We Are Here: Voices of Diversity

by Gabriela Cázares

On the day I was finally hooded and officially obtained my PhD, my mother exclaimed, “We did it, m’ija! We finally did it!” While there was only one name on the degree, it was the product of so many people who made it all possible—the invisible labor of family members, faculty, staff, and students necessary in making it to graduation. As a first-generation underrepresented scholar, I was told that diversity mattered, and that my “diverse” status contributed to the strength of the university. But what exactly is diversity?

Where to begin? Diversity in higher education is complex, but it is often reduced to statistical demographics sometimes boasting recruitment rates with insufficient attention placed on the retention and matriculation rates of underrepresented doctoral students and faculty especially. Voices of Diversity centers the personal as political. Getting through the doors of the ivory towers is not easy, while staying and making it to graduation at the PhD and faculty level is a beast of a different nature. While definitions and implementation vary—and sometimes even diversity is contested as the most appropriate term in need of broadening—at the heart of the discussion is inclusivity and equal access to resources. This includes diverse curriculum reflective of diverse demographics among faculty, staff, and students as well as co-curricular components and physical spaces (e.g., cross-cultural community centers) that create community. Together welcoming spaces for faculty, staff, and the student body are made possible.

We are here, but we are all very different. Recognizing heterogeneous backgrounds and experiences has proven vital in driving the various themes of this podcast series including: mothers of color in academia, diversity and professionalization, pipeline work, and PhD attrition rates in the humanities. In the university, we are sometimes told that the personal has no place, yet many underrepresented scholars are driven by personal motivations to address gaps in the research and types of knowledges that are being produced. One Voices of Diversity guest and undocumented doctoral student, for instance, centralized her research on how relationships of families with siblings of varying documentation statuses are shaped and impacted. Although numerically there are a limited number of undocumented PhD students, shedding light on these topics is fundamental in building new areas of knowledge at the heart of university mission statements.

On an institutional level, the University of California continues to place much needed attention on this important arena, but the reality is there is a lot of ground to cover. As Horizons of the Humanities, UCHRI has convened a two-year Diversity Working Group committee consisting of UC faculty, doctoral students, and staff across the ten-campus University of California-system in order to best address larger issues linked to the challenges of the retention of underrepresented faculty and doctoral students in the humanities.

Statistics tell one aspect of the story, while delving into why underrepresented students stay or leave in academia is another. Voices of Diversity from diverse perspectives on the frontlines extend and augment these perspectives. While underrepresented scholars in higher education remain small, but growing albeit at a slow rate, many share a common interest of making a difference in their communities. The hope is that Voices of Diversity serves as an additional platform that brings together academic and public scholars, staff, and students from varying social locations and positionalities to larger diverse audiences. Together we ask: the main goal of the university is to produce knowledge, but what types of knowledges? Whose voices and what types of knowledges are valued? How do we bring to the fore normally marginalized voices?

Episode 1: What is Diversity?

What is Diversity? examines social justice issues and inclusivity in higher education, centering on the perspectives of faculty, administrators, and graduate students from underrepresented groups. These groups include women, those who identify as LGBTQ, individuals from working-class backgrounds, and people of color. As the United States becomes increasingly diverse, graduation rates for advanced degree holders, management level staff positions, and faculty fail to reflect these changing demographics. Diversity is at the heart of our podcast, however, definitions vary. In this episode we will hear from scholars Whitney N. Pirtle, Assistant Professor of Sociology at UC-Merced, Dr. Jenny Kwon Special Projects Coordinator with the Office of the Chancellor at UC-Berkeley, and Henry Lem, PhD Candidate from the Department of East Asian Languages & Literatures at UC-Irvine, as we attempt to answer the question, “What is diversity?”


Whitney N. Pirtle is currently an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California – Merced. Her research interests include race and racism, identity, mental health, and quantitative methods. Her research is primarily informed by social psychological framework, and explores how social structures, like racial hierarchies, impact individuals lived experiences, well-being, and identities.

Jenny Kwon is the Associate Chief of Staff in the Chancellor’s Office. Reporting to the Associate Chancellor, Jenny provides advisory, analytical, communication, and project management support for a wide range of projects, initiatives, committees, and working groups. She takes the lead in assigned areas for policy and program planning, development and administration, and research analysis in support of a broad array of initiatives directed by the Chancellor and Associate Chancellor.

Henry Lem is PhD candidate at UC Irvine specializes in traditional Chinese fiction. He is interested in the complex relationship between author, text, commentator, and reader in novels of the Ming and Qing periods. In his future research project, Henry plans to investigate novel sequels as works of both innovation and intervention, engaged in radical dialogues with earlier traditions of fiction narrative.