Swat Visually: How Swatties Think About Diversity On Campus

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

As one student so perfectly put in their comment: “Diversity is a buzzword at Swarthmore.” We hear about diversity everywhere from our classes to Sharples, and it seems like the word is dropped every other paragraph in campus wide emails. The goal of this week’s Swat Visually is to explore some of the broader trends Swarthmore students experience with respect to diversity on campus. The data is raw, incomplete, and presents more questions than it does answers. However, these questions could serve as a good foundation for future investigations into what diversity means to our community.

Although the vast majority of Swatties reported discussing diversity often or very often this semester, we see a very different picture when we break down diversity into some of its sub-categories. When it comes to race/ethnicity, sexuality, and (to a lesser extent) gender, the vast majority of students reported talking about them often or very often. In fact, almost half of our respondents talk about sexuality and race/ethnicity very often. However, when it comes to ability/disability, religion/spirituality, and socioeconomic class we see the exact opposite. According to our survey, students rarely even touch on these issues, with only 6-15% of all respondents talking about them frequently.  This data may lead us to ask ourselves what we include–and simultaneously exclude–when we refer to “diversity.”  Why do we associate race, ethnicity, and sexuality with diversity, but exclude ability and religion? What other components of diversity do we exclude that I didn’t even think to ask about? And what do these exclusions indicate?

Not only are the ways students see themselves interesting, but the ways they see other students are as well. While on average students believe other Swatties do learn to be “somewhat more critical” over their time here, our respondents’ opinions seem to change based on class year. Freshmen and sophomores consistently reported that Swatties think somewhat or more critically over their time at Swarthmore. On the contrary, upper classmen and alumni’s answers are all over the place, with some reporting no difference in how students think, and others claiming that Swarthmore fundamentally changes the way Swatties think about diversity. It’s impossible to tell whether or not this is the trajectory of how Swatties think over time, but if, hypothetically, it were, why would that be the case?

How students define “diversity”
How students define “diversity”

While these observations are interesting, and, I would like to think, important, they have a crucial flaw: the data are not broken down by students’ own identities. And, surprise, your identity does affect the way you experience diversity. Go figure. We can see this shortcoming clearly in the most commonly cited factor encouraging students to think about diversity: conversations with Swatties. Now, this is exactly what our admissions brochures promised us, right? The scene set as a group of diverse students, lying in a circle on the beach, smiling because their friends are just so brilliant, their books sprawled between them, all chatting about what diversity means to them.

However, as several students pointed out in their comments, these conversations can place an unfair burden on minority students. One student wrote, “when I am the ‘diverse’ one (because of income/ orientation/ gender) it can be frustrating, because it can feel like I’m part of an education experience instead of a person.”  As another student echoes, conversations with peers are important, “but there do exist so many good sources. The allyship resource guide on the library website is a good start.”

So, to the 90% of respondents for whom “conversations with Swatties” were so formative–and to the rest of you who likely would have answered similarly–it may be worth reflecting on these conversations. More generally, it may be valuable to consider how we learn, teach ourselves, and talk about diversity more generally.

For next week, Swat Visually is looking at the ways students’ majors change (or don’t change) over their time here and why. Fill out the survey here and look out for the results next week!

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