Carnegie Mellon University

Photo of Kevin Jarbo

February 01, 2019

A Conversation with Kevin Jarbo

Mandi Semple
  • Director of Marketing, Student Affairs

CMU is not a place where success is the only aim; completing a degree isn’t solely about research opportunities or securing a job after graduation. One of Carnegie Mellon’s most honorable aims is fostering a welcoming environment, so that everyone can feel at home while they study and live here. Postdoc scholar Kevin Jarbo actively works to make this sentiment a reality. He’s a hardworking community member who wishes we could all prioritize others a bit more.

Kevin’s currently completing his post doctorate degree at Carnegie Mellon University in psychology. He was a graduate student at CMU in psychology, and he completed his undergraduate education at the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in biological sciences. Although he’s on his way to departing CMU, he still sees a lot of room for improvement on campus. I sat down to talk with him about the nuances of the word “inclusion,” and what it means at a university like this one.

Being an Invested Community Member

Kevin immediately felt at home and accepted when he entered CMU as a graduate student. But he soon realized that many of friends and colleagues felt differently.

He says, “I feel lucky for my opportunities at CMU, but I don’t want anyone to fall through the cracks.”

He wants us to be aware of our own biases and make the campus community as welcoming as possible. This makes him constantly ask: how can we make academia more equitable? He joined the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion as a senior research fellow to answer that question.

Acknowledging Our Differences

Everyone has their own unique familial, cultural, ethnic, financial and religious backgrounds. We all face certain struggles, but sometimes we forget to treat each other from a place of empathy. Not just individually, but at an institutional level.

Kevin says, “One student might come to CMU and he studied computer science in high school. But another student might come to CMU and he’s never owned a laptop.”

How can we address such different starting points? Kevin says there’s no definitive answer, but professors and students need to approach situations with openness and understanding, rather than being oblivious to realities outside of their own purviews. CMU holds the reputation of being elite and affluent, but this masks many day-to-day issues that students deal with, monetary and otherwise. Certain privileges need to be recognized, and certain resources need to be provided to fill the gaps.

On a day-to-day level, practicing empathy is the kindest thing we can do for ourselves and others. Every member of the CMU community should strive for an institution that tailors itself to students’ unique challenges. We can all be aware of certain systematic biases and do our best to dismantle them.

Learning to Challenge Ourselves

What can we do as a campus community to try to even the un-even playing fields?

Kevin says that higher education isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, just about the degree. Students learn new things constantly at college, but it’s not just academics.

“We need to engage with everyone for the overall improvement of everyone,” he says.

What would CMU look like if we continually challenged our beliefs, our values, and focused on pressing social issues? What do the relationships on this campus look like when we’re happy to help each other?

There are people, if you look around, who are already stepping up in certain ways. Kevin said that he’s impressed by the housefellows and the CA and RA community; they offer their time because they care about the welfare of every student. If a resident needs help working through things, there’s a network of committed staff and students as a starting point.

Inclusivity is, of course, about validating the experiences of minorities and other repressed groups on campus (women, LGBTQ+). Most people can spot overt prejudice when they see it, but not everyone is familiar with the idea of micro-aggressions. For example, picture a white person asking someone who’s Asian: “Where are you from?” And when they respond with, “New Jersey,” the person asks again: “No, where are you from?” That’s an example of a microaggression – a comment that’s ignorant and undercuts someone’s identity with problematic presumptions.

Inclusivity is an on-going challenge that will take years. Kevin says “we all have to start the wheel rolling.”

Complex Communities

“The people who are here [at CMU] make it the most positive by being engaged with everyone.”

As a graduate student, Kevin joined a call-to-action group, a group of people who try their best to formulate immediate responses to highly relevant issues. For instance, one campus concern was policy brutality at a national scale, and whether or not professors would breach the topic, and make their students of color feel comfortable. Kevin and others tried to draw attention to this pressing issue and circulated the message that “Black Scholars Matter.”

Throughout his time at CMU, Kevin’s gone from a committee member of the Diversity and Inclusion General Education Curriculum Committee to an active member of the staff at the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion. He’s also the activism chair for the Black Graduate Student Organization.

Kevin said that it can be hard for people to find their communities on campus. CMU has more than 80 diversity-related student organizations, but it’s not always easy to pick and choose; Kevin suggests trying multiple organizations on campus to get a feel for them. Not everyone falls easily into a category—identities are nuanced, and some students feel more at home in one org versus another.

Kevin wonders how the resources of this university could best serve other populations, like prospective students, even in small ways. He thinks the administration should consider, for example, outreach programs for less advantageous high school students. Over the years some programs have existed, but Kevin stresses there’s always more potential. Even if it’s a slow process, students can change the way campus operates by voicing their opinions.   

A Constant Effort

Dramatic changes toward progress take time. The world is a constantly changing place, and issues that were divisive a few years ago (for example, gender-neutral bathrooms) are now becoming common-place. Logistically, however, questions remain. In older buildings, Kevin says, bathrooms may need more rehabbing to be gender-neutral. And if a bathroom is truly gender-neutral, shouldn’t there be feminine hygiene supplies in both?

When facing the work and planning behind institutional reform, some people get intimidated by what they view as fussy details, and the daunting scale of it all. On a macro and micro level, Kevin says it’s hard to be so patient, but that no positive good comes out of a vacuum. Anything that’s going to be long-lasting and substantial requires meetings and conversations and the polling of opinions. 

All students can initiate change and improve CMU in ways they find beneficial, but it won’t happen overnight. Perhaps the most important thing is sparking conversations with others. Talk to your friends about the issues that matter most to you – that’s never a bad place to start!