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Does student affairs have a diversity problem?

The conversation about race in the profession is heating up. Here’s why.
OCT 16 2019

Does student affairs have a diversity problem?

The conversation about race in the profession is heating up. Here’s why.


A student enters their economics class. The professor organizes a group discussion, requiring the class to dive into both sides of an assigned debate topic. Today, students will make a case for the pros and cons of colonization.

Another student is asked by a classmate, once again, where they’re “from.” They answer, “Hamilton.” The other person pushes, “No, but where are you from from?”

 It’s small moments like these that can make racialized students feel like “the other” on campus. It can be brushed off if it happens once in a while, but when microaggressions like these occur daily, they can become detrimental to a student’s well-being, says Jen Gonzales. The executive director of student affairs at Ryerson University says these moments, these microaggressions, are some of the most common complaints she hears from racialized students.

In an ideal world, universities would employ people who are equipped to moderate discussions that don’t make students feel silenced, or, on the flip side, singled out as a spokesperson for a community; university employees would understand the power dynamics between racialized students and other students, between racialized students and their instructors; and debates based on a racist or other harmful premise wouldn’t be protected under the cloak of “freedom of expression.” But it’s not an ideal world.

Who do you talk to about the nuanced issues of race when you’re the minority on a campus of tens of thousands of students? It’s isolating for these learners to walk through a campus where everyone, from their peers to their professors, is mostly white.

“You want to feel like you belong and know that you have a purpose for being on campus,” says Ms. Gonzales. “Everyone is here for an education, but hopefully they’re also unlocking their gifts and what they have to offer to the world.” College and university life is more than a syllabus, grades or the buildings where students attend classes. It’s the basis for lifelong friendships, a place where learners join clubs and social groups, and a space where they can expand their ideas about the world while discovering their identity, core beliefs and strengths. But, says Ms. Gonzales, “when students are on the receiving end of microaggressions, it decreases their feeling of power.”

Student affairs staff – from the senior administrator overseeing the student life portfolio to the residence don – are the people on campus whose job it is to support students through their university careers, in good times and bad. As the staffers on the frontline of student experience, it’s important that postsecondary institutions across Canada invest in student affairs teams that both reflect and represent the students they serve. An increasingly diverse student affairs profession, particularly at the highest ranks, means more role models for students and staff at the university.

“There’s lots of fatigue from my students but when they see me and see that I have that lived experience, they feel more empowered,” Ms. Gonzales says. As a first-generation student from a large Ecuadorian-Canadian family, Ms. Gonzales always felt like a minority when she was an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph some 15 years ago. “I’ve lived with this all my life, so when a student asks me about it, I immediately know what they’re talking about.”

The immediacy of that connection based on shared experience is valuable in student affairs, says Nadia Rosemond, senior manager of student life and international experience at the University of Toronto Scarborough. “We can better serve our students when we’re able to relate to their journey because we are ourselves are Filipino, Black or Indigenous, just like them,” she says.

To illustrate her point, Ms. Rosemond uses a real-life example of a student who had sought out mental-health support in dealing with microaggressions on campus. When that student arrived to their first appointment, they quickly realized the counsellor didn’t understand the toll these moments can take. Instead of addressing the issue right away, the student had to explain why microaggressions are harmful, time that could have been better spent coming up with solutions. So in some ways, a more racially diverse staff dealing with students means more effective service for those students.

Ms. Rosemond says that racial diversity in staffing is the next frontier on campus. But it’s taken a while to even get to this point, she notes. After all, the history of student affairs is steeped in traditions made by and for white men. (It was only a century ago that women were widely accepted into spaces of higher learning in Canada.) Using this demographic as the basis for a cookie-cutter approach to student services has meant the experiences of international students and students from racialized backgrounds – as well as those of Indigenous students, queer students and transgender students – have all too often been excluded.

Illustration by Daiana Ruiz.

Surveying the racial diversity problem in student affairs

For Sania Hameed, who currently works as a career educator at the University of Toronto, the microaggressions she experienced while pursuing a master’s in education always made her wonder if she was being oversensitive, whether she was even in the right field. She had talked one-on-one to some other racialized student affairs professionals, but couldn’t find an ongoing conversation on race, equity, bias and a lack of representation among student affairs staff happening on a large-scale in the profession in Canada.

“I noticed I’d be having similar conversations with racialized people around me, but nothing was spoken about publicly. That was really troubling,” says Ms. Hameed. After attending some professional events, including the 2017 conference of the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS), she decided to focus the second year of her MEd studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at U of T on researching the experiences of racialized student affairs professionals. “Folks told me it could be a risk to my career because I’m taking on something controversial,” she says. “But do I want to be in a field where I can’t talk about this stuff? I’m having this experience and many of my colleagues are having this same difficult experience that feels so personal. How do you talk about systemic things in a ‘neutral’ way without data? I needed more evidence.”

