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Inclusive Language in the Field of International Education

Tuesday, November 13, 2018  
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As the Student Outreach Coordinator at Diversity Abroad, my primary role in our organization is to travel to colleges and universities throughout the country promoting study abroad for students of varied backgrounds. Whether I’m speaking in front of a group of first-generation college students, or tabling at a large-scale study abroad fair, I answer questions on everything from finding the right program, to identifying relevant scholarships. Students approach me with concerns while at various stages of the study abroad research process, and when all is said and done, I invite them to sign-up for our listserv to stay in touch and receive more information.

In most cases, completing the form happens seamlessly. For the majority of students filling out this form, they circle their responses and move onto the following questions without a second thought. However, on a few occasions, I’ve gotten some pushback for two self-identifying questions. When we ask students about their gender and ethnicity, they are asked to choose from one of the following choices:

Gender: Male / Female
Ethnicity: Asian / Black / Latino / Multi-racial / Middle Eastern / Native American / White / Other

I’ve gotten feedback from students such as:
“So, are these our only options?”
“Do you guys write these forms yourselves?”
“Can I write-in how I prefer to identify myself?”

While only a handful of students expressed concern over these choices, it left enough of an impression on me that I felt it was necessary to re-examine the questions we ask, and how we opt to phrase them. At Diversity Abroad, our work in the field of International Education is ultimately a mission of inclusiveness. By only providing a limited number of choices, are we failing to practice what we preach by limiting the ways in which we allow students to identify themselves?

On the one hand, it is both valuable and necessary to streamline the information we collect in order to identify trends in study abroad. The ability to produce clear statements about the percentage of Latino students studying in Europe, health majors interested in internships, or male students worried about financing their trips allows us to improve our outreach efforts. We can only identify which groups lack representation in the field if we collect clear and accurate information.

On the other hand, it is extremely important to support college students as they build their own identities, especially given our understanding about how transformative living abroad can be. Students are growing and changing through their experiences in college and abroad, so who are we to ask them to narrowly define who they are?

I will admit that the quantitative researcher in me understands the push for narrowing the choices that students can make. The argument that this form isn’t intended to reduce student populations to one common denominator stands true, although the pushback from students will continue to happen unless more options become available.

So where do we go from here?

In trying to provide some recommendations, I found a resource titled, “How you can make the gender question on an application form more inclusive1?” which provides concrete alternatives on how to pose questions -- specifically concerning gender. One common thread among all alternatives, was that the question begins with the statement, “I identify my gender as _____________”. This prompt allows students to choose from a variety of responses (i.e. male, female, trans*, etc.) as with other traditional questions – albeit with a broader range to choose from.

When it comes to identifying one's ethnicity, the challenge in creating enough alternative options on a form seems impractical and unrealistic. While both gender and ethnic identity can be politically and socially charged, the history of race relations in the United States makes it impossible to develop singular terms intended to identify large groups of people. According to this article on the U.S. Census finds2, Americans are increasingly declining to identify themselves according to the limited categories listed. Similarly, this New York Times Op-Ed points out3 that the changing “face” of America into a nation of cultural and ethnic hybrids is impossible to capture accurately and effectively.

As young adults continue to examine their identity throughout the college experience - both on-campus and while abroad - I believe it is important for educators to actively support this personal growth by engaging students in meaningful conversations and creating spaces where students can express who they are on their own terms. Giving students the option to write-in how they identify, in addition to choosing a category that allows us to collect data would be an ideal compromise. Providing this space “begins the action as a form of empowerment, instead of other options that often take the power to decide away from the individual answering the question.”

While each institution and organization will ultimately determine what is most practical based on what information they collect and why, the conversation regarding self-identity is one that continues to evolve. It is our responsibility as educators to recognize this expansion, and to regularly question ourselves and our practices to meet the needs of a growing and changing population.