What does creating a diverse environment really mean?

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The Student Activities Leadership Office hosted an interactive discussion Tuesday night, titled “Let’s Talk Leadership: Diversity & Leadership”, about personal experiences shaped from identities and how to be aware of biases. Photo courtesy of UConn’s Leadership and Development webpage.

Age, ethnicity, disability status, religion and sexual orientation are just some ways people diversify themselves, according to Shaina Selvaraju, a Leadership and Organizational Development facilitator for an event titled, “Let’s Talk Leadership: Diversity & Leadership.” The Student Activities Leadership Office hosted an interactive discussion Tuesday night about personal experiences shaped from identities and how to be aware of biases.  

“We each have our own experiences and they shape us differently,” Selvaraju said. “Some are more visible than others but they are characteristics that differentiate people from each other.” 

Screenshot from Let’s Talk Leadership: Diversity & Leadership event. Throughout the event, participants talked about their experiences in regards to diversity and the need for diverse leadership, especially within university counseling fields. Screenshot courtesy to the author.

Selvaraju stated that a piece of someone’s identity can be a reason why they get marginalized. She defined “marginalization” as downgrading someone, putting them in a powerless position based on their identity. Whereas she defined “privilege” is when someone is upgraded in society due to their identity.  

“Privilege inhibits diversity because it’s putting a particular group of people above the rest and giving them unfair advantages that might marginalize the certain identities and inhibit them from their progress from getting equitable resources and things like that,” Amanda Schuman, a fourth-semester pre-teaching major, said.  

“Privilege inhibits diversity because it’s putting a particular group of people above the rest and giving them unfair advantages that might marginalize the certain identities and inhibit them from their progress from getting equitable resources and things like that.”

Amanda Schuman, a fourth-semester Pre-teaching major

The “halo and horns effect” is when certain identities are seen as more likable. The horn effect is when people are degraded based off of their identities, according to Selvaraju. When asked if students have experienced these effects, Nia Mango Wilkes, a participant of the event, said yes. According to Wilkes, a few classmates talked about going into the nursing major but were discouraged by their advisors.  

“Yes, to get into nursing it’s hard, but it’s not impossible, and as an advisor, all five of these students were freshman and just coming in, so it’s not like they’ve done poorly,” Wilkes said. “I think the advisor should have gone about it in a different way. Like, it’s competitive and you should do XYZ, but not just ‘No, you shouldn’t think about it. Pick a different career choice.’”  

Nour Al Zouabi, a fourth-semester physiology and neurobiology major, agreed and felt advisors should not be the ones to tell students to change their career even if they are getting low grades. She said this can be discouraging especially for first-generation students, like herself. Other students talked about their personal stories and experiences they had with their identities.  

experience lettering text on black background
In the article, a major component that is stressed is experience. In our day to day live are experiences can differ based on our own respective race, socioeconomic class, age, or gender. Photo by Anna Tarazevich on Pexels.com

“I definitely think being a White person in society has given me a privilege,” Schuman said. “So I think now it’s more about me understanding why that has happened and using my place as a student and student leader to understand different perspectives and going on as a teacher to create a diverse and inclusive space and to break that cycle of privilege and make sure that I am supporting voices that are not my own.” 

Alani Arias, an eighth-semester psychological sciences major, said people would say she is not a true Hispanic because she wasn’t taught the Spanish language growing up. However, she said she still celebrates and feels proud of her heritage. Wilkes said when she tries to  advocate for herself and friends she is often called aggressive.  

“I’m in the fire department in my town and I’m also very small and petite, so I’m kind of at the intersection of being a woman and being short or petite,” Nicole Moody, an audience participant, said. “People say a lot of comments about me, like they don’t think I’ll be able to hold my own weight in a drill or in a real fire situation. They don’t think I would be able to handle that, so I wish people would know that I am actually really strong, and not just for a small person or for a female. I am strong in general and I can pull my own weight in all these situations.” 

“People say a lot of comments about me, like they don’t think I’ll be able to hold my own weight in a drill or in a real fire situation. They don’t think I would be able to handle that, so I wish people would know that I am actually really strong, and not just for a small person or for a female. I am strong in general and I can pull my own weight in all these situations.” 

Nicole Moody, audience participant

Allan Lian, a second-semester computer science major, expressed a similar concern, but for him it’s about not being able to freely express himself.  

I think not showing your emotions can really mess with you and it should be more accepted for people to show emotions without being criticized.”

Allan Lian, a second-semester Computer Science major

“I’m not saying that everyone perpetuates this stereotype, but like how boys or men are supposed to be manly and aren’t supposed to show their emotions and stuff, which should not be a thing,” Lian said. “I think not showing your emotions can really mess with you and it should be more accepted for people to show emotions without being criticized.” 

Selvaraju added these assumptions often put people at disadvantages and at times people don’t even realize the negative effects these biases can have. Especially implicit biases where people don’t realize they are making assumptions. This negatively impacts students and can be the reasons why people don’t pursue leadership positions, Selvaraju said. Affinity biases are also important to consider. Selvaraju explains that affinity biases is liking someone due to shared experiences or understandings. This can cause a disconnect with people who don’t share the same experiences.  

“You can actively try to include more diverse conversation or diversity in your workplace, but follow up with people who have been put in disadvantaged positions in the past to make sure what you are doing is impactful,” Selvaraju said. “It doesn’t matter what you think, because your experiences are not generalizable and you need to make sure what you are doing is creating a positive environment, whether it be in a workplace or club room or formulating friendships with other people.” 

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