Ms. Hameed conducted a survey of 135 Ontario student affairs staff who identified as Black, Indigenous or as people of colour. She discussed her survey findings at the 2018 CACUSS conference in a presentation entitled “Colour Me Shocked: Student Affairs’ (Racial) Diversity Problem.” She found that just like the students they serve, staff also regularly face microaggressions on campus, including consistently being mistaken for another person of colour, having their professional competence challenged by colleagues, or feeling obligated to take on responsibilities outside of their job descriptions (for example, when an Indigenous staffer is asked to provide “the Indigenous perspective” though their job may have nothing to do with Indigenization).

Ms. Hameed, who finished the master’s program in 2018, says that her research reinforced her own experience as a racialized professional: feeling uncertain and initially self-censoring, and internalizing negative experiences as personal problems rather than possibly symptoms of institutional racism. She also found that one of the top concerns for many respondents was feeling tokenized — that they had been hired as a token or to fill a diversity quota, or had become a token person of colour on their teams.  For example, several respondents said they had been singled out as the point person on their teams for issues around race and equity simply because they were often the only person of colour on the team. Ms. Hameed says another common response was that respondents felt isolated at work.

The lack of diversity in the profession is particularly visible at large professional events like the CACUSS conference or the annual meeting of student-housing staff, the Ontario Association of College and University Housing Officers. “It’s hard when there are rarely people of colour [in leadership] to look up to who have paved the way,” she says. For student affairs staff, she adds, the scarcity of racialized people in the profession in the top jobs can leave one wondering why the gap exists and whether the colour of one’s skin can be perceived as a professional disadvantage. For students, that scarcity means they aren’t seeing themselves reflected in the administration of their universities.

Change takes time

Cam Litchmore is cultural diversity programs coordinator in the department of student experience at the University of Guelph. As part of that role, he works with student cultural groups. He notes that one of the biggest challenges the groups report is student outreach and engagement. It turns out that as U of G’s student population has grown and become more diverse, the university has also become more of a commuter school.

“A lot of where the racialized students are coming is from surrounding cities,” Mr. Litchmore explains. Most events put on by the groups take place in the evening, which can conflict with night classes and with limited transportation schedules for commuters. For those who work to plan the events, the worst-case scenario is that the students who could most benefit from cultural and social programs will just get on the bus and go straight home, never the wiser. So, he’s meeting students with this support where it can’t be missed: in the classroom. Namely, Mr. Litchmore has been connecting with professors across departments to integrate bonus assignments and to diversify course content to better reflect the student body. His office has also increased efforts to collaborate with nearby institutions such as Wilfrid Laurier University and McMaster University, as well as with local organizations such as the Guelph Black Heritage Society to expand programs and outreach.

In 2016, U of G created the role of cultural diversity advisor in student experience following  student protests driven by the #BlackOnCampus movement in Canada and the U.S., which led to a formal review of the needs of Black students at the institution. After four months of online surveys, one-on-one interviews, focus groups and research, the final report released in May 2016 recommended the new position in student experience – one of several resources the university would create to better support racialized students. A year later, Mr. Litchmore’s position was added to support the advisor and the new programs that had been established.

But it takes time to change institutional structure and it takes ongoing collaboration with racialized students and local community groups, Mr. Litchmore says. And just as important, “We need full-time staff in order to see all this change.”

Naming the problem

As universities take up some opportunities to change, to better serve and support racialized students, opportunities for change and action are extending to the student affairs profession. And racialized student affairs professionals are taking the time and space to name, share and recognize their unique experiences in informal ways, like Twitter conversations and campus meetups, but in more formal ways, too.

OACUHO introduced broad efforts to address the lack of diversity in its membership in 2018 with the release of its Ethnic Diversity Project, which included a survey of racialized professionals and their experiences at work. Some universities like U of T and Ryerson have established networks for racialized staff across departments. And in the lead-up to the 2019 CACUSS conference in June, U of T’s Ms. Hameed again found herself talking publicly about equity and race in the profession, but this time as part of a full-day workshop co-hosted with Akeisha Lari, an equity and inclusivity advisor at Ontario Tech University.

As the pair explained in the workshop program, student affairs in Canada “can feel exclusionary to folks who do not present as white, middle-class and extroverted … which contributes to the lack of diversity in our field. In turn, this lack of diversity – in lived experience and in thought  – limits our ability to effectively serve our students, and our ability to build more diverse teams. In order to dismantle this cycle, we need to be equipped to have honest conversations about equity, diversity, and inclusion, and its relevance to our work.”

