At an early age, Corrine Witherspoon was involved with diversity efforts through her father’s work at the Miami University Cultural Center. After moving from Indianapolis, IN to Oxford, OH before high school, Witherspoon would visit her father at the Cultural Center and view his work firsthand.
On Sept. 21, Witherspoon started in her latest role as Director of the William A. McClain Center for Diversity at Wittenberg. In this position, Witherspoon leads Wittenberg’s Diversity and Inclusion efforts as the COVID-19 pandemic, racial unrest across the United States and a decisive presidential election dominate attention.
“It means a lot during times like now where university budgets are strapped and positions are being eliminated across the nation, where [Wittenberg] took the time to say ‘we are going to fill this position.’ That says a lot,” Witherspoon said.
Witherspoon arrived at Wittenberg after graduating from Miami University in 2003 with bachelor’s degrees in English and Black World Studies. After graduation, Witherspoon headed east to Ohio University to work on her master’s degree in College Student Personnel. During her time at Ohio University, Witherspoon began working at The Multicultural Center, where she advised students and worked on cultural programing. It was this experience at Ohio’s multicultural experience that Witherspoon marks as the start of her career of working with underrepresented students.
After bouncing between Miami University and Arizona State University working in Residence Life, Witherspoon started as an area coordinator at The University of Dayton in 2008. At Dayton, Witherspoon had the opportunity to work on several passion projects, including starting Sister Circle to increase participation for underrepresented students in Dayton’s resident advisor program.
After five years at Dayton working in Residence Life, Witherspoon moved 50 miles south to University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College as a Multicultural Affairs coordinator, where she oversaw programs to increase underrepresented student recruitment. In early 2017, Witherspoon started as UC Blue Ash’s Assistant Director of Inclusion & Involvement, where she supported students from underrepresented populations and worked on diversity efforts at the college.
After five months as UC Blue Ash’s Assistant Inclusion Director, Witherspoon returned to her alma mater of Miami University to work in the Office of Diversity Affairs where she led programs aimed to “increase involvement of diverse student populations” according to her resume. After a year at Miami, Witherspoon started at University of Cincinnati, where she worked on Diversity and Inclusion efforts including managing a retention program for the University of Cincinnati College of Engineering. When asked why she came to Wittenberg, Witherspoon claimed “jobs like this don’t come around all the time.”
“It felt like an opportunity for me to use all the things I’ve been training myself and building my career to do,” Witherspoon said.
In her role as Director of the McClain Center, Witherspoon has two major platforms which shape her plans: building community and building tradition.
As part of building community at Wittenberg, Witherspoon aims to have the McClain Center collaborate with different offices on campus, including Student Involvement and COMPASS. One of Witherspoon’s first events, the Spanish Conversation tables on Oct. 30, will be co-hosted by the Language department and will feature a Day of the Dead theme. “We’ve already connected with our [Spanish speaking] faculty as a way to engage folks in learning, growing and talking in Spanish,” Witherspoon said.
Building community is one aspect of Witherspoon’s overall plan to help increase retention of underrepresented students, who hold the lowest retention rates of any student group at Wittenberg. According to Wittenberg census data, Black and Hispanic students have only averaged a 61% and 68% retention rate over the last 10 years.
“I, as an office of one, will not be able to change retention numbers, but Wittenberg as a community can come together to do that,” Witherspoon said. “It’s really important to have a collective of individuals that are able to address some situations case by case, [while others] may require [a] more strategic approach.”
To increase retention, Witherspoon suggested increasing scholarships, individual coaching for students and connecting students to increase their engagement. “That means being able to provide a variety of options for students to get involved, make connections or have a job,” Witherspoon said.
“[The McClain Center for Diversity] will be encouraging students to utilize the resources that exist here at Wittenberg, even if that means making a personal connection, which means talking with students to understand some of the challenges [they] are experiencing so that we can make the proper connections,” Witherspoon said. “Maybe you need a personal introduction with Financial Aid, or a conversation with [alumni] who share their stories about how they persevered here at Wittenberg as a way of encouraging current students.”
Witherspoon continued to describe her community building plans as “simply connecting with students, being able to talk to them, hear their stories [and] understand why they chose to come and stay at Wittenberg.”
“I had a conversation with a gentleman who was interested in having thoughtful conversations with diverse groups of students come together and talk about race because he hasn’t had the opportunity,” Witherspoon said. “Seeing all the things happening in the United States and World right now, he feels that it would be great to sit down and have conversations because folks are unaware and as a higher education institution, shouldn’t we be having these conversations?”
Witherspoon explained that a key piece of having thoughtful conversations about the difficulties facing underrepresented students is helping students understand the resources and make introductions when necessary to allow university resources to be utilized.
“Sometimes folks, regardless of how they identify, could be a little shy to ask for help, so being that conduit to other offices and areas will help students feel welcomed and encouraged on campus,” Witherspoon said.
As one of her efforts to be a conduit for student, faculty and staff diversity and inclusion efforts, Witherspoon plans to hold an event near the end of the semester where students can visit the McClain Center to pick up a grab bag and fill out a survey describing what they wish to see from the center.
“I’m pretty creative. I like to be innovative, but it’s also important for me to hear what the students need and want,” Witherspoon said. Additionally, when asked what about Wittenberg’s Diversity and Inclusion efforts was going well, Witherspoon cited her hiring as large step in the right direction.
However, Witherspoon acknowledged that Wittenberg needs do more to support programing for Latino students. Another area that Wittenberg need to improve on according to Witherspoon is “encouraging the larger community of faculty, staff and students to be a part of change even if it’s a small role.
“I think we have a lot of great folks at Wittenberg who may be interested in participating or creating something whether that’s inside or outside the classroom,” Witherspoon said, “[but] sometimes they just need support and guidance in that area and being able to actually formalize ways in which folks can get that support could really make a big difference.”