Language of Diversity

by Sajeda Khalifa

In the article, The language of diversity, Sarah Ahmed (2007) asks a very important question, “what does diversity do?”  Ahmed uses the term “diversity” within the context of higher education, specifically diversity/equity aims and objectives that institutions commit to. These include but are not limited to collective efforts administrations (Ahmed, 2007). First, if I had to define what diversity should look like on a college or a university campus, I envision students from diverse ethnic backgrounds coming together from all over the world to learn not just about themselves or their career field, but to learn from one another and appreciate differences. To me, a college or a university is an institution that represents a microcosm of the world, where people can interact with one another, understand each other, and facilitate collaboration and cooperation.  Through this process, an individual can adapt to differences by having an exposure to other people’s perspectives, cultures, traditions, and practices to become an open-minded person.  An institution of higher education can be a place where students not just acquire knowledge from books, but also learn from first-hand experiences through direct interaction with different ways of being. Hence, welcoming and implementing diversity on a college campus means allowing new ideas, views, and practices to make our communities and societies more inclusive of one another, diminishing discrimination and violence from our biased ways of thinking, and coming to a mutual understanding, so that people can learn to respect differences and love one another.

As a College & Career Counselor, I work with the TRiO Upward Bound Program, which supports high school students to prepare for higher education.  My job is to assist our program participants in finding the right “college fit” where they can find the support to succeed through their four years of college journey after they graduate from high school.  When navigating their college search, I ask my first-generation college bound students from multi-ethnic backgrounds, as to what kind of college campus would make them feel welcomed? They often respond with  something along the lines of  “a college that welcomes people of color, where they feel they can belong.”

Understanding my students by putting myself in their shoes, this statement makes me reflect on my personal college experience. Being a minority who is an Asian Muslim female whose parents never attended college, I can relate to my students’ feelings of being intimidated; I, too, felt out of place, on a college campus during my college years. I attended and graduated from an institution of higher education that calls itself a “diverse” campus. It is true that students of all races, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic, and age, filled up the campus body.  The Institution did enroll diverse student bodies and staff.  To me, it seemed like the “ideal image” of what “diversity” should represent on a university campus. Looking at the institution from outside, it appeared to promote diversity through all their statements and policies. Furthermore, the institution provided Support Services, Ethnic Clubs, and course offerings that teach cultural perspectives;  professors appeared to be open-minded and accepting of differences. From outside, this institution seemed like a good fit for me.

However, once I immersed myself on campus, things were different. Although it was diverse, at times, I found myself frustrated by the lack of staff and student support from a cultural perspective (Ahmed, 2007).  Along with other students, I felt that the institution could have done a better job of creating more inclusive spaces for students of colors by hiring more faculty and staff that represented diverse student bodies and became mentors for students. I wished that clubs were more proactive on campus in engaging students in multi-cultural activities, and campuses to be more alive and vibrant by promoting cultural events that made students feel it embraced celebrating diversity by carrying it out in action. Throughout my college years, I never recall upper administration to have called for an open forum conversation inviting students of all colors to voice their opinions or concerns.  On reflection, I strongly believe that in order to cultivate a welcoming feeling on a university campus, it takes more than just giving “lip service” (Ahmed, 2007), but rather carry out the action through commitment. As Ahmed addresses in her article, “what commitment means still depends on how diversity circulates as a term within organizations.” (Ahmed, 2007).

When Ahmed asks us to think what “diversity in action” should look like, keeping my college experience in mind, I remind myself the importance of emphasizing and educating our students to reflect on what they want to get out of college experience.  Also, having a conversation about how our students can make a big change in transforming the campus, is through engaging themselves in making their voices heard, so that they can not only feel welcomed, but feel a sense of belonging by holding the institution accountable to their commitment to embracing diversity. If we want to truly welcome and appreciate diversity, all institutions, whether it is elementary or high schools, universities, or work industries, leaders running them need to play a role in providing a safe space for an individual to voice their concerns and meet their needs.  If students are not given the ‘safe space’ to voice their concern and allowing the opportunity to make the change, then equality of power will never change and will always remain social inequalities amongst people of color.  Therefore, it is critical that administrators in higher education consider racially marginalized voices to be heard and transform their institutions by rethinking and committing to how diversity should really look like on their campus, without just providing ‘lip service’ (Ahmed, 2007).