On Diversity

Long before “diversity, equity, and inclusion” was a common phrase, people have referred to me as “diverse,” often for lack of a better word. I suppose that people didn’t know what to make of me, particularly when I seemed out of place for any number of reasons. I remember people in the community staring at my mother and me. This tall, blonde woman dragging an Asian toddler through the stores telling people to “Take a picture; it lasts longer” or my peers in elementary and middle school making fun of me because I didn’t look like my parents. (My mom told me to tell them, “At least my parents picked me. Your parents were stuck with you.”)

Even armed with witty comebacks, I still felt out of place. Growing up in the small, tightly-knit neighborhood with a diverse group of friends, an Asian girl with white parents didn’t make sense to them, or even me, at that age. When my family moved to a different community that was primarily Asian and Jewish, I think they thought that I’d fit in more among students who looked like me, but I was ostracized because of my white family. I was the “banana” or the “Twinkie” (yellow on the outside, white on the inside), and I was especially appalling to many because my adoption signaled to them that I had been an unwanted child.

Once I suffered through that humiliation, I went to college thinking that my undergraduate years would be full of diversity and eye-opening experiences. I undoubtedly appreciated my time at the University of Notre Dame, but diverse it was not. The small group of minority students had a sort of unspoken kinship, as we had somehow found ourselves in northern Indiana, calling ourselves “Irish,” no less. We became so close because we were drawn together by our labels as “non-White.” We were frequently photographed for stock university photos, but we were so often reminded in word and action that Notre Dame was for rich white kids. Our closeness led me to major in Spanish Literature, and I became even more perplexing to people. (Someone in a class once said that seeing me speak Spanish was like watching a dog meow.)

Despite this, it was at Notre Dame that I found pride in my “otherness,” with academic and professional mentors that allowed me to take my experiences and turn them into something meaningful. I became a diversity educator, teaching incoming freshmen at Notre Dame about issues related to race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and more. I met students from across the country who told me (in secret) that they had never met a racial minority until that very moment, and several told me, “You knew what it was like when you came here. If you wanted diversity, you could have gone somewhere else.” Even though I had somehow always been cognizant of my own race, I had never considered that others hadn’t been exposed to the same situations and diversity that I had. I also never thought that my own peers, or my fellow “Irish” would be as blatantly dismissive of my concerns. I think I just assumed that everyone else felt as uncomfortable in their own school, their own community, or their own skin.

When I graduated, I decided to go back to the community that I had known growing up. Teaching in a high school in which the majority of students were Black and Latinx somehow made me feel whole again. In the 11 years at that school, I was forced to confront the effects of systemic and institutional racism, racial disparities in the criminal justice system and school punishment, and poverty, because my students suffered from them every day. Although I was moved by their stories and their experiences, I felt ill-prepared to help them with only a bachelor’s degree in Spanish Literature, as conjugating verbs doesn’t fix the harm done by racism. This fueled my desire to return to school for degrees in counseling and criminal justice.

These experiences have always been my motivation for wanting to make people feel comfortable. I have spent my professional career—both at the high school and college levels—telling students that they are enough and celebrating the characteristics, experiences, and histories that make them who they are. At Saint Vincent College, the few racial and ethnic minority students have often found their way to me via word of mouth, because many of my colleagues don’t understand what it’s like for students to be “a stranger in a strange land.” I often the same way at Saint Vincent as I did in my first months at Notre Dame, but if I can help students to navigate those experiences simply by being there for them or listening, then I’m happy to do it. I’ve often told the students with whom I’m closest that the best thing that I can do for them at Saint Vincent is to serve as their publicist, sharing their accomplishments, promoting their achievements, and celebrating all that they have done in spite of being pegged as “other.”

As I’ve grown in my time at Saint Vincent, I’ve also remembered to use my voice to support students. Once again, I find myself being photographed for the school website (while often being dubbed “the diversity hire”), but it comes with a sense of privilege. Administrators and colleagues often look to me for my opinions about race relations on campus, asking me to moderate discussions about the George Floyd murder or weigh in on “diverse” activities. I use these conversations to remind people about racial inequities and disparate treatment and to find ways to support students, even in the simplest ways such as organizing a statement of solidary with students, writing an opinion piece in the student paper, and meeting with students after class. I can only hope that my students have learned half as much from me as I have from them in terms of support and kinship, and I hope to continue this work at any institution in the future.

Regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion, I believe my primary role is to support students and remind them that they are valuable members of a college community and to teach students of privilege to do the same. As an educator, I can (and do) infuse my courses will lessons about these issues, highlighting ways to address and dismantle systemic racism and calling attention to the ways that our country can progress beyond the tension we feel today. And finally, as a member of a college community, I can participate and engage in activities that support students, celebrate their achievements, and ensure that all students are respected and valued for exactly who they are.