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Getting Up to Speed on Diversity

Employers are increasingly requiring job applicants to demonstrate both commitment and contributions to diversity, equity and inclusion, writes Deborah S. Willis, who gives advice to graduate students on how to do so.

August 21, 2017
 
 
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Last semester, I had a graduate student come to my office in sheer panic. She had just returned from a job interview and thought she had adequately prepared for it. The interview was going extremely well until she was asked “the diversity question.”

The interviewer explained that the company was committed to fostering a diverse and inclusive work environment and asked her to provide specific examples of her commitment to diversity. Well, let’s just say she was not prepared for that one.

Around the same time, several other students sought my assistance with writing diversity statements for academic positions, and a STEM student requested help with fulfilling a component of a job application that required applicants to provide evidence of a “demonstrated commitment to diversity.” “I don’t know where to begin,” he said. “Social scientists are embedded in this world and have these discussions often, but I don’t even know the lingo.”

There is a rapidly growing movement among employers to require job applicants to demonstrate both commitment and contributions to diversity. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) aptitude is now highly valued by employers, both within and outside academe, as evidenced by the increasing number of requests for diversity statements accompanying applications for faculty positions nationwide and employers asking DEI-related questions in the interview process.

Paralleling that trend is the recent surge of new executive leadership positions overseeing DEI efforts in universities, corporations, government agencies and nonprofit organizations alike (e.g., chief diversity officers). These are encouraging trends to many who have felt that DEI work has historically been marginalized. It’s inspiring to see the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion at the forefront of national conversations and policy and to witness such skills being valued.

This evolving employment landscape and national attention has spurred graduate students to seek ways to develop and articulate their commitment to DEI engagement, scholarship and leadership. And it is best practice for students to immerse themselves in DEI efforts early -- long before they are on the job market. I have had many conversations with faculty who reported feeling ill equipped to mentor and teach across differences during the early stages of their careers. It is optimal to begin to build the necessary skills to work in a diverse world during one’s undergraduate and graduate education.

Some graduate students have been deeply committed and involved in DEI work but just need assistance articulating their DEI efforts. Others are just starting to delve into these issues, including some who may only realize the importance of these efforts after recognizing the value expressed by employers. You cannot demonstrate DEI understanding and commitment by taking a workshop just to check a box on a job application, as that will be apparent to employers. There are no shortcuts. That said, wherever you are on the journey, here are some strategies you can implement to successfully reach your goal of establishing and providing evidence of your commitment to DEI.

Examine where you are. Park the car momentarily to take a reflective pause. Carefully consider the diversity, equity and inclusion issues that you are passionate about. These might be issues around race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, economic justice and the like. Think about what DEI issues motivate you to action. Contemplate your own lived or personal experiences as well as systematic injustices that resonate with you.

Your responses should drive where you focus your efforts, talents and skills in order to make an impact. Don’t feel pressured to be involved in every area, but show a substantive commitment to DEI in one or more of the areas you are most passionate about. Demonstrating a commitment will take some time and it will not always be easy, but it will be rewarding and you will be a better scholar, teacher and colleague as a result. Authenticity is key, and it is much easier to exert energy on things you are passionate about.

Consider all the things that you already do that are related to DEI. In your teaching/mentorship:

  • Are you regularly mentoring and/or teaching students from historically underrepresented groups?
  • Have you developed lesson plans and/or teaching strategies designed to enhance inclusion?

In your research:

  • Are you researching inequalities and/or underserved populations?
  • Does your research address issues relevant to DEI, such as race, gender, diversity, ability, sexuality, inclusion, health disparities, educational access, political engagement, economic justice, social mobility, civil and human rights, etc.?

In your leadership/service:

  • Do you have a leadership role on a committee, task force or professional society related to a DEI issue?
  • Are you involved in outreach activities relevant to advancing equity and access to higher education?

All of these efforts provide evidence of your commitment to DEI. Students have felt that they have nothing to contribute to a diversity statement, but upon further probing, we often discover that they do.

A colleague of mine recently asked a student how she had demonstrated commitment to DEI as a graduate student. The student couldn’t think of an example during her graduate studies. My colleague probed by pointing out that her scholarship is on the experiences of people of color in a Western European country. She replied, “Oh yeah, I guess you’re right. I didn’t think about my research.” If your research serves the needs of groups that have been historically underserved by academic research or addresses inequalities, then that is a great contribution to DEI you are making as a scholar.

