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At the Intersection: Diversity And Inclusion Student Advocates: Insight from Students

Written By: Ajula Van Ness-Otunnu, MET H.S. Intern

At the Intersection is a three-part series of articles focused on how the intersection between social change and computer science through Brown’s curriculum, community engagement and career tracks, and student advocacy gives students the opportunities to understand and practice humanitarian work in their CS education.

One of the CS Department’s 2018-2019 Diversity Committee goals is to diversify the career paths of CS students, by encouraging young innovators to make sincerely contributing to  their communities a priority. The Diversity Committee works toward increasing undergraduate retention and teaching assistant (UTA) representation of students from historically underrepresented groups (HUGs) while working with the department to recruit faculty from diverse backgrounds and maintain partnerships with student groups.  At the intersection of social change and computer science, the Diversity Committee fosters the development of academically well-rounded students, prepared for making a positive social impact by way of their education.

“I wanted to be a part of shaping the department on an institutional level to be a more inclusive space for people,” says Chinenye Uduji ‘19, student advocate for diversity and inclusion.

Brown CS supports Diversity and Inclusion Student Advocates with funding, sponsorship, and a platform to acknowledge diversity issues and form proactive ways to advance the department as an inclusive space for students from HUGs and underrepresented genders in STEM. Brown University defines HUGs as those who self-identify as American Indian, Alaskan Native, African American, Hispanic or Latinx, and Native Hawaiian and/or Pacific Islander.

The advocate position was proposed by undergraduate students in the fall of 2015 during the first CS Diversity and Inclusion Town Hall to help the department bridge communication between students and faculty. In the winter of 2016, 7 undergraduate students were hired to inform the department’s Diversity Committee goals, programing, and outcomes.

When interviewing current student advocates, many expressed they were encouraged to join by faculty but inspired to join by their peers. The advocates have the responsibility of aiding their peers as well as the department in its entirety by offering a collective student voice.  As Tomi Madarikan ‘21 reflects on her decision to become an advocate she says, “being an advocate, I get to look at policy creation and engage more directly with faculty with insight from students.” Each advocate’s personal experiences and identities informs their dedication to improving diversity and inclusion in the classroom. Student Advocate, Roelle Thorpe ‘20 says, “as a first generation black woman, the issues that we are working with directly affect me and a lot of the people I care about.”

Brown’s progressive student culture is realized by students’ showing a willingness and commitment to addressing issues in their communities. Jennifer Nino Tapia ’20  recalls an experience that prepared her to become a student advocate saying, “diversity work is something I have been doing since high school. Since it was predominantly white, we had a lot of marginalized communities like my family. After recognizing this issue, I started doing a lot of advocacy work [there]”.

With this considerate attitude, the student advocates have improved upon the TA training system and compelled fellow students to speak their minds in relation to diversity and inclusion in their department.  “We are here to listen and help however we can so if you just want to talk to someone, that's fine. We are as confidential as someone wants us to be,” says Chantal Toupin ‘19. This structure creates a safe space for students and professors to further acceptance in the classroom by implementing inclusive language and a process for accountability.

Brown CS supports the student advocates in a multitude of ways to make meaningful contributions to the department’s culture by applying their experience in the community to social justice work. By amplifying student voices, Brown CS empowers students to graduate informed community members.

For the first article in this series: Curriculum: Thinking About Society.