My sons are growing up at Elon. Elon has been the background of my eldest son’s life since he was just a few months old. He made the drive to school with me the very first day of classes when I began teaching here in the fall of 2010; he was unceremoniously banned from daycare because he had a fever the day before. My husband’s running joke about college choices with our two boys has consistently gone like this: “You may go to whichever Elon of your choosing.” However, we have never had an explicit conversation with our sons about what they are looking for in a college and whether they can see themselves at Elon.

A young black boy sits at a desk crowded with books, papers and photographs. He has his left hand on a ball and his right on the keyboard.

A few months ago, my eldest made the forty-minute commute with me to Elon and I couldn’t resist the allure of taking him on a pseudo-tour of the campus. As a rising seventh grader, he took in the grounds of the university differently than he had all those other times. Middle school goes fast, high school perhaps even faster. College is bubbling up to the forefront of his consciousness. I watched him move throughout the campus. I watched him scan the student center and fake a layup in the gym when he thought I wasn’t looking. I saw him comfortably ease behind the desks in a classroom and then I saw the moment the ease became discomfort. I took the path nearly all the official tours take down the archway shrouded by brick columns that border the library. At each column is a plaque commemorating a pivotal moment in the university’s history through current day. When we got to the final column, my son turned to me and stated, “So no one who isn’t White has done something important in the school’s history?” I simply stared with my mouth agape, caught completely off guard by this simple yet profoundly powerful observation from my twelve-year-old.

I serve as the director for the Black Lumen Project, an equity initiative that was one of the recommendations from Elon’s History and Memory Report. I have sat in countless meetings with constituents across the university discussing the importance of having access to both an inclusive discourse and authentic display of history across the campus. My son’s reaction to not seeing anyone that looked like him or shared the experience of having to navigate a historically White institution (HWI) as a racial minority is exactly the reason for why critically embedded and culturally representative voice, resources, and materials are essential throughout all layers of an institution’s ecological system. In the four years since I wrote my first Center for Engaged Learning blog post, where I identified the moment that I felt the weight of being a historically underrepresented minority student (HURM), I have shifted instead to framing my positionality in American academic spaces as a historically excluded minority student (HEMS). The latter acknowledges the fact that “underrepresented” implicitly suggests that at some point we (racial minority students) didn’t show up to be counted or considered as opposed to being both intentionally and unintentionally excluded because of educational inequities (Noguera 2017) and systemic oppression (Conner 2022). This is a much more accurate reflection of how race and education interact in America.

My son and I continued to unpack his critical questioning of how and even if he belonged in American educational spaces on the drive back home. This moment under the brick columns was the final levee that had been keeping the flood waters of his microaggressive racial and sometimes religious trauma at bay. What followed were tears of pain, misunderstanding (both of us assuming the other had somehow managed to escape the horrors of chronic discrimination and invisibility in school), and healing. As a parent, with personal, professional, and scholarly knowledge (Longmire-Avital and Robinson 2018; Longmire-Avital and McQueen 2019; Longmire-Avital and Finkelstein 2022) of the effort it takes to navigate HWIs as a person of color—my heart shattered. I don’t think I have put it back together yet.

I took this experience and shared it with the current iteration of the History and Memory Committee that I serve on. We have vowed to address the need for further documentation and representation that signifies that the Black experience is not an extension of the dominate Elon narrative but interwoven and indistinguishable. This unforgettable moment also solidified my commitment to advocate for intentional signals which convey to students that their stories and lived experiences not only have value but can be found throughout all the disciplines we teach. This commitment to representation and inclusion is not new. There are many ways to do this at institutional levels (Goldberg, Beemyn and Smith 2019) and pedagogical levels (Addy et al. 2021).

For example, Howansky, Maimon, and Sanchez 2022 document the powerful impact identity safety cues (ISCs) can have on orchestrating student belonging in the classroom setting. Cues such as diversity statements or land acknowledgments in syllabi; the use of pronouns when introducing yourself as the instructor; or the intentional inclusion of materials (such as articles, books, movies, pictures, invited speakers) that signal expansive entrenched belonging. I would argue further that equitable inclusion is the intentional use of theories that decenter Whiteness by instead centering marginalized experiences as the default narrative of the course. This type of recentering aligns with Ladson-Billings and Tate’s 1995 seminal work on how to critically redefine and redistribute power in the curricular space. The redistribution and redefining of space not only signals belonging but is a movement beyond surface level or performative gestures (and jesters) that mock the value of and pursuit of sustained and impactful change.