Ms. Hameed sees these public conversations as progress, but also as just a first step, especially for those who consider themselves allies to racialized and minoritized members of their professional community. The work of equity and inclusion is a collaborative effort, she says, and one that also requires reimagining the work of student affairs.

“We’re driven by deadlines and budgets, but if you want to build community you need to rethink your priorities. Is your priority these numbers, or is your priority taking the time to listen to the community?” she says. “Allies need to be open to criticism, open to being wrong, open to continuing that critical feedback, and committed to moving forward together.”

Diana Duong
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  1. Alice Gardner / October 19, 2019 at 19:01

    “As the pair explained in the workshop program, student affairs in Canada “can feel exclusionary to folks who do not present as white, middle-class and extroverted”

    what if they present as INTROVERTED, white and middle class? would they also be part of the “guilty” majority? the baseless assumptions and bad logic in this article shows a pathetic lack of critical thinking.

    it is common for a minority to feel like an outsider regardless of race etc. A young person may FEEL excluded in a group of older people but that isnt ageism. A cis white male, introverted or extroverted, will FEEL like an outsider in a group of black lesbians. As the “guilty” majority, are the black lesbians racist and sexist? probably but the thought and the deed are as different as night and day, thank goodness.

    gender is by far the biggest diversity category yet education depts, student affairs etc are 90% female. if diversity is good, the education etc depts are the worst in the univ. Even stem has more gender equity and more initiatives to reduce disparity than humanities’ dept.

    Oh, and UA has 7 white females 2 white males, and 5 poc. Thats 50% white female, 14% white male, and 35% poc. Power to the people who present as educated, middle-class, middle-aged, extroverted white women!

  2. David Pasternak / October 23, 2019 at 00:19

    Diversity problem? I think what you really want to say is, “too many white people”.

  3. Rita AL-Kasim / October 27, 2019 at 15:09

    No surprise that there are negative responses from the already privileged. I think what the article says here is that the student demographics is disproportionately diverse to the staff demographic. This means that the minoritized are ruled and “advised” by the white, so colonialism all over again. Another point made here is about emphaty instead of sympathy. Sympathy can be patronizing and further alienate the racialized subject, however well-intended. I think it’s crucial for student affairs to have that quality. But what about teaching staff? There is a huge gap in all these discussions about diversity within the university, namely, the lack of diversity among faculty, particularly in Humanities. There is so much to say.

  4. Samantha Doyle / October 31, 2019 at 11:53

    Interesting… This article focuses ONLY on people of colour, but there are many others who feel marginalized and isolated for a variety of reasons.

    I am an immigrant, look white (although I am of mixed origin), and have an accent. I have been asked time and time again where I am from. Then they follow by more questions, such as why I am here, where I was born, etc… The same questions are being asked by people of colour and whites, indiscriminantly. I am sure if I sked the same question in return, it would be considered insensitive and offensive, and even a microagression.

    Not all white, middle-class people are extroverts. I have met many introverts and there are those who end up committing a suicide because of bullying or being marginilized.

    What if they are white, middle-class, extroverts, and gay or trans? Do the former three charasteristics preclude them from getting support?

    Who decides who should be labelled without any background information or knowledge about the said individual? How can one make an inferrence whether someone is middle-class? Is a dollar sign written on their forehead?

    The article stereotypes an entire group of people based on their perceived physical appearance, while making a case that people should not be stereotyped and discriminated based on their appearance.

  5. Helen / November 22, 2019 at 16:53

    Is this the kind of critical and independent thinking we’re producing at universities? If so, we have a big, big problem and it is not a lack of diversity.

    What evidence is there that “microaggressions” accurately reflect the “aggressor’s” intent? Ascribing intent to someone on the basis of his/her/zey’s identity is discriminatory. Similarly, the assumption that white men do not experience feelings of inadequacy and not belonging in academia is absurd. Has the author ever even bothered to ask a white person about their insecurities in academia? Everyone in academia has these experiences, especially in the contexts described in this article.

    The counselling experience is an excellent example of the flawed argumentation of this article. As a psychotherapist, I can assure the author that having the client work through why an issue is important to them and what the impact is on them is part of the therapeutic process. Walking someone through one’s experience and one’s interpretations thereof to such a point that one can articulate what the impact was upon oneself and why it is important to one defines how to approach the problem within the therapeutic relationship. The only failing of the counsellor was not to make explicitly, uncontrovertibly clear the rationale for the line of questioning but we can’t know even this for sure by relying on a third party report of the session. The claim that the counsellor didn’t understand the person in question on the basis of racial identity is a reflection of someone’s racism but not that of the counsellor.

    You can’t barrel into an argument, making claims of being discriminated against when the only evidence you have is your own assumptions about the experiences and intentions of those who don’t share your identity. All that achieves is putting your own biases on display.

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