- Do tell a variety of stories that authentically represent the diversity of the university community.
- Do secure student consent.
- Do not misrepresent individuals.
Tell Authentically Diverse Stories
Diversity in storytelling is about maximizing the available points of view. The voices that are missing will vary, depending on the context. Stories and profiles to consider include: women in areas in which they are underrepresented, such as chemistry and economics; men in areas in which they are underrepresented, such as education and nursing; people of color; people for whom English is not their first language; people with a visible or invisible identity or disability; students who identify as LGBTQ+; low-income students; first-generation students; part-time students; commuter students; distance learners; transfer students; returning adult learners; pregnant and parenting students; international students, etc.
Goals of Telling Diverse Stories
Storytelling helps support multiple goals, including: creating a sense of community through sharing the experiences and successes of a wide variety of students, faculty, staff and alumni; supporting and highlighting individual and program accomplishments in research, fundraising and community engagement; and supporting recruitment and retention of students, faculty and staff.
- Diverse stories explain a program more fully. Presenting only faculty perspectives, for example, may miss details relevant to students, like how a program or real-world learning experience fits into their career goals.
- Diverse stories demonstrate to students, faculty and staff that the community cares. They are also evidence of commitment to creating a sense of belonging. Providing a platform for students to share their narratives shows that a program values their experiences and perspectives.
Representing Non-visibile Diversity
Invisible identities and disabilities may affect a student’s comfort within the campus community or their academic experiences, but are not readily perceived by appearance alone. Examples of individual identities include being LGBGQ+; being a veteran; being an international student; being homeless or food-insecure; being a first-generation college student; or being pregnant or a parent. Examples of invisible disabilities include depression or anxiety, chronic pain, a compromised immune system, learning disabilities, autism and ADHD.
It is important to tell the stories of students who have invisible identities and disabilities. These students are often overlooked because their conditions are not apparent, and they are sometimes challenged to verify their status: For example, someone whose first language is not English or who speaks with a distinctive accent may be perceived as “foreign” when, in fact, they are native-born U.S. citizens. It is also important to avoid “tokenism” and centering stories about these students on their invisible identities or disabilities, especially when those characteristics aren’t particularly relevant to the story’s main purpose. By focusing on each student’s unique experience, storytellers can avoid falling into avoidance or over-emphasis.
NOTE | It is worth noting that, for students with invisible identities or visible or invisible disabilities, these characteristics are relevant to their lives. They are not embarrassing or shameful, and they should not be treated that way, or as a topic to be avoided to “protect” the student. At the same time, it’s important to give students control over what is shared publicly and to have a discussion up front about what they want disclosed and what they don’t, keeping in mind that web content will be accessible to people outside the university community for years to come. (See section on Student Consent.)
Be sensitive with accompanying photography. Unless your story is about the subject’s disability, you should not visually emphasize it. On the other hand, unless at the subject’s explicit request, you should make no effort to hide a visible disability.
Common Errors in Telling Diverse Stories
There are some common errors in telling stories about historically underrepresented groups. Try to avoid the following:
- Avoid exoticization by understanding cultural and historical context. Exoticization is when something foreign to yourself (food, clothing, traditions) is depicted as romantic, trendy, alien or strange. Asking questions about and understanding context can prevent exoticization. Again, it’s key to allow students, faculty and staff to tell their stories in their own way.
- It’s also important not to fall into stereotypical narratives such as those that frame disabilities, difficult life experiences or financial hardships as defining characteristics or challenges to be overcome.
- Avoid using descriptions or labels that students or others are likely to find offensive. Make an effort to understand common usage and reflect your subject’s language, for example by asking them what pronouns they use.
- Avoid conflating subjects’ identities. For example, when telling a student’s academic achievement story, it may not be relevant to talk about their religious beliefs. Carelessly including identity can promote stereotypes.
- Avoid depicting one person as a representative for a group. Acknowledge the unique experiences of your story’s subject and avoid suggesting that their experiences are “typical.”
- Avoid overrepresenting or underrepresenting certain groups
- Seek varied sources for stories.
- Be aware of our body of work as a whole. Overrepresenting or underrepresenting certain groups can occur if we’re not reviewing in totality what our media lineup looks like and how stories get staged.
- Ensure that our body of work does not further marginalize or inadvertently silence some groups by seemingly providing one or a few groups with greater “voice” or representation compared with other groups.
- Carefully balance our need to represent the campus accurately – for example, by making sure we do not over-use photos of students of color, given that we remain a majority-white institution – with our need to be aspirational at times in our marketing and to diversify our campus by allowing a wide range of students to “see” themselves potentially succeeding in programs where they are underrepresented. For example, we might tell the stories of Black women majoring in mechanical engineering or physics to help increase enrollment in these STEM majors by women and Black students.
Using Inclusive Language
Observe the following guidelines.
- Ask your subject how they want to be described. For example, if a student uses “queer” instead of “lesbian,” or “Deaf” instead of “person who’s hard of hearing,” or “Hispanic” instead of “Latinx,” honor their choice. The goal is not to use “correct” language, per se, but to respect and care for the student.
- In the absence of a preference, use person-centered language. Person-centered language acknowledges the human first and their status second. For example, “person with autism” or “person with autism spectrum disorder” over “autistic person.”
- Use broad words to encompass varied groups or configurations. For example, "family newsletter" includes grandparents serving as guardians and so is better than “parent newsletter.”
- Avoid language that only applies to a narrow group. Gender-neutral terms, such as firefighter and flight attendant, are preferable.
Words to Use
The following words are acceptable to use upon request. If any person prefers different words than the below, defer to the person. These words should be provided as an option in forms.
- They (as a singular pronoun) - The Associated Press and Oxford English Dictionary, among others, have endorsed the use of “they" as a singular pronoun. “The student forgot their homework.”
- They/their/them (as gender-neutral pronouns) - Some people who are queer or nonbinary prefer these pronouns. We generally use them with an explanatory note saying that “so-and-so uses they/them pronouns,” to avoid confusion.
- Latinx - Gender-neutral alternative for Latina/o. Alternatively, when relevant to the story, ask about the subject’s family or cultural background so you can be specific. For example: Mexican American (or Chicano/a/x), Brazilian, Guatemalan, etc.