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The transformative potential of uncovering on campus

May 29 2014

Stanford University was founded in the 1800s when mainly children of the privileged class had the opportunity to enroll in universities. Today, students come from a variety of race, social, ethnic, religious, and geographical backgrounds, as do faculty and staff. Yet in many ways, the culture at Stanford and its peer institutions has not evolved to match the diversity of its populations. The challenge of nurturing truly inclusive environments in academia was addressed at the inaugural event for the Clayman Institute’s new Center for Women’s Leadership.

Following a presentation by guest speakers Christie Smith and Kenji Yoshino, Shelley Correll, Clayman Institute Director, who heads the new Center, was joined by a panel of Stanford faculty and administrators who discussed their own experiences and shared strategies for how the university community can find inclusion in the midst of difference. Panel members included Professor and Clayman Institute faculty fellow Hazel Markus, Professors Jose David Saldivar and Christine Min Wotipka, and Director of the Diversity and Access Office, Rosa Gonzalez.

Covering and uncovering

Whether in academia, government or business, institutions can appear unwelcoming to individuals who feel pressure to cover some aspect of their identity in order to fit in, be accepted or succeed. Some cover by changing their appearance to fit in with the dominant group. Others downplay their cultural heritage or family life, for example, by not mentioning they have children or are the caretaker for an aging parent. Still others may avoid advocating for those who have a similar background, for fear of being accused of favoritism.

Research conducted by Smith and Yoshino shows that the energy expended in covering can significantly drain an individual’s ability to perform, and may undermine his or her sense of self and commitment. Yoshino and Smith advocate for uncovering—sharing stories about one’s background, encouraging colleagues to discuss their life experiences, and opening dialogues where there were none before.

Uncovering creates inclusive environments by encouraging individuals to be open about their backgrounds and life experiences.

The benefits of uncovering for college students

The Stanford panelists recommended fruitful ways for members of university campuses to uncover and thereby promote an inclusive environment. Professor Hazel Markus, a social psychologist, noted that “we are all a set of selves… and we want to feel comfortable and be our whole selves.” Uncovering, or creating dialogue, she said, can be the key to encouraging individuals to be open, particularly on college campuses.

In addition to teaching students in her cultural psychology class to understand all the contexts that create our individual selves, Markus cited powerful data from a study on first-generation college students supporting the merits of uncovering. This example highlights the importance of having those with seniority or higher status uncover their stories to pave the way for others to follow.

In the study, incoming first-generation students heard experiences and recommendations from seasoned students who were also first-generation-to-college. As a comparison, another group of first-generation students at the same institution heard tips for success from students who did not uncover their backgrounds. The group of students who heard from student advisors with similar backgrounds had higher year-end GPAs than those who did not know that their student advisors had similar backgrounds. In other words, uncovering provided a welcoming context that enabled newer students to overcome challenges and succeed.

In many cases, first-generation students’ transition to higher education may be more challenging than their peers from families with deeper experiences with higher education. First generation students must not only learn the material in class, but also learn how to navigate what might seem like an unwelcoming, foreign environment. This study suggests that uncovering or sharing similar personal experiences may help these, and all students, find an easier pathway into universities and more success during their studies.

Uncovering in the classroom

Professors can also facilitate uncovering in the classroom or during office hours. Associate Professor of Education and Director of the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program Christine Min Wotipka said that she tries “to create interactions where students can be their authentic selves.” She is open with her students about being a working mother: photographs and mementos from her children hang in her office. Students often ask about her children, and Wotipka is happy to talk with them about being a working mother. Her openness directly confronts the way many individuals downplay or hide their parental status at work.

Similarly, Wotipka designs her course syllabi so students can “see themselves in the courses” and “not just read [work of] straight, white men.” This allows students from underrepresented groups to understand that people with similar backgrounds can produce important scholarship. Wotipka called this “thinking beyond the traditional classroom, so students will consider voices outside of the traditional canon.”

Sociology professor and Clayman Institute director Shelley Correll talked about teaching one of her first classes as a graduate student at Stanford University. As a first-generation college student from a working class background, Correll felt different from her more privileged graduate student peers. She remembered thinking that she shouldn’t talk about her background much, because it might seem like she didn’t belong. However, about four years into her graduate program, she was asked to teach an undergraduate statistics class, and learned the power of uncovering. On the first day of class Correll mentioned she was from Texas, mainly to explain her accent. At the end of class a young Latina student approached her and said, “I’m from Texas too.” When Correll asked how the student liked Stanford, the student said she “liked it here but wasn’t sure this is where she belonged.” Correll revealed she was a first-generation college student herself, and said, “I left that conversation thinking it is really important for leaders on campus to be our authentic selves so we make it clear to other people that there are lots of pathways to success here at Stanford.”

Jose David Saldivar, a professor of Comparative Literature, is also the director of the Center for Comparative studies in Race and Ethnicity. The CCSRE supports the scholarship and teaching of communities of color and underrepresented groups. In his panel remarks, Saldivar noted that there are many more dissertations written by European scholars about Native American communities and literature than by U.S. scholars. He emphasized that amplifying the scholarship of and by communities of color is critical to making the university an open and accepting space.

Conclusion: The potential of uncovering

Uncovering can be powerful in a number of settings, but it has particular benefits to those of us in educational institutions. "I see the value of diversity everyday,” said Rosa Gonzalez, director of Stanford’s Diversity and Access Office. “We need to continue to attract, recruit, and retain the most talented people. And in fact these are also most diverse people, who come from diverse backgrounds and bring their unique identities to Stanford.”

"The degree to which an individual is committed [to her or his work] is the degree to which they feel valued, by their manager, the faculty, and the students."

Covering is detrimental to individuals’ well-being as well as to the productivity of institutions. Not being our complete selves can have both personal and career consequences. As Yoshino and Smith point out, “working your identity instead of working your job” takes its toll on all aspects of our lives.

As universities and colleges launch diversity initiatives and campaigns for inclusion, fostering an environment of cultural curiosity and mutual sharing in and outside the classroom may hold the key to creating an accepting environment for all.

How will you uncover?

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.