Every working field has norms and ways that things get done. Whether we want to adhere and follow these “rules” is a different story. I have found this intriguing as someone who aspires to be in the profession of working/supporting students. Beginning with my graduate program, there is universal language that is used. It has also been my experience that outside my program, folks in the field use these “buzzwords” in everyday conversations which lead me to question how much of what is said to be true. I will explain what I mean with three words that have been lost in translation and practice within higher education.
Institutions across the world are focusing on diversifying their campuses. This has come to no surprise as the effects of having diverse campuses are beneficial for the whole student body experience. The word “diversity” has been added on many institutional mission statements. I question, what does diversity mean? Diversity encompasses multiple facets and racial diversity is the main component of what institutions focus on. It is one thing to recruit students of color, but how do we support these students as an institution? This has become a buzzword and seen as a virtuous initiative to become more diverse. Yet, the climate of college campuses remains hostile and unsupportive for these students. Having more racial diversity on campuses fall short when it’s done on the expense of the students of color that are promised a supportive college experience.
As I navigated my undergraduate institution, I found no support for students of color. I was sold the dream attending a small, private, liberal arts, Hispanic-serving institution and it was nothing from what I imagined. Institution praising the twenty-five percent plus of Latinx identified students, yet no representation from faculty to support the population. Diversity cannot be praised by getting students on college campuses, instead retaining students from diverse backgrounds should be the focus.
This word has become the most overused and undervalued word in student affairs. Social justice is seen like a verb, like going outside and breathing air. Many students coming into graduate programs use this buzzword in their applications and when they answer why they want to join this field. Asking students to further explain the meaning, allows us to see that there is no one answer to define what social justice is and what it looks like. Social justice in various ways is talked about through the subordinate identities of others versus reflecting on one’s own dominant identities. A common narrative is that because we helped someone get through a hardship, we are socially just. As Australian Aboriginal Elder Lilla Watson said “if you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Social justice is not about helping others for one’s own gain, it’s about unpacking one’s own trauma to be able to better serve others.
Coming into my graduate program, I knew that pronouns were used to respect how individuals want to be addressed. However, I did not have a deeper understanding as to why. As I started to critically reflect on what it means for me as a cisgender man, I started to notice the critique I have with this buzzword. Until we understand the level of harm misgendering causes, our actual commitment to inclusive practices will fall short. There is a difference between having a surface level understanding of only using one’s pronouns because it upsets the person when we don’t; versus having a critical level of understanding that it is imperative for me to do so. The way I have reflected on this is with body dysphoria. The anxiety, the hurt, and the shame that comes when someone jokes about my body is not entirely the same as gender dysphoria, but it is the connection that helps me understand the importance of inclusive practices.
Using these buzzwords without understanding what they mean is harmful. We must be more conscious if what we say is really what we practice. The key to overcoming the use of these buzzwords is to dive deeper into what these words actually mean. Going deeper than the definition of what diversity, social justice, and inclusion mean has allowed me to critically understand my experiences and join the conversation. Even so, there is much work to be done.
David Jasso (He/Him/His)
Whittier College ’15
University of Vermont ’18