If you don’t know the lingo, engage in foundational learning and understanding of the DEI terms and definitions. Can you define diversity, equity, inclusion, equality, microaggressions, identity, ally and so on? If you are not familiar with any of the terms or you have no prior activity related to DEI, then now is the time to engage. Honestly assess where you are so you can identify your own areas of growth and development related to DEI. Several cultural diversity self-assessments are online. You can complete one of those and see where you fall. Discuss your results with a friend or colleague. There are many books and articles on issues related to diversity. If you have colleagues who are also learning, you can form a reading group to converse and examine some of the critical issues in your field.

Finally, review a sample list of diversity-related interview questions that a job interviewer could potentially ask you. How would you currently answer those questions? How would you ideally like to be able to respond to them in the future?

Map your route. Once you have established a priority and a process, you can create a map to drive where you aspire to be. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as typing an address into a navigation system. You need to be active and intentional in acquiring the knowledge and training that you need. Identify the steps -- training programs, research, reading, professional engagements -- that you plan to take.

For a first step, online learning and training is immediately accessible, and many quality professional webinars, videos and even entire courses are dedicated to DEI professional development. EdX and Coursera are excellent resources and both offer a variety of courses. Leading for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education is one course currently available at no cost.

It is equally important to attend live trainings and workshops on your DEI professional development journey. Participate in those that offer interpersonal interactions with other participants. Those opportunities allow you to learn from others and share your knowledge and experience with them. Much of the personal and professional growth will come from such interactions.

If possible, take a class related to DEI, on topics such as gender, diversity, ability, sexuality, inclusion, health disparities, educational access, political engagement, economic justice, social mobility, civil and human rights, or race and social justice. Though most employers will not ask for your transcript, the course work you complete and the knowledge you gain could tremendously impact your professional development.

Joining a DEI-focused campus or national organization is another option to consider. Some national organizations are free for students to join, while others may charge a nominal fee for membership. Best Colleges provides a great resource list. Also, join the DEI chapters of your discipline’s professional organization.

As a graduate student, your schedule is likely full with academic commitments. It is imperative to plan your training activities for the most efficient use of your time. Before participating, ask yourself:

  • How does the training nurture my passion?
  • How will it help me gain the DEI professional development skills I need?
  • How will it help me demonstrate my commitment to diversity?
  • Most important, how will it make a positive impact on the people I seek to partner with and support?

It helps to strategically plan your DEI training so that it is skill specific. For example, if you plan to teach after completing your graduate studies, engage in trainings that are focused on inclusive teaching strategies.

Written reflection is also imperative to your success. After each training, take time to reflect on the progress you have made, the knowledge and skills you have acquired, and how the experience has and will help you both personally and professionally. Google Docs is one tool that can make your reflection process easier; create a document, spreadsheet or form to keep track of the progress you have made on your DEI-development journey. Having this material to reference when drafting your diversity statement or preparing for an interview will be invaluable.

Ask your networks for direction. Just as networking is important for career exploration, preparation and actually landing any job, networking is also crucial to a successful DEI professional development plan. Work on expanding your networks to include professionals doing DEI work in your field of interest. Talk to people on your campus, such as colleagues who have recently interviewed for a job you are interested in and, yes, use LinkedIn. Make sure you check out the LinkedIn groups. My search for diversity-related groups on LinkedIn yielded 2,201 options.

Research some of the groups that pique your interest and then join a couple of them to stay current on diversity issues. Try to submit content and engage in group discussions when possible. Many employers will view your LinkedIn profile before inviting you to interview. Your engagement on DEI issues in your LinkedIn groups can help validate your commitment to diversity. Another best-practice technique is to conduct informational interviews with people doing DEI-related work you aspire to do.

Through examining where you on the journey, mapping your route, utilizing the assistance of others and tracking your progress, you will be well on your way to a “demonstrated commitment to diversity.” Use the collective material recorded during your reflections to create a narrative around your diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

As you continue your graduate studies and forge ahead into the job market, keep diversity, equity and inclusion at the forefront of your mind. Continue to incorporate it into your teaching, research, scholarship, mentoring, curriculum design, service and leadership. You will find that demonstrating your commitment to diversity gets easier as you continuously implement the aforementioned strategies throughout your professional career. Enjoy the ride.

Bio

Deborah S. Willis is program manager for professional and academic development at the Rackham Graduate School of the University of Michigan and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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