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I'm sitting here with my friend, who is in the process of applying to graduate school. She's come across a prompt that looks like this:

If you are a member of a community that has historically been underrepresented in higher education and would like to tell us how this particular perspective adds to the value you will contribute to the diverse learning community we strive to create, please do so here.

My friend is a female, Latin American, previously financially-burdened immigrant, so there is certainly some diversity to speak of, but she's having trouble coming up with how this can answer the prompt. To her, she's never really considered it a struggle, but more of a challenge. She's never let it get her down, so she sees no reason to complain about it in an essay. She believes you should be judged based on your past and present performance, not your national origin, ethnicity, financial status, etc.

How do you even respond to a prompt like that? Also, why do universities ask you to speak about your diversity in the first place? What are they looking for?

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    This sort of thing makes me so angry. As someone from a background that has not historically been misrepresented at all, I feel that this puts me at a distinct disadvantage through no fault of my own and through no particular accomplishment of the applicant. Grr. The long and short of it is that this is racism, so I would hope that anyone asked this question would promptly ignore it. – Lightness Races in Orbit Nov 30 '14 at 5:43
  • Comments not directly related to the question have been deleted. Please take any extended discussion to Academia Chat. – eykanal Dec 1 '14 at 16:06
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It seems to me that it would be prudent to start from the assumption that the words in the question have been chosen carefully, after some deliberation; and so she should answer the question put, as it is asked.

The quote you've given does not ask for complaints. It doesn't speak of judging her by national origin, ethnicity or financial status. It doesn't ask her to talk of struggle. So those things would only go in the answer if they give a particular perspective that adds to the value she would contribute to the diverse learning community they strive to create.

They want to know how her status as a member of a historically-under-represented community adds to the value she would contribute. In your answer, you've already given three aspects of that. I'll paraphrase slightly - I hope I haven't distorted your friend's intended meaning - and for each I'll frame it within the question as asked on the application form:

  1. she's seen her being from a historically under-represented community as a challenge rather than a struggle; as a member of the department her very presence could provide a positive role model for others both internal and external to the deparment
  2. she's maintained optimism and not let the status quo get her down; as a member of the department, she would bring a realistic optimism and determination.
  3. she's sought to work towards a system that rewards merit for its own sake regardless of national origin, ethnicity, financial status, and so on; as a member of the department, she would contribute to the department's culture of meritocracy: academia of all places should strive to overcome conscious and unconscious biases, and work strive towards meritocracy.

That would seem to me to cover the question on the form as it has been asked.

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    +1. This is a terrible question to ask a candidate -- it's the job of the university to determine how and whether a diversity of viewpoints is beneficial, and it's unjust to try to fob that off onto candidates who are now in a double-bind (their whole lives, they've been told never to "play the ___ card") -- but I think your answer is good advice for the candidate confronted with this prompt. – ruakh Dec 1 '14 at 5:29
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Yes, indeed, there are many ways that this discussion could get off-track...

The specific, relevant point is that many universities have certain pots of money ear-marked for whatever-it-is that "diversity" refers to, and "traditionally under-represented groups"' members are the only eligible competitors for any part of that money.

(The discussion of the sense of this is of course the elephant-in-the-room, but is irrelevant to the already-earmarked funds.)

That is, at this point, being a woman in a STEM field (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math), or of ethnic origin other than northwestern European..., or... opens certain money-pots to both the department and to the individual.

It is true that one might easily find reason to not go down that path, ... but I note that many people will presume that one has done so if one had the chance, and all that that might entail.

Honestly, if I were in that situation, and did not have severe need, I'd skip it, just to be able I'd skipped it. But maybe nobody'd listen...

I can clarify further, if this is to-the-point for the questioner. I've been involved with such stuff for a long time...

Edit: to clarify, for example, my department did not create the literal "diversity statement" component of the application, it was created somewhere in the central administration. That is, although we have tried to avoid traditional biases (e.g., ideas how "how a mathematician looks", and such, often included male-gender-correlated attributes that, arguably, have nothing to do with mathematics), we did not formalize any part of such discussion. We've tried to be unbiased for far longer than this recent appearance of overt statements about "diversity", not for any immediate tangible reward from higher-ups, but for more idealistic reasons. Having central administration throw a little money at the situation doesn't really change much.

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  • Thanks for the answer! I see you've served on an admissions committee for 30 years. Is earmarked funds the only factor that goes into consideration with respect to the diversity statement, or is that truly what it all boils down to? – Marcus McLean Nov 30 '14 at 1:46
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    @MarcusMcLean: In my experience that is the main thing. It can have other less concrete benefits, but they're in the same vein. For instance, a department can "look good" and earn points with administration for having a diverse student body, which can have various side benefits. – BrenBarn Nov 30 '14 at 3:01
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The reason for the question may well depend on the School and its own reasons. One popular case of this is the University of Michigan. While the school may feel diversity is important, and through affirmative action it can achieve it, the government or voters may not agree. In this case, Michigan created an essay section for contribution to diversity, in which they can more actively decide admissions based on diversity when affirmative action is not available.

