When I started looking for colleges, my criteria were straightforward: It just needed to be a reputable university away from Minnesota with more diversity than my high school. The culture of the West Coast always appealed to me, especially because I thought I’d thrive in an environment that better reflected my background. I was lured in by UC Berkeley’s reputation of having a diverse student body and the enrollment data the school used to prove it.
I was first exposed to the diversity of the West Coast when I attended a biology camp at UC Santa Cruz the summer before my senior year of high school. Almost all of the other students were from California. On the first night of the camp, I called my parents, dying to tell them that the majority of the other campers were of nonwhite ethnic backgrounds and had parents born outside of the United States, and that I finally felt like I was surrounded by peers whom I could relate to.
When some campers and I realized the impact our geography had on our cultural experiences, we thought we’d get a kick out of looking through each other’s Facebook friend lists. We scanned through each “Nguyen” or “Patel” that made up their lists, and every “Miller” or “Johnson” on mine, amused by the stark contrast in our high school demographics. Until that moment, I had no idea there was a world out there — within the United States — where everyone’s roots seemed to come from outside of it.
That kind of environment is exactly what I expected when I committed to UC Berkeley. And that’s exactly what I experienced when I stepped foot on campus. On my freshman floor and in my first-semester classes, minority and second-generation students made up the majority. I didn’t know a single white person, and if I did, they probably had some other factor that qualified as a contribution to the school’s diversity. Everyone seemed to be incredibly culturally aware — always striving to accentuate their culture, disprove stereotypes and increase representation for their ethnic group.
But over time, I began to notice that many students shared similar ethnic backgrounds and experiences. When I became familiar with the cultural narratives of my friends and peers, other students I met didn’t have experiences that I considered particularly unique anymore. On top of that, I rarely met anyone with a similar experience to mine. I was on a campus dominated by minorities, and I was still a minority. I wanted to ask anyone who would listen, “Do you ever feel like Berkeley isn’t as diverse as it claims to be?” But I rarely voiced my sentiment, thinking it would come off as shallow and naive. Maybe I was looking for the wrong things, anyway.
After being in this environment for so long and having countless discussions about diversity and inclusion, I began to question my definition of diversity. I wondered if, when I was looking for diverse campuses, I was really just looking for the most multicultural ones. I wondered if I just liked the idea of a racially heterogeneous campus — where everyone came from different ethnic backgrounds until, collectively, every region of the world was represented. I wondered if all I cared about was having a unique circle of friends in which everyone had something culturally interesting to offer. I wondered if, instead of prioritizing what diversity means for this institution and community, I was prioritizing my own multiethnic identity and my shallow desires to live in an environment with a sufficient assortment of contrasting identities.
While UC Berkeley may not have been the comprehensively diverse campus I was subconsciously looking for, it was diverse in other ways. There is more than one way of defining diversity, and it doesn’t stop at the number of national flags represented as you walk through campus or the rate that the minority population is growing compared to the white population. Diversity shouldn’t only be rooted in narratives that are new and different, nor should it invalidate those that are common. Diversity is so much deeper than what is available at surface level.
Diversity should highlight all experiences. But if its purpose is to promote representation, it should be about supporting underrepresented minority students, first-generation college students, low-income students and students with disabilities. It should be about students who overcame family struggles, personal challenges and identity crises. It should be about students with a range of religious and political beliefs and students from a range of geographic regions. It should be about those students with unconventional educational paths and uncommon interests who are pursuing their life goals despite external pressures. UC Berkeley is diverse in many of these ways and represents countless student experiences that are more than check marks on a demographics survey.
Of course there are gaps in representation on our campus, and there may always be people who feel like a minority. There may never be equal numbers of students under every identity category. But if my only contribution is to tell my own story, support other students who feel underrepresented and understand where the real problems in diversity lie, then that is infinitely more valuable to me than variety of last names on my Facebook friend list.
Jasmine Tatah writes the Thursday column on having multiple cultural backgrounds in America.