Education students offer opinions about diversity, equity, inclusion

Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

Many of the 42 Penn State students in the two Principles of Social Justice classes (CI185) said in their final presentations Dec. 7 that they welcomed the opportunity to learn more about diversity, equity and inclusion and that what they learned they’ll take with them long into their professional and personal lives.

Taught by Ashley Patterson, assistant professor of education (language, culture and society), and Efraín Marimón, assistant professor of education and director of the Restorative Justice Initiative, CI185 also is part of a six-course social justice in education minor offered by the College of Education. 

Penn State President Eric Barron said in his Dec. 9 Town Hall speech that Penn State has recognized the importance of making the University more diverse and welcoming. “We have focused on diversity as a moral, educational and business imperative,” he said. “One of the six foundations of our strategic plan is diversity, equity and inclusion. And we articulated our commitment in the Penn State Statement on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

“Right now, in university communities across the nation, we face profound challenges. Our mission is to serve and advance citizens through education, research and service to society. It is a mission that fails if we are not diverse and if we are not inclusive. There are many steps to take based on what we started to discuss today,” Barron said.

Patterson opened the three-hour, CI185 presentation event — a mini-conference serving as a culminating showcase of student learning across the semester — by saying she believes in the idea that there are two sides to social justice work. “One is the context that you’re in. The world … it can be a global scale or a very localized scale. And that’s what we were trying to get at (through students’ research during the semester),” she said.

“The other side of the social justice world that we can't move forward without is that personal work, those of our own ways of thinking, our habitual ways of thinking that we interrupt in order to make space for new learning that has equity at its center.”

Marimón concluded the afternoon event by thanking the students for sharing their reflections as well as their semester-long journey in which they got to be vulnerable and learn about each other. 

“We experienced a very interesting semester together,” he said. “We want to encourage you to take the things not only that you learned in this class but that you talked about and learned and committed to and continue to engage in these types of inquiries as professionals, practitioners and advocates.”

In between, students shared their research and their feelings on diversity/equity/inclusion topics ranging from “Social Justice and Community” to “Teaching and Learning with Equity in Mind” to “Social Justice and Multiple Identities” to “Advocacy in Action.”

What follows is an abbreviated summary of some of the students’ presentations as well as their takeaways from CI185:

Danae Roles

Danae Roles Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

Roles is an early childhood education major whose topic was “Intersectionality in Our Society.”

“Intersectionality is the combining of social, political, personal and physical aspects of oneself that creates different forms of oppression, discrimination or privilege,” she said. “I think intersectionality often gets looked at on a discrimination side and oppression side, but it also goes with privilege. And that I think is where it gets kind of lost. Everyone experiences intersectionality differently, but it's definitely on both ends, and obviously bad on both ends.

“As teachers, and administration, we have to just advocate to lessen those opportunity gaps so the intersectionality doesn't affect them in an oppressed way. Students don’t often have that voice; as teachers we just have to work to have that voice for them.”

Roles’ takeaway: “Just being more aware, looking in the mirror, looking at that privilege and some of the privileges that I hold that you don't even recognize you hold. Looking at your own privileges and why you have those privileges can help you understand why others might not,” she said. 

“It can also help to bring change that can help to spark those conversations. I've had many conversations that kind of spark that lightbulb. Just talking about being aware, again, is just a good overall statement of how we can move forward and create change in our society.”

April Komal 

April Komal Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

Komal is a secondary education social studies major whose topic was “Why Am I an Other? The Erasure of the U.S.’s Smallest Minority Identities.”

She showed a box of nationalities that people routinely see on forms and those forms include the word “other.”

“Unfortunately, a lot of students are feeling pressure not to check that ‘other’ box and fit themselves into a different group just because they feel as though that kind of minimalizes them. And I actually feel that myself, as a Caribbean American student, I've always been forced to put myself in either the Asian box or the Black/African American box, even though that's not what I identify as only because Caribbean culture is focused on those two,” she said. 

“Caribbean immigration in the United States has almost tripled as the years go on every decade, and Caribbean immigrants actually make up 10% of the immigration population in the United States, yet we never really learned that much about them. I found that both Indian Caribbean students and Afro Caribbean students have had more of an achievement gap when compared to other immigrant students. With cultural competence and just critical consciousness, students are more aware of how different cultures contribute to their own, as well as Native Americans.”

Komal’s takeaway: “I think the biggest takeaway for me this year was learning how much the natives played a part in our country and how this is their land but we never really learned about them. Before this class I thought that intersectionality was a bad thing because you'd have to force yourself into a group. I would always check off a box that I thought would fit me because I just had so many different aspects of my culture that would fit into those boxes,” she said. 

“I think it's really important to recognize your intersectionality just because it empowers who you are, and your cultural awareness. For me, social justice in my classroom is going to be super important. I'm a secondary education major for social studies, so implementing native Caribbean and other minority education is going to be a really big goal for me.”

Alina Gill

Alina Gill Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

Gill is a journalism major whose topic was “A Seat for Everyone: Importance of Discussing Race in the Classroom.”

“I really focused on how to create an inclusive and safe classroom, because I'm actually not an education major but taking this class really made me a lot more interested in the education side of social justice,” Gill said. “My research was just to expose the realities and overall impact behind discussing, acknowledging and appreciating race within the classroom. 

