In higher education we have yet to fully acknowledge the unique challenges that students of color, low-income, first-generation students, and other minoritized students face on our campuses. As a result, many among our student body do not trust campus leadership or personnel. As we work to rebuild student trust and reimagine the student experience in a way that is truly equitable, we have to take stock of and remove institutional obstacles that cause minoritized students—and specifically students of color—to struggle academically, interpersonally, and psychologically.
Our work to rebuild the trust of minoritized students must permeate all aspects of our operations, down to the emails we send. Our choice of words has a tremendous impact, but all too often our communication mirrors existing inequities. Small, intentional changes in the ways we communicate with students can help restore some of their trust in our institutions. Read on to learn five common mistakes you may be making in your student emails—and how to correct them.
5 common email mistakes—and how to correct them
1. Sending a non-personalized message
Personalization today goes beyond just the use of a student’s first name. It is a way to build rapport, establish a connection with our students, and be identity-conscious—the latter of which is of considerable concern when reaching out to a minoritized students. Black, Latinx, first-gen, LGBTQ+, and international students are often wary of communicating or responding to an unknown person from an office they have yet to visit. To make your communications truly personal, be upfront about why you are reaching out and how you can help this student overcome whatever challenge(s) they may be facing.
Do this instead
Use a student's name and preferred pronouns if known, introduce yourself, and note the reason for your outreach
2. Sending a message from someone unknown
When it comes to sensitive matters such as academic grades, basic needs insecurity, and mental health, students are naturally cautious about who they engage with to get support or guidance, if they do at all. Be thoughtful and cautious when deciding who should be on the “from” line of these emails. An NSSE survey found that students across all racial groups trust their advisors most, followed by faculty. When seeking to provide support, ensure these individuals are doing the outreach where possible.
Do this instead
Send a message from someone the student has been introduced to, or better yet, someone they trust
3. Making students feel singled out
Although you know that you just emailed dozens of students to meet with you to discuss their course grades, your students may think they’re the only one. Many students on the receiving end of those emails already feel isolated in their academic troubles and may see your email as further confirmation that they don't belong on your campus. You may not know it, but your email at that moment adds to the other microaggressions and invalidations they have received to date. To combat this, you must provide your students with a perspective of what are common challenges students face, the ways they can turn it around, and that, in fact, a majority do. Your students will thank you.
Do this instead
Normalize the challenges students face by providing anecdotal or quantitative evidence that they are not alone
4. Using deficit-oriented language
No one likes to hear what they can’t do—but we are definitely all ears when it comes what we can do. Students are no different. By using asset-based language you prioritize a students’ aspirations, strength, and potential over unjust stigma narratives. You are saying to students that they can achieve success within your institution as you provide them resources and tools to do so. That sense of hope, resiliency, and empowerment can then erode their lack of belonging and give historically excluded students greater agency to continue creating change in themselves.
Do this instead
Use asset-based language that empowers students and acknowledges the institution's role in addressing or furthering inequities
5. Not accounting for student perspectives and feedback
The days of using one message across numerous groups of students are over. To ensure your diverse student body is receptive to the messages you send, get continual feedback. Your student communication strategy should be an iterative process—especially as the impact of the message will be felt differently across student groups. This is a step you should expect to execute several times throughout an academic year.
Do this instead
Engage student leaders, student employees, or student focus groups to understand what works and what doesn't
Practice good email hygiene
As you evolve your email communications, keep these foundational strategies in mind:
Students—and quite frankly all of us—skim messages. The time you get with students is precious and you must get to the point. Write no more than 5-6 sentences, remove jargon, and clearly state the benefit students will derive from the interaction.
Before you send over your next email provide an easy link to a resource or a tool to schedule an appointment. Make it as easy as possible for students to opt-in and take the requested next step.
A chance to show equity in action
If you are concerned about student success and want to (re)build trust among your student groups, take a cue from Campbell University: they revamped their student messaging using an asset-based framework (and many of the tips offered here) and have seen a 32% increase in response rates from students, raising their response rate to 65% overall. Clearly, we aren’t communicating in the best way. By employing a diverse communication strategy informed by research and your students, you can better support, guide, and improve your students’ success.
Put it into practice
Download the whitepaper, Missed Connections, to discover 3 practices to improve your alerts to students and access a checklist for equity-based email communication.