. I also see as a goal the challenge to get people thinking about diversity beyond the dichotomy of people of color or minorities and Europeans. It is so much bigger than that. What makes this achievable are the awesome faculty, staff and students in CALS who show a genuine desire to increase diversity in CALS and the university as a whole. It is also achievable because of the commitment the dean and associate deans have shown to diversity. When you have an administration that is willing to put money, time and effort toward a cause, things begin to happen — systemic and programmatic changes become a reality. There is not just talk happening in CALS about diversity; there are people here committed to doing the work. The combination of these things makes me believe that all things are possible when it comes to increased diversity and cultural competency in CALS.

The George Washington Carver Summer Research Internship Program is one of the college’s “jewels” to showcase science experiences for diverse students and our faculty mentors. How do you hope to maintain or build upon this “jewel” of a program in the college?
I’m really going to play on connections with the historic black colleges and universities in the South and how we advertise the program to them. I also want to increase relationships with Hispanic-serving and Native-American serving institutions so we can increase the numbers of these students who attend the program. I hope to get more faculty members involved, especially those who have relationships or partnerships with other institutions. The Carver program can be a bridge that strengthens the research partnership between a CALS faculty member and other institutions in providing research opportunities for their students. My goal is to expand the level of excellence in a cost-effective way. There is a growing need and desire from students who want to be a part of this program. The program is growing at a very rapid pace. We have significantly more applicants than we have spaces to fill, which is a great problem to have. The challenge is expanding the program to more participants without diminishing its structure and current benefits of participation.

Are there new kinds of programs you wish to explore or develop focusing on diversity in agriculture and life sciences?
In the future I plan to create a series of teaching and learning workshops for faculty, staff and students that focus on various aspects of cultural competency and diversity. I would also like to expand our outreach and recruitment efforts to populations of color. I will be working with the CALS recruitment team to develop targeted efforts for this population. I feel it is important to reach out to more diverse high schools and conferences targeting these populations.

Where do you see the college in the future regarding diversity?
I think the future is bright. We are growing and changing constantly. We are leaders. We accept that change is inevitable and we do not run from it; we embrace it. I see CALS as one of the leaders of the pack when it comes to diversity efforts at ISU. The groundwork is being laid now and we are building on the current foundation. Diversity isn’t all about race. It’s about women, cultural competency, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning, people with disabilities, ageism, classism and social justice, just to name a few. CALS truly cares about these issues. We are a family. Family takes care of family. We will continue to do what we do best: take care of our family.

How can more students become involved in diversity efforts?
Creating a welcoming and accepting environment for people different from you is a great way. Students need to step out of their comfort zones and open themselves up to new experiences, value sets, cultures and uniqueness that others bring to the table. It is important to shelve judgment, bigotry, prejudice and hate — put them high on a shelf and leave them there. For some, the process of opening yourself up to this type of new experience may be difficult. It’s not always easy, but is necessary to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for everyone. Joint programming is another way to create opportunities, build networks and to bridge groups of people. We — faculty, staff, and students— need to look for opportunities to bring people of all walks of life together. This needs to be done in a way that feels natural and evolutionary, not forced.

What three words best characterize how you approach your job—and your life?
Patience, determination and prayer.

Do you have a favorite quote you’d like to share?
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go...” From Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You'll Go!