Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Diversity 2021 / Undergraduate Ethnography

The Promise of Diversity, By Aashna Shan (Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.” It was originally posted in the category “Confronting Walls and Normalizing Practices.”

To me, the essence of diversity is creating a space where a range of people from different walks of life can co-exist. The university attempts to create an environment where all groups of people can feel included and not discriminated against. I wanted to investigate how these efforts work out. Specifically, I asked the question: ‘How does diversity and inclusion interact with international student experience at the university?

Sara Ahmed’s (2019) work and her emphasis on the ‘non-performative’ inspired me to think about efforts that ‘do not bring into effect that which they name’ (119). It got me thinking about how emphasising diversity and inclusion can have the exact opposite effect, that is, attention to diversity results in exclusion.

To explore this angle I turned to Allie, an interlocutor who recalled how she felt ‘different’ because her comments were often different from her peers. She often felt like she was performing the role of a philosophy student even though she was one. This made me think that there was something at play here that made international students perceive the difference between themselves and other students. Another interlocutor, Anne, shared her constant struggle to feel valued in the context of a North American institution. With a tone of gravitas, she underscored the struggles of being an international student and all the assumptions that come with it. She described feeling like she needed to work twice as hard to get to the same places that her counterparts would get to. She felt that some of her experiences might be undervalued given they did not happen in a North American context.

These experiences suggest that inclusion is failing; these students did not really feel like they were being valued as a result of their differences instead they felt like they needed to put in more effort to acclimatise themselves to the new environment. Recognizing this problem, U of T launched an international mentorship program that provides resources specific to international students. The goal was to ‘level the playing field’ to promote student success. However, there is an irony here. In order for international students to feel included, they first need to be segregated and given tools which then allow them to feel more comfortable in the new space. Put differently, in order to be included they first need to be excluded then equipped with resources that teach them how to work within the university framework.

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