“During my research I specifically focused on the well-being of diverse students, and how they're treated in the classroom. Inclusion within the classroom is a philosophy based on values, aiming to maximize the participation of all in the society and education by minimizing exclusionary and discriminatory practices.” 

Gill’s takeaway: “Prior to taking this class, I did not really understand the wide realm of social justice. I didn't really ever consider social justice could be applied within education; I had a narrower view of it but now I understand that it can be applied to so many different aspects of life,” she said.

“I knew that there was a need for change, but I just didn't really know how to get involved or where to start. I became aware of all the systems of inequality within our society and understood the value of speaking up in situations of ignorance, even if it may be uncomfortable. I think it's really important to kind of change the curriculum a little bit in the way that it's talking more about the realities of history and not sugarcoating it based on what people have taught us.”

Julia Puntil

Julia Puntil Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

Puntil is an elementary and early childhood education major whose topic was “Redlining: Is It Still Hurting Minorities?”

She explained that redlining’s origins were rooted in the 1930s as a result of the Great Depression and the need for loans and mortgages. “In Philadelphia in 1937, the color-coded system they used, now known as redlining, used solid colors to distinguish status and urban areas. Green meant desirable, yellow definitely declining and red hazardous or dangerous, hence redlining,” Puntil said.

“The red line areas were and still are inhabited by minorities. The impacts of education on redlining were very compelling to me as a future educator and the fact that this segregation of schools still happens today. Funding is also affected by redlining; this is a trickle-down effect. Schools within redline districts receive less funding, because funding comes from predominantly local taxes.”

Puntil, whose sister was among the virtual audience for the presentation, showed a map of her home city of Pittsburgh, citing that her suburban school in Moon Township was better off than the Pittsburgh City Schools. “I never knew because I went to a well-funded, predominantly white school district that had computers, books, extracurriculars and literally anything you would ever need,” she said.

Puntil’s takeaway: “Before this class, I had hardly thought about the privilege I had as a white, heterosexual woman. I didn't think I needed to learn about some social justice issues because they didn't directly impact me,” she said. “However, clearly I was severely uneducated on these issues and have appreciated the wake-up call from this class. But now I realize I can make a difference as an ally in many social justice issues, and I acknowledge that I love learning, and I love to ask questions and continue to learn from all those that I can.”

George Tzanakis

George Tzanakis Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

Tzanakis is an elementary education major whose topic was “Bridging the Opportunity Gap Through Education.”

“I never learned about it (social justice) in school and, honestly, if it weren't for this class, I would still not know about it, which is pretty unfortunate because if I'm a teacher educator I think it would be really, really important to me to understand social justice, and its importance and its place in not just education but in society in general,” Tzanakis said.

“We're moving to become a more mixed society. Research shows that in the next 50 years, 50% of students will be mixed. Another important point is calling it the opportunity gap, as opposed to the achievement gap, because it's not that students might not be achieving as much, but that's due to a lack of opportunity. And I think achievement puts the blame on the students, where opportunity puts the blame on the system, which is really what the problem is.”

Tzanakis’ takeaway: The first thing I experienced was the stand-up activity and that was actually really hard for me as a student having to actually face the fact that I've been the recipient of privilege, and I’ve gotten a lot of it, and that may even be why I am here today,” he said. “Actually having to swallow that pill is really, really hard. But through this class I've grown a lot because I've talked with my peers, and we have the discussions and I think it's important to get your emotions and experiences out on the table through these peer discussions from our breakout rooms.

“Even in class they really allowed me to see who I am as a person and where I should grow. I've been able to hold myself more accountable. In this class, you have to analyze it and what it means, like a broader sense as opposed to just the general idea of what the problem is; you have to actually understand who it affects, and why it affects them. And I think having my students figure it out on their own is really important.”

Nicholas Pinketti

Nicholas Pinketti Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

Pinketti is an elementary and early childhood education major whose topic was “The Need to Discuss Race in Elementary Schools.” He said his mother is a teacher in a low-income school in Florida and that school and the school he attended were starkly different.

“I've always been very passionate about both teaching and social justice,” he said. “My mom talks about teaching there and how hard it is, and how the achievement gap is really the opportunity gap. The students (in her school) are absolutely as smart, and even smarter in some cases than many of the students (in my school), but they really just aren't given the same opportunities that the predominantly white students are given, and that I was given.

“If you create a community where people can feel safe, and can express their identities that are intersectional, then you can really create a place where success is possible for the students.”

Pinketti’s takeaway: “Intersectionality plays a key role in almost everyone's lives but especially people that hold multiple disadvantaged identities. Legally, you must create a space where all students can respect and uphold identities. And this really will remove as many barriers as possible; that's what teachers do,” he said.

“My (class) promise was to continue to work hard in educating myself on issues regarding social justice, so that I can build a classroom that is equitable and creates a culture where differences are celebrated and where students can focus on learning and growing inside themselves.”

Aaliyah Reynolds

Aaliyah Reynolds Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

Reynolds is an early childhood education major whose topic was “Equality for All Children of Color Inside the Classroom and Out.”

Her research revealed that even after 20 years of affirmative action, African-American students constitute only 45% of professional degrees. “This was something new and it made me think of how people told me affirmative action was the reason I was getting into schools. This fact in article alone shows how it's not true