Answering the question honestly is the best policy. Of course you would not want to lie, as an interview would probably create automatic rejection. If you do not want to come off as 'complaining', dont complain, it doesnt ask that. Answer how your background can contribute, and the simplest of answers is what your question mentions:

As being a female immigrant from latin america, I have been considered a minority. However, I do not look at this like a struggle, I look at it as a challenge, and I think my mindset will help contribute to both diversity and academics at the University.

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There is an interesting brochure on Benefits and Challenges of Diversity in Academic Settings on the website of The Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) that mentioned things like this:

  • A controlled experimental study of performance during a brainstorming session compared ideas generated by ethnically diverse groups composed of Asians, blacks, whites, and Latinos to those generated by ethnically homogenous groups composed of whites only. Evaluators who were unaware of the source of the ideas found no significant difference in the number of ideas generated by the two types of groups. However, when applying measures of feasibility and effectiveness, they rated the ideas generated by diverse groups as being of higher quality.

  • The level of critical analysis of decisions and alternatives was higher in groups exposed to minority viewpoints than in groups that were not. Minority viewpoints stimulated discussion of multiple perspectives and previously unconsidered alternatives, whether or not the minority opinion was correct or ultimately prevailed.

  • A study of corporate innovation found that the most innovative companies deliberately established diverse work teams.

  • Data from the 1995 Faculty Survey conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) demonstrated that scholars from minority groups have expanded and enriched scholarship and teaching in many academic disciplines by offering new perspectives and by raising new questions, challenges, and concerns.

  • Several investigators found that women and faculty of color more frequently employed active learning in the classroom, encouraged student input, and included perspectives of women and minorities in their coursework.

I don't know whether this brochure would be helpful for those who are working on their statement of diversity but it is a pretty interesting reading. And in this post on Writing the Personal Statement on the website of Berkeley Graduate Division there is a list of things they'd like to see in a statement of diversity. Here are some of them:

  • Demonstrated significant academic achievement by overcoming barriers such as economic, social, or educational disadvantage;

  • Potential to contribute to higher education through understanding the barriers facing women, domestic minorities, students with disabilities, and other members of groups underrepresented in higher education careers, as evidenced by life experiences and educational background. For example,, attendance at a minority serving institution; ability to articulate the barriers facing women and minorities in science and engineering fields; participation in higher education pipeline programs such as, UC Leads, or McNair Scholars;

  • Academic service advancing equitable access to higher education for women and racial minorities in fields where they are underrepresented;

  • Leadership experience among students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education;

I hope this will help!

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  • IIANM, this conflates originating from a minority group within a (local) society with being from a different ethnic group generally than the dominant group in the (local) society. In the latter category you may find people who have come overseas to study/research/work in high-skill capacities, and that introduces a potential bias in such results. – einpoklum Dec 14 '17 at 14:25
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This isn't very different from EnergyNumbers answer, but I want to emphasize that the question isn't asking "what bonus points can we give you for your background" but rather "how does your background make you more suited for the position you are applying for?". (Bearing in mind that graduate students are usually expected to teach and serve as mentors to undergraduates, so that is a relevant qualification.) I've seen a number of well received diversity statements along the lines of "I have always viewed my background as a challenge, and have risen to meet that challenge. Here are some of the strategies I have used to do that ... Here is how I can mentor students in a similar situation and show them how to excel as I have..."

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    David, I don’t necessarily disagree with your interpretation, but the prompt will only allow an applicant to explain “how their background makes them more suited for the position” if they are “a member of a community that has historically been underrepresented”. It’s one thing to encourage all applicants to explain why they are suited, even specifically in the context of working with diverse populations of undergraduates; but when you offer such encouragement only to some applicants and not to others, that does in fact carry a whiff of “we want to offer you bonus points for your background”. – Dan Romik Jan 29 at 4:23
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    (See also the comment of Lightness Races. It seems many readers have interpreted the prompt, presumably in good faith, in precisely the way you said they shouldn’t.) – Dan Romik Jan 29 at 4:26
  • @DanRomik This is quite a charged question, so I want to say that I can see how the question might be interpreted as you suggest. However, your comment reads as if the question we're discussing is the only one on the application form, which I doubt. I would rather assume that there is a question for everybody asking "how their background makes them more suited for the position", while this additional question asks more specifically if there is anything related to their minority background that would add additional value to their application. – penelope Jan 29 at 9:57
  • @DanRomik Yes, I don't like how this prompt is written. I prefer something like the Berkeley phrasing "[G]ive concrete evidence of your promise as a member of the academic community, giving the committee an image of you as a person. This is also where you represent your potential to bring to your academic career a critical perspective rooted in a non-traditional educational background, or your understanding of the experiences of groups historically under-represented in higher education and your commitment to increase participation by a diverse population in higher education." – David E Speyer Jan 29 at 10:42
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    (source grad.berkeley.edu/admissions/apply/personal-statement) Also, I have mixed feelings about diversity statements in general, and don't want to argue that issue here. I wanted to focus on the situation the OP describes -- how an applicant from an underrepresented background, but who does not want to paint themselves as a victim -- should respond. – David E Speyer Jan 29 at 10:44

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