Writing a diversity statement: for international students (opinion)

What’s a diversity statement? It’s one of the most common questions I get during one-on-one graduate career advising appointments with international Ph.D.s pursuing academic jobs. That particular document, of all the academic job-search documents, tends to be the most problematic for such students to conceptualize, write and discuss orally.

The goals of this article are twofold. The first is to explain the function of this document in American higher educational institutions, and the second is to offer some practical advice on how to start formulating an effective diversity statement.

I want to begin by acknowledging that it is a difficult document to compose for nearly everyone—the one possible exception being those who study the topics of diversity as part of their research. Therefore, for those of you who are in the process of writing a diversity statement, I am here to validate your experience and to tell you that it is, in fact, difficult. This might be the first time in your whole graduate career that you have been asked to grapple with the concept and articulate your views on the topic. I hope my acknowledgment of the challenges will allow you to lead with self-compassion and kindness.

The Whys and Wherefores

You might be wondering why faculty positions are soliciting diversity statements from their applicants. Academic search committees in the United States are evaluating your ability to contribute to different institutional priorities, one of those being diversity. A diversity statement is a document that helps search committees evaluate your ability to contribute to diversity initiatives and achieve diversity goals of the department and academic institution where you are applying to be a faculty member.

As with everything in the United States, you have to ask yourself what colleges are really requesting of you, be it a document or interview question. The short answer: they want to know how you, as a future faculty member, will advance diversity, equity and inclusion at their institution, college and department. Your argument can be based on your experience with diversity in the past as well as your future plans and ideas for how you see yourself enhancing the diversity work at their particular university.

Reading this article as an international Ph.D. student, you might be thinking at this point, how can I, a single individual and a faculty member at a university, claim to be able to contribute to this large collective and social effort? That is exactly why international Ph.D.s struggle with this document—you haven’t considered or gotten comfortable with the concept of American individualism. This realization and mind-set shift will allow you to write a document where you will highlight your individual ability to contribute to diversity goals and initiatives within higher education.

Four Key Steps

So what specific steps do you need to take to write an effective diversity statement?

No. 1: Reflect. You can start by asking yourself the following:

  • What can I offer as an international researcher, instructor and future faculty member to the department, university and student populations—both undergraduate and graduate?
  • How has my experience as an international scholar and educator prepared me to contribute to diversity goals and initiatives?
  • What other aspects of my identity have prepared me to enhance the diversity work at X university?

No. 2: Leverage cultural competence. The second step is to learn how to leverage your cultural competence as an asset to diversity. As an international researcher, scholar and instructor, you’ve had distinct opportunities to work in higher education institutions in different parts of the world. You can leverage your cultural competence as an asset and valuable element for enhancing the university’s diversity goals.

For example, you can foster and create a culturally responsive environment and implement culturally responsive pedagogy into the classroom. This experience of researching, teaching and studying in different parts of the globe has prepared you to collaborate effectively with faculty from different cultural backgrounds, to teach and mentor undergraduate and graduate students from diverse backgrounds, and to contribute to global initiatives at your university. Your experience of adapting to a new cultural and professional environment here in the United States has given you an ability to effectively adapt to new spaces. You can bring your high level of cultural competence with you to the university as a new faculty member.

No. 3: Create a list of stories. Step three is to give yourself permission and time to do some retrospection, reflection and ideation. It also helps if you give yourself a timeline. For example, tell yourself, “I will be in idea-generation mode for two weeks.” That way, you can allocate an appropriate amount of time to think about ways that you have engaged with diversity throughout the course of your career as an international scholar, researcher and instructor.

Be holistic and inclusive. Don’t censor yourself during ideation. It’s also important to pause and make a list of examples or stories that you can use in your diversity statement as evidence of your ability to move the diversity mission of the department forward.

Once you have had time to reflect on your past, pivot into the future. This is especially important if you don’t have a lot of diversity activity in your past. You can still effectively persuade the search committee of your ability to contribute to diversity initiatives based on your future plans, ideas and objectives. Don’t be afraid to share your ideas, as that will impress search committees and show them how interested you really are in the position.

No. 4: Seek targeted feedback. The last step is soliciting targeted feedback. You don’t have to do this alone. A lot of us are better at ideating when we have an opportunity to externally process with someone.

Your faculty, especially other international faculty in your field or subfield, can help you come up with examples and ideas for ways you can enhance diversity in your teaching, research and service. If your department doesn’t have an international faculty member, request an informational interview with one at a different university. If you are interested in pursuing faculty positions at a teaching-focused college, it would be most helpful to talk with someone who can share with you the diversity priorities of that particular type of institution. You can ask them how they discussed their experience with diversity, how they incorporated their identity into the statement and what types of examples they used in it.

A diversity statement is your opportunity to demonstrate to the search committee all the ways that you have been prepared to contribute to their existing diversity initiatives. It’s also a chance to introduce some of your own diversity plans that you are excited to bring and execute at their university. The goal of this document is to showcase your specific qualities and commitment to diversity through the lens of research, teaching and service. I encourage you to ask yourself and answer this question honestly: How do I want to contribute to diversity as a faculty member?

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