Melanie V. Tucker, the assistant vice president for student affairs at Northern Illinois University, spearheaded efforts to implement the principles of universal design across her unit and campus. Below, she explains her motivations for doing so, and the outcomes.

Q: What got you interested in universal design applications for student affairs departments?

A: Prior to my current role, I served as the director of two disability resource centers, so I was very familiar with universal design to begin with. When I stepped into my current role, I realized that implementing some universal design strategies across my department was a way to not only contribute to retention initiatives, but also to increase partnerships across campus. I was particularly moved to do this by research about student persistence when students feel valued and included in their campus communities, and I wanted to move us away from the compliance and medical model toward a social justice model.

Q: How have you specifically promoted the principles of universal design within student affairs?

A: My division puts on professional development conferences each year for us and our partners across campus. I use that opportunity to conduct training for staff from offices within my department, as well as other areas of the institution, on how to infuse universal design into what they do.

Part of what I love about universal design is that it just makes sense. Once people get that universal design doesn’t have to be real complicated, there’s this sort of lightbulb moment, and suddenly they start looking at all of the things they do, down to the very basics, like how they market programs and events. For instance, do they place fliers on bulletin boards across campus? Well, that doesn’t work for everyone. So they then start considering how they might do such things differently to create inclusion.

Sometimes, people also find that what they’re already doing is in line with the principles of universal design, and so they see off the bat that being inclusive can be easy, and it doesn’t necessarily mean any added work.

Q: What advice would you have for someone at another institution looking to emulate your efforts?

A: Find allies across campus. Those folks could be faculty members or colleagues from other departments. Knowing who has people’s ears can make a big difference, because as a UD advocate, I can’t be in every meeting or at every table.

Invite people to come and have a conversation about universal design. Once you create some excitement around the topic, it will spread. Other departments have started inviting me to their departmental meetings to talk about what universal design would look like within their divisions.

And approach the conversation from a perspective that offers broad appeal. For instance, explain how inclusion creates a welcoming environment that promotes retention, not just for students with disabilities, but for all students. Don’t frame universal design as being a cure-all, but rather one more tool we can use to positively impact retention.

Counter resistance before it comes up. For example, talk about how, sure, some things can cost a lot of money, but there are many others that would cost little or nothing at all and can make a huge positive impact.

For more information, you may contact Melanie V. Tucker at mthompson3@niu.edu.