diversity is not just about ethnicity

Over the last four months, I’ve read and edited hundreds of college application essays.

The prompts are similar: describe a situation or experience from your life, and what you’ve learned from it; show how you have handled adversity; who do you admire and why?

Another frequent prompt has to do with diversity, asking students to write about how they have experienced diversity or how they will add to the diverse culture of the college campus.

I work in a school district where 79 different languages are spoken at home, in a school where 35% of the students speak a first language other than English, where 30% of the students qualify for free-and-reduced lunch.

This is the same school district where Bill & Melinda Gates live.

These students live diversity.

A sampling of their stories:

  • she fled Iran with her family – they were isolated and persecuted for their religious faith (Bahá’í), prohibited from holding jobs or attending school
  • he is the only person in his family who speaks English, and he is responsible for all dealings with school administration, health care providers, and government offices
  • she is a middle-class white girl, with a deep commitment to her Christian faith, who has travelled on benevolent missions around the world
  • he is from Uganda, has witnessed children being gunned down in front of him, and speaks with great sensitivity about learning to play piano
  • she is Chicana, moved back and forth between Arizona and Mexico without feeling at home anywhere, until she moved to Bellevue and found a school filled with other students from Mexico
  • as they fled a violent civil war, his father threw open the doors of the Somaliland store that had sustained his family for years, so that anyone left behind – a child, a soldier, a refugee – could have what they need
  • her parents are both immigrants from British Commonwealth countries, and she has travelled to developing countries – learning to appreciate her many blessings in the process
  • she is Jewish and gay – in this school, she has found a community of acceptance – and the support to speak up for civil rights for everyone

See what I mean?

Every student contributes to the diversity of the whole.  Diversity is not just about ethnicity – it shows up in religion, gender-identity, financial resources, emotional resiliency, family structure, health issues.

Every one of these students is amazing.  They are hard-working, they are optimistic, they have hopes and dreams.  The biggest challenge many of them face is seeing how special they are.

That is part of my job: helping them see it, believe it, express it.

Daily I am humbled.

When I first heard Chimamanda Adichie speak about the danger of a single story, I knew this would inform my discussions with the students.  I am a big fan of the TED talks, and this is one of my all-time favourites.


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