78 percent of Minerva’s student body comes from outside the United States, according to the schools’ website, a remarkable figure compared to other American universities. We, as students, know this and include it on our standard list of bragging points: seven cities, cutting-edge curriculum, and an international student body. When Minerva as an institution presents itself to new cities and partners, it often also emphasizes these achievements.
The relevance of Minerva’s framing of its student body struck me after Fall 2019 Civitas. Our staff members, as is common in such events, kicked off Civitas with a reminder to students, marked with a blue sticker, and civic partners, marked with a red sticker, that we were an incredibly diverse group. Our presenters specifically alluded to our varied nationalities on multiple occasions. At those moments, I found myself wondering what the room would look like if we were to reorganize the stickers to distinguish those who were “diverse” from those who were not?
I had previously thought about what it means to highlight students’ backgrounds in the summer of 2019, when I conducted research at Out of Eden Learn (OOEL), an online learning project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. OOEL’s platform hosts over 30,000 students from around the world and I was particularly keen to emphasize its cross-cultural success, with students representing 60 countries and 399 cities. I gleefully drafted a blog post presenting my research results, writing “the OOEL platform represents a diverse cohort of students, who speak 144 different languages, as special as [insert a list of exotic-sounding languages]”. It was only later, when my supervisor told me I should be careful not to “tokenize” students, that I realized the dynamic I was unconsciously playing into.
In the context of my internship, an array of hard-to-pronounce languages was my attempt to capitalize on the “diversity” of our student demographic.
How we describe a person or an institution is part of a feedback loop which signals and sustains specific impressions. An example close to home is the name of an institution. Consider the phenomena where many employers will not scan a resume unless the student is a graduate of an Ivy League school. In such instances, the name “Harvard” or “Princeton” signals prestige and merit. Institutions garner such social capital because employers believe they are merit worthy, due to a mix of historic precedent, selective screening, and/or strong curriculum. In turn, institutions supply meritorious alumni to those employers. An interesting analysis shows that we don’t have to agree on a consistent and objective definition of merit for this exchange to happen. Similarly, certain words and practices signal the moral currency of a person or institution. For instance, consider the word “sustainable.” Slap it onto any consumer product, regardless of its environmental impact, and its connotation makes this product far more appealing than alternatives. Nancy Leong, a University of Denver law professor, dubbed an analogous dynamic “racial capitalism,” which she defines as “an individual or group deriving value from the racial identity of another person.” The lines between race, ethnicity, and nationality are undoubtedly blurry. In the context of my internship, however, an array of hard-to-pronounce languages was my attempt to capitalize on the “diversity” of our student demographic.
OOEL was rightly wary of this dynamic — of singling out students, especially those from underrepresented locations, drawing unwarranted attention to their backgrounds, and mentioning their participation in the platform only in reference to their identity. All for the sake of affirming the international-ness of OOEL. As my supervisor confronted me, I began to reflect on my own experiences: when I was one of the very few people of color in the room (sometimes the only one); when I felt overly self-conscious as other people indiscreetly glanced at me; and when all that seemed to matter about me in conversations was the question, “Where are you from?”
I am incredibly proud of my country, Bangladesh. I grew up in the bustling capital city Dhaka, which I once described in a poem as:
“No city in the World like this,
Not Rome, not London, nor Paris”
However, my nationality is not the only attribute that I bring to Minerva, civic projects, or external organizations. Similarly, for the “diverse” among us, it feels rather odd when, perhaps unintentionally, Minerva only highlights the part of us that makes the school a “global” institution. I acknowledge that I may be hypervigilant about examples where our identities are referenced (an attention bias of some kind). However, the point still stands that even students from the same countries or regions often have completely different experiences, by virtue of social class, age, gender, whether they grew up in an urban area or a rural area, religion, language, and personal attributes or temperaments. Ergo, there is no easy definition of diversity and fixating on one attribute in isolation can be misleading.
For the “diverse” among us, it feels rather odd when, perhaps unintentionally, Minerva only highlights the part of us that makes the school a “global” institution.
As I write this, I think back to the All-Africa 10:01 hosted by M’21 students in Seoul last year, where Stella Odiwuor expressed her inability to completely relate to the African American experience as an African. So, she added, it was inconvenient when other people drew conclusions about her based on a superficial similarity like skin color. I experienced something similar, when, one night in Berlin, I was lost at a train station with a friend from Slovakia. Each time she asked for directions, we first received responses in German, on the innocent assumption that she was a native. While it is valid to presuppose that anyone in a country/city is a native or at least speaks the language, these two examples illustrate that looks can be deceiving.
Programs that try to promote diversity by hyper-focusing on appearances can have counterintuitive effects. As American writer Anna Holmes shares in her op-ed, “When I was starting out in magazines, I was told by a colleague that my hiring was part of the company’s diversity push, and that my boss had received a significant bonus as a result of recruiting me. Whether or not it was true, it colored the next few years I spent there, making me wonder whether I was simply some sort of symbol to make the higher-ups feel better about themselves.”
All this is not to say that background is irrelevant; in fact, many of our interests and passions are a product of the intimate experiences we have within specific cultural and social contexts. My interest in politics, for instance, is a direct result of the Bangladeshi government’s inability to manage certain social problems I witnessed growing up, such as religious extremism and intolerance of sexual minorities. Often, it can be comforting, exciting, and useful (in terms of political representation) to unite exclusively with people who identify, in whole or in part, as Bangladeshi. It allows me to appreciate and better understand the experiences we share.
Still, people can have a substantive understanding of themselves which pervades contemporary social categories, and in those instances, words are restrictive. Therefore, a narrowly understood notion of ‘diversity’ may come with grave risks, reinforcing old hierarchies and positioning one group as the default, all else as Other. I am reminded of a recent concert, where I learned that the word we use to describe people from Wales, “Welsh”, is a derivative of a Germanic word Wælisc meaning “foreigner”. The presenter immediately followed up, “That is not how we saw ourselves.”
I have yet to encounter a dialogue which critically negotiates the meaning of diversity, the language we use around it, and its specific goals in the context of Minerva.
So, is the purpose of this article a call-out on how Minerva staff (and students) represent the school? Certainly not. “Diversity” as a word can become suspect and cynical, especially when used insincerely, but it is itself a complex issue. Practically speaking, I believe that it’s still important for us as an institution to emphasize to prospective partners that our student body has students from different walks of life — because we do! In fact, in the final draft of my blogpost for OOEL, our team decided that it would be valuable to list a few languages, albeit with caution and care. The rationale was to emphasize that the platform had a broad reach, as that might potentially encourage more classrooms and educators from similar backgrounds to join the program. However, I have yet to encounter a dialogue which critically negotiates the meaning of diversity, the language we use around it, and its specific goals in the context of Minerva.
My suggestion, therefore, is that we start by asking ourselves a couple of crucial questions, as members of the Minerva community, whether we are staff, students, or faculty: What are the ways that we can support each other in forming a nuanced understanding of our identities? Are we satisfied to simply check off a box on a list, such as “diverse student body,” or can we create opportunities for students to articulate their diversities on their own terms? Can we become more intentional to value and recognize the contributions of students, and promote learning spaces where all of us can truly belong?