But how does this translate or transition into the high-impact practice experience? As I point out in my model for reparative critical mentoring in HIPS, the mentoring relationship begins at recruitment of the student for participation in a HIP and that recruitment often begins in the classroom or more specifically with the pedagogical approach and materials presented. If we want to build spaces and opportunities that equitably center HEMS in sustainable high-impact practices and infrastructures for equity, then we must grapple with whether there are valid meaningful identity cues that affirm psychological well-being, safety, and an equitable power distribution?

These cues are likely dependent on the HIP you are constructing. I have previously discussed how to engage racial equity when framing study abroad at the course construction level. Many of those steps are paths towards fostering identity safety. My classroom is my primary recruitment ground for students interested in undergraduate research or service-learning experiences. In addition to ISCs mentioned above, I intentionally craft assignments that give my students the opportunity to showcase their cultural capital wealth, an inclusive model originally constructed by Yosso 2005, which shifts the focus from command of the material as the sole form of assessing readiness or commitment to engage in a HIP to lived experience. I disclose my positionality to my research students. They should be aware of why and how I come to this work. What my lenses are. Articles we read align with the populations we are studying. I am intentional in selecting work done by and about women of color.

Providing ISCs also means taking the lead in helping your students determine that the co-curricular spaces or places they are entering have safety cues too. For instance, selecting an internship has multiple steps and one of them should be an assessment of how psychologically safe and inclusive the working environment is. If you are the academic faculty or staff supervisor, it is your responsibility to investigate this, to do the research on how to determine whether DEI are core values of the organization.

Maslow’s 1943 hierarchy of needs suggests that well before we can pursue self-actualization, which may be one of the sought-after goals and outcomes of quality HIPs, we need assurance that we are safe. Most beings are hardwired to seek out safety, without it you are in a perpetual state of survival and far from the ability to thrive or self-actualize. Architects of HIPs know the value of these gateway opportunities, but for all students to get the most out of them we, NOT the students, must not only monitor how we signal, build, and advocate for safety but acknowledge WHY we should and must do this.

…and to my beautiful dynamic sons, may you find places, spaces, and paths that are not only reflective of you but safe.


Addy, Tracie Marcella, Derek Dube, Khadijah A. Mitchell, and Mallory SoRelle. 2021. What Inclusive Instructors Do: Principles and Practices for Excellence in College Teaching. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Conner, Charmaine. 2022.”Black Children Matter Too: Disrupting Systemic Oppression in Education.” The Journal of Humanistic Counseling. 61 (2): 78-91.

Goldberg, Abbie E., Genny Beemyn, and JuliAnna Z. Smith. 2019. “What Is needed, What Is Valued: Trans Students’ Perspectives on Trans-inclusive Policies and Practices in Higher Education.” Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation 29 (1): 27-67.

Howansky, Kristina, Melanie Maimon, and Diana Sanchez. 2022. “Identity Safety Cues Predict Instructor Impressions, Belonging, and Absences in the Psychology Classroom.” Teaching of Psychology 49 (3): 212-217.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria, and William F. Tate. 1995. “Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education.” Teachers College Record 97 (1): 47-68.

Longmire-Avital, Buffie, and Jennifer Finkelstein. 2022. “Raising Super Women… And Emotional Eaters (?): Exploring the Relationship between Socialized Coping Responses to Discrimination and Eating Pathology Behaviors for Collegiate Black Women.” Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 1-20.

Longmire-Avital, Buffie, and Chelsea McQueen. 2019. “Exploring a Relationship between Race-Related Stress and Emotional Eating for Collegiate Black American Women.” Women & Health 59 (3): 240-251.

Longmire-Avital, Buffie, and Ruthie Robinson. 2018. “Young, Depressed, and Black: A Comparative Exploration of Depressive Symptomatology among Black and White Collegiate Women.” Journal of College Student Psychotherapy 32 (1): 53-72.

Maslow, Abraham H. 1943. “Preface to Motivation Theory.” Psychosomatic Medicine.

Noguera, Pedro A. 2017. “Introduction to ‘Racial Inequality and Education: Patterns and Prospects for the Future.’” The Educational Forum 81 (2): 129-135. Routledge.

Yosso, Tara J. 2005. “Whose Culture Has Capital? A Critical Race Theory Discussion of Community Cultural Wealth.” Race Ethnicity and Education 8 (1): 69-91.

Buffie Longmire-Avital is professor of psychology and the director of the Black Lumen Project. Buffie is a leader of the 2020-2023 Research Seminar on (Re)Examining Conditions for Meaningful Learning Experiences.

How to Cite this Post

Longmire-Avital, Buffie. 2022. “An Equitable High-Impact Practice Must Be Psychosocially Safe and Reflective of All Identities.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. October 11, 2022.