Amanda R. Brown Tortorici, MS, RD, CSCS, PhD Candidate in Public Health

Diversity in the 1980’s

I remember being in elementary school in the late 80’s in suburban Pennsylvania, and I had a project to create a poster of female leaders of my choice. We were in the month of March, and our teacher wanted us to recognize the accomplishments of successful women in celebration of Women’s History Month. My mother, in protest to the limited emphasis on highlighting the achievements of black scholars and leaders in schools at the time, encouraged me to create a poster with all black women.

I felt incredibly proud of my project when I walked into school the day the posters were to be presented. To my complete dismay, the first comment from my teacher was, “Why are all of these women black? Black History Month was last month.” It was as if recognition of the achievements of these black women should only be reserved for one month out of the year.

At the time, I don’t think I fully understood the inappropriateness of my teacher’s statement. I was just upset that she wasn’t as excited about my poster as I was. However, my mother was understandably furious and made absolutely sure that my poster was displayed in the hallway for everyone to see.

Current Diversity Efforts and a Solution for Enhancement

Fast forward 30 years to my observations as a public health doctoral student and teaching assistant at UC Irvine. I have noticed a trend in public health and epidemiology introductory courses to provide stories and photos of some of the founding scholars of the field. Most, if not all, of the scientists featured are white men.

Many universities, including UC Irvine, are making efforts to improve diversity & inclusivity through various efforts throughout their campuses. These efforts include creating offices/departments/task forces committed to increasing diversity among faculty and staff, requiring a diversity statement in faculty applications, creating funding for research and projects with an emphasis on serving diverse populations, and providing workshops on Universal Design for Learning.

In addition to the work done by university administrations, perhaps professors could be more active in their approach to highlighting diversity within their fields by featuring the achievements of past and current scholars from diverse backgrounds. A growing body of research suggests that underrepresented student outcomes are improved when their instructor looks like them (Villegas & Irvine, 2010). Professors obviously cannot change the way they look; however, they can promote recognition of diverse role models outside the classroom. Diverse scholars may be underrepresented in any given campus setting, yet their achievements are no less significant to the progression of science.

I propose an assignment in which the students are requested to highlight the accomplishments of a diverse scholar. Students would also comment on how this scholar overcame adversity in order to succeed. If the scholar is still living, students can be encouraged to contact the scholar directly to inquire about overcoming their adversities.

The next step of the assignment would be to share these features in an online forum. Students would find a classmate’s scholar with whom they are interested, and would write a brief comment on what they enjoyed learning about that scholar and if there are any similarities with themselves or the scholar they chose to write about.

Final Thoughts

The original innovators of our field should definitely be a topic of discussion in class. However, there have been scientific breakthroughs by a diverse array of scholars that need to also be recognized.

I hope you enjoyed reading about my diversity assignment idea!

References

Black, R. D., Weinberg, L. A., & Brodwin, M. G. (2015). Universal design for learning and instruction: Perspectives of students with disabilities in higher education. Exceptionality Education International, 25(2), 1-16.

Gasman, M., Abiola, U., & Travers, C. (2015). Diversity and senior leadership at elite institutions of higher education. Journal of diversity in higher education, 8(1), 1.

Villegas, A. M., & Irvine, J. J. (2010). Diversifying the teaching force: An examination of major arguments. The Urban Review, 42(3), 175-192.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on November 25th, 2019.

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