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Diversity of Convenience in Higher Education

As I sat, looking through a window in a bookstore at a prestigious university, I could not help but notice how monolithic the institution was. There were so many White people at this institution. So many of them walking by with their children, their coffee and their oversized hats.

It was nothing like how it was advertised on their brochure and website, where they presented a diverse campus filled with people from different racial and cultural backgrounds. As a Southeast Asian American walking around the campus, I felt their intense glares following me.

Stopping by a bookstore was not all that pleasant, either. One of the staff members stopped and asked, “Doooooo youuuuu neeeed heelllpp?” As if slowing down the question would help me understand the words that were coming out of his mouth. How insulting that in a quick second, an individual’s intelligence and ability to speak can be questioned and assumed as inferior. It is discouraging that, as a Southeast Asian American person, I could be so easily mistaken for an international student with the stereotype of having poor speaking and comprehension skills.

In that split second, all of my hard work and background as an American was destroyed and replaced with images of a foreigner. It just comes to show the power and ability of White people and how they can single-handedly destroy and eliminate an individual’s identity.

As I continued to walk around, I began to wonder if the handful of people of color (I could count them on one hand) were also experiencing what I was experiencing.

What I find troubling is that the summers are usually when students and parents come to tour different institutions. People come from all around the country, and even the world, to see if the campus is suitable for them and if it is worth investing their money, time and energy. Potential students are regularly shown marketing flyers, brochures, and pictures on their website of a diverse student population. However, in reality, institutions are imploring the convenience of diversity.

A diversity of convenience does more harm than good to potential students. Marketing handouts promise a supportive and inclusive institution but really do not deliver that kind of space. Many of these institutions are still predominantly White and do not have the proper support systems in place to accommodate the needs of students of color. Printing photos of students of color for different recruitment fliers is more convenient for institutions than actually providing spaces, resources and opportunities to drive up the enrollment numbers of these students.

Institutions need to be more truthful about the information they give to students. They should not hide their issues under the illusion that everything is okay because it is more convenient to do so. Lying to students and withholding information from them because of mere convenience is not what institutions of higher learning should be doing. Institutions need to be more transparent and honest about their policies and practices to identify areas that need improvements. It is essential to not only assess the campus climate, but also to implement changes to better these institutions for students of color.

Nelson H. Pham is Assistant Director of Diversity Programs in the Office of Multicultural Affairs at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @phamnelson

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