By Amber Friedrichsen
One way for students to make Iowa State University’s large campus feel smaller is by connecting with their peers. Many organizations have been created to provide these opportunities, and the Students of Color Network is no exception.
In 2018, Elaine Phompheng, academic advisor for agricultural and biosystems engineering, and her colleagues in student services developed the Students of Color Network within the agricultural and biosystems engineering department. The organization emphasizes acceptance and inclusion of people of color, and the group has since flourished into a supportive community.
The idea for the Students of Color Network came about when Phompheng and her team were made aware of negative experiences ABE students reported having. Lindsay Frueh, academic advisor for agricultural and biosystems engineering, suggested forming an organization that would prevent situations like these from happening in the future.
“We wanted to take a look at ourselves as a department and find ways to improve – to make sure that we have a place for students to feel welcome, and that they are an integral part of ABE,” Phompheng said.
Before the Students of Color Network was established, the ABE student services team administered surveys to students and had discussions with them to determine how the organization could benefit them. They discovered students were looking for a safe space to address issues they faced regarding their race and to get to know others who can relate to them.
Today, the Students of Color Network has over 25 members who meet at least once a month. These meetings range from informal gatherings where students play games to off-campus outings to professional development events. No matter what type of meeting is arranged, Phompheng noted the atmosphere is always genuine.
“Students appreciate the laid-back nature of the group, and we have let them lead the way in terms of setting the tone for the meetings,” Phompheng said. “This makes it so much easier to have open dialogue and open conversations.”
While the Students of Color Network brings members together, it also encourages them build relationships with professors and advisors in the ABE department. Faculty are invited to the group’s meetings, and Phompheng said students seem to value making personal connections with them.
Julián Canabal, junior in agricultural engineering, is a member of the Students of Color Network and appreciates interacting with ABE faculty. At meetings when he and his peers open up about negative experiences they’ve had on campus, he said it is reassuring to know his professors and advisors are listening and want to help.
“I like that faculty are invited to our meetings because they add value to our conversations and provide a different perspective about what is being discussed,” Canabal said.
Thao Larson, senior in biological systems engineering, joined the Students of Color Network to connect with other students of color in her major, but also enjoys interacting with faculty at meetings. She is especially thankful for Phompheng and the other advisors who implemented the student organization in the first place.
“I feel safe in the environment created by the students and faculty – they give me a platform to voice my concerns and share my triumphs,” Larson said. “I’m grateful for the academic advisors who have put effort into keeping this organization alive and helping underrepresented students feel like they have a space within the ABE department.”
Phompheng is excited for the group to reunite this semester now that students are back on campus. Although she has planned meetings and events for the Students of Color Network in the past, she hopes to delegate more of these responsibilities to members and allow them to make decisions moving forward.
“This has always been a student-driven group, and it’s always been the goal to eventually have students have ownership,” Phompheng said. “For us faculty, this would mean taking a step back and letting the students take charge and lead the group in the way they feel is the best direction.”