Finding Your Place: Why Representation Matters in Education

We hear about representation all the time. From casting choices in movies to diversity hires in the workplace, it's no secret that representation is very real and something that is also an issue in the academic sector. This blogpost is going to be a little more personal, as I detail my experience as a minority and reasons why representation matters specifically in education.

What it's like to be a minority in academia

Having lived in Canada my entire life as an Egyptian-Canadian, I'm familiar with being a minority in my community. Not only that, I would go so far as to say that I'm pretty good at it. I understand the game and know how to play it. But that doesn't mean that it came easily, and that it's not exhausting.

Applied to academia, this means that I don't see many students or professors that look like me. That's the whole concept of a minority - you're the exception, not the rule, and you have to jump through many hoops since many of the rules were not built for you.

Why representation matters: My experience

Why representation matters in academia, and where this has been an issue in my own life is twofold.

Firstly, when you grow up without seeing people who resemble you in aspirational settings, it can be easy to believe that you could never occupy those positions. Minority students relate more with role models they can see themselves in, which ultimately improves their performance as a student. The significance of this factor is not to be understated, and lack of representation is commonly a reason for student attrition in higher education.

Secondly, student support resources are often suboptimal for minority students. Though the education board and universities have worked to create various student support resources and initiatives in recent years, these have overlooked minority students to a large extent. Most evidently, effort needs to be dedicated to developing academic advising facilities for minority students who often have different socioeconomic statuses, cultural backgrounds, and expectations than their peers.

Why representation matters: Current research

With reference to the achievement gap, the effect of race and socioeconomic factors on educational outcomes are evident in the social determinants of learning framework developed by Sanderson et al. Here, they argue for the implementation of informed academic advising, equity in university admisions, and personalized learning pathways to support students with different needs. Under this model, resources are specifically developed for students to support their financial, psychosocial, and environmental needs. Nascent Care Connection models, such as practices spearheaded by Chamberlain University are aimed at optimizing university culture and providing a range of effective resources for students of different backgrounds.

It has also been found that students of color are 39% more likely to graduate high school if they had a teacher of color between preschool and the fifth grade. That is a huge number and one that should not be overlooked for administrative staff who are involved in hiring academic faculty. Thus, education systems and hiring practices ought to be systemically assessed to ensure a diverse representation in teaching professions to ensure the sucess of their students.

Andrew Huberman and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang also discuss this in a recent conversation on how emotion and social factors impact learning. They recognize the enhancing ability of positive emotion for learning, and argue that our ability to meaningfully engage with others is dependent on our ability to understand and simulate their experiences. The psychology of the intersection between emotions and learning is not only fascinating, but also serves as a unique opportunity to support students.

Positive psychology, the study of conditions that contribute to the optimal functioning of people, expands on this idea by arguing that well-being is synergistic with better learning. Effectively, positive psychology in academia includes interventions focused on student well-being. Studies assessing this, have noted improved outcomes in diverse students and decreased clinical prevelance rates of anxiety and depression in students. Thus, this is a model that is likely to be effective in higher education when it comes to supporting minority students.

Where do we go from here? Steps for Students and Educators

For students

If you're a minority student with lofty educational goals, keep going. Don't allow your limiting beliefs to detract from your pursuit, and remain motivated by the prospect of becoming the role model you wish you had. Trust me, the process gets easier. You are seen, and you are killing it.

It is also the responsibility of students to hold educational systems accountable to inclusive practices. If you see the opportunity for a resource that you would benefit from, it's more than likely that there are other students who would also benefit. Reach out to your department heads and administration and advocate for yourself, no matter how scary it may be.

For educators

Take the time to educate yourself about systemic barriers for minority students in your classroom. The power of understanding and awareness is underrated. As an educator, it is your responsibility to ensure the success of ALL students. Advocate for your students equally and be receptive to their feedback.

Concluding Remarks

My goal with this blogpost was to shine a light on the experience that many minority students have in academia, and advocate for effective changes to better support all students. Since schooling makes up the majority of our lives as adolescents, the system must become more inclusive before it can be more effective. I hope that this got you to reflect on your own experiences and inspired you to advocate for change!