Leader of DEI efforts at CMU earns national attention

Shawna Patterson-Stephens creates connections to foster a sense of belonging

| Author: Kevin Essebaggers | Media Contact: Ari Harris

In the last year, Shawna Patterson-Stephens, vice president for Inclusive Excellence and Belonging, has garnered multiple national awards for her exceptional work to strengthen diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education.

At the heart of her ongoing work is a desire to create a sense of belonging at CMU. Her approach to this work involves asking many questions – questions about what happens to people when they don’t feel connected to others.

“As a person, who wants to feel like they don't belong? And what does that do to your psyche?” she asked. “What does that do to your health? What does that do to your outlook on life when you don't feel like you can exist anywhere?”

Patterson-Stephens knows those feelings well. As a CMU student in the 1990’s she struggled to make meaning of experiences that caused her to feel excluded.

“I remember what it felt like not to understand what's going on around me, not to feel like I could connect to what it meant to be a college student, and feeling like I didn't have access to the same information as my peers,” she said.

Guided by those memories and with the goal of improving the experiences of current and future students, as well as faculty and staff, her current work in diversity, equity and inclusion at CMU is addressing those concerns.

Recognition with meaning

Her efforts have garnered significant national attention in the past academic year, earning several awards. Patterson-Stephens was named one of Crain’s Detroit Business 2023 Notable Leaders in DEI, and recognized as an American College Personnel Association 2024 Diamond Honoree. She received the 2024 National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Bobby E. Leach Award, and most recently was selected for the Pan African Network’s Anne S. Pruitt Foundation Award.

The Pruitt and Leach awards are particularly significant to Patterson-Stephens.

“I have been very involved in ACPA since I was a grad student and we learned how (Pruitt) became the first Black woman president of ACPA,” she said. “She's a trailblazer in so many different realms… and I just aspire to be like her one day because she has really moved a lot of needles in her career.”

Patterson-Stephens said Bobby E. Leach served as the first Black VP of Student Affairs at Florida State University, where she earned her Ph.D. She remembers the days, and nights, of training and learning at the Leach Student Activity Center on FSU’s campus.

“Knowing that we have some similarities in our career paths I just feel intimately tied to those people. It just means that much more to me for that reason,” she said.

Teamwork to make CMU more inclusive

Patterson-Stephens is quick to acknowledge that she is only one part of the DEI work being done at CMU that these awards recognize. She points to her colleagues across campus and within the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the support they contribute to the effort.

“I'm not doing it by myself. I work alongside a very competent and passionate staff. This is not something that can be done insularly or in a silo,” she said.

The current work of CMU’s Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is taking on initiatives on many fronts, she said. The University Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council  recently released a new DEI strategic plan to guide the university’s inclusion efforts, and led the change in CMU policies on lived/chosen names and religious accommodations. There also is an effort underway to bring back some inclusive traditions and create new ones as well, like the inaugural Black Alumni Weekend event at CMU planned for this summer.

Making a place for belonging

Even without awards as proof points, Patterson-Stephens understands the importance of her office’s efforts. All she has to do to remind herself is to think back to her own experiences as a first-generation, working-class Student of Color who desperately wanted to feel like she belonged.

“It hurts my heart to know that there are people who feel like they don’t have a place,” she said. “So, to the best of my ability, I'm going to make sure that people understand they always have a place to go to if they feel like they don’t have anywhere else to go.”

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