Thursday, February 9, 2012

Climate dream: Inclusion of diverse backgrounds and interests

Recently I've heard female student speakers courageously describe their struggles to find support and encouragement for being different from their peers in interest or culture, not only gender. At my university's annual Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration breakfast today, an undergraduate told how she felt looked down upon at a technical university for majoring in economics. Questions from her peers like "Why aren't you an engineer or scientist?" and "Why would anyone come here to do that?" reinforced her own self-doubt in the classic multiplier of stereotype threat. The impact is largest when there are no peers or role models to provide a positive image of choices like those made by this young woman.

Two weeks ago, at a university-wide diversity summit, an international female graduate student told a similar struggle of fitting in as a double minority - a female engineer with an accent and different cultural background than her peers. She had learned to give and take with the guys, but it was clear that the callouses accompanying a thickened skin increase the academic drag coefficient.

Ideally, each of these students and all others from underrepresented groups could find mentors who provide encouragement and help in dealing with criticism. Unfortunately, we are as far from that ideal as we are from a perfect meritocracy. Meanwhile, individual acts of courage - by students telling their stories, and by staff and faculty offering support to students - may help to stem the losses that otherwise accompany a bad climate dream.

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