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

What Is Diversity? By Aashna Shah (Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on DiversityWhat Is Diversity? By Aashna Shah)

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.”

Out of all the students enrolled at the university about 25% are international students. They are often the flag bearers of cultural diversity at the university. As an international student myself I became curious about the ways in which diversity was acting upon international students and affecting their experience. Let me start by clarifying what the university means by the terms diversity and inclusion. After searching around a few websites, I came across a definition that reads: “Diversity is understood as the demographic mix of the university community but focuses particularly on groups who remain under-represented at U of T. Inclusion is the creation of an environment where everyone feels welcome and respected […]. Further, an inclusive university strives for equity and respects, accepts, and values differences.

To explore whether this concept is reflected in international student experience I turned to other international students as well as my own experiences and realised that the definition of inclusion and diversity that the university proposes presents some interesting tensions. Considering diversity as simply a demographic mix is not enough because it blurs over the complex ways in which students are organised at the university.

When I turned to the international student body to understand their experience of ‘fitting in’ I realised that even though an overwhelming number of students said that they felt like they fit in without consciously having to change things about themselves, their subconscious thought reflected in their language use indicated that they did in fact perceive themselves as outsiders.  If this was the case then what role was diversity playing in student experience? Interlocutors suggested that diversity serves as a tool for students to learn about the things that made them feel different and drew attention to the things they needed to change in order to fit in. There seemed to be a fixed framework in the university and students were expected to learn to fit within it.

Thus, it becomes apparent that diversity at the university does not exist in the way that we have previously understood but it has some intricacies which play out in the lived experience of students. It is insufficient to view diversity as a tool that allows for embracing cultural differences. Instead, diversity acts as tool that heightens what makes the group different and in doing so draws attention to the things one needs to change in order to fit in. 

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