Peer Perspectives on Inclusion
Before he decided to become a professor, Dr. Mateo Cruz spent nearly a decade working with nonprofits to design and deliver health leadership programs for youth of color from historically marginalized neighborhoods. His experience made him a firm believer in the power of peer education to promote honest conversations around sensitive topics — so much so, in fact, that the assistant professor of Management made the peer learning model the foundation of his Managing Diversity in the Workplace (MG228) course this summer.
The class, which focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in business, introduces Bentley students to the opportunities and challenges of an increasingly diverse workforce. A concern for companies since the 1940s, when women flooded the labor force and segregation ended in the U.S. Army, creating inclusive and equitable environments is now considered a priority.
But as Cruz acknowledges, achieving equity in the workplace is easier said than done. As the Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements have shown, prejudice and discrimination are deeply rooted in the U.S., and conversations about these topics are often uncomfortable. “It takes courage to engage in difficult discussions and admit vulnerability,” he notes. “But it’s critical that Bentley students, as the business leaders of tomorrow, normalize respectful conversations about diversity.”
In the classroom, Cruz notes, DEI discussions “can create a lot of anxiety. The topics we discuss — race, gender, sexual orientation, religion — are intensely personal. Many students are so worried about saying or doing the wrong thing they’re afraid to participate.” COVID further compounded this dynamic, requiring the class to be taught virtually instead of in-person: “Fostering a sense of connection isn’t easy over Zoom, especially for a course focused on intergroup relations.”
To mitigate these challenges, Cruz implemented a peer learning model for the course’s culminating project. He asked students, working in teams, to design and deliver a 75-minute discussion-based workshop about a DEI topic of their choosing. Their audience? Other Bentley students. “With peers as facilitators, the power dynamics of the classroom shift,” he explains. Students are not only more likely to engage, they’re also more likely to offer honest opinions, “instead of focusing on giving the ‘right’ answer.”
Ultimately, the 34 students in Cruz’s class presented seven workshops on a variety of topics — including “Being Black in the Corporate World,” “Allyship: Gender in the Workplace” and “Language Bias and Non-Native English Speakers” — to a collective audience of more than 50 fellow Falcons. Although initially daunting, the assignment proved both edifying and inspiring for the student facilitators.
“Our workshop required so much preparation, dedication, care and passion,” says Management major Alys Bosque ’22, whose group focused on women in the workplace. “This class helped me understand why I’ve often felt judged and scared to be myself in spaces where the majority do not look like me. Being Latina, I didn’t even think I had social privileges, but now that I know otherwise, I’ve been actively engaged in challenging my own unconscious bias.” As she sees it, “the peer-led model is so much more effective” than traditional classroom instruction methods because it creates a “brave and safe space where we can learn directly from and with the people we relate to more closely.”
Gia Hoa Lam ’22, a double major in Economics-Finance and Liberal Studies: Earth, Environmental and Global Sustainability, agrees. “The peer model is about equalizing authority and sharing the responsibility of learning. It creates the psychological safety for people to be vulnerable.” This is critical, he notes, because “the more fear there is around making a mistake, the less action is done. Making mistakes in DEI and feeling the freedom to fail is what leads to better workplace culture.”
Cruz is hopeful the peer-learning model can extend beyond the classroom to support larger social justice efforts at the university. For example, students who’ve completed the course might facilitate similar workshops for athletic teams, student organizations and other campus groups interested in learning more about DEI. “Our core philosophy here at Bentley is empowering students to become change leaders,” he explains. “Expanding these workshops will provide opportunities for students to take the knowledge and skills they’ve learned in the classroom and apply them firsthand as advocates for inclusion.”
It’s a plan that has his students’ full support. “This model for DEI trainings has tremendous potential to change the culture of Bentley,” says Lam. “It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, shocked and saddened by social injustice. This class taught me that systemic change grows from having courage in everyday moments to challenge business as usual.”