Diversifying the information field: iSchool Ph.D. students lead the way

As an iSchool Information Diversity Ambassador, Ph.D. candidate Lassana Magassa gives prospective recruits a student’s-eye view of the school’s scholarly community – a community where multi-cultural, multi-ethnic voices increasingly enrich discussions and empower problem-solving in complex research arenas. “I show them the wide array of people from all walks of life at the school and encourage them that they belong here,” says Magassa, who researches computer literacy in marginalized populations.

The more alternative points of view brought to the academic table, the better the decision-making, says Magassa, who brings his own experiences as an African American raised in Harlem to that conversation. “In addressing any information problem, without that level of diversity, we tend to reinforce our own beliefs.”

The Information Diversity Ambassador program is one of multiple strategies the iSchool uses to increase its ranks of graduate students of color. The school also has its own Diversity Committee, composed of faculty, staff, and students, and a full-time Diversity Programs Advisor, Cynthia del Rosario (pictured above). “There is probably no other academic unit anywhere that has a position solely dedicated to diversity,” says del Rosario, who is deeply committed to bringing new, underrepresented voices to an information field still dominated by white males. “We are in an information economy, and when communities don’t have people who understand cultural nuances to effectively work in their best interests, vulnerable communities will continue to go underserved and will get further and further behind, socially and economically. That puts it upon us to make the difference.”

Del Rosario actively recruits for all iSchool graduate and undergraduate programs, reaching out to underrepresented and underserved populations that include communities of color, immigrant communities, LGBTQ students, students from low socio-economic backgrounds, students who are the first in their family to attend college or graduate school, and many others who can become information leaders lending new voices to top companies and academic institutions. “We need to do things that are pro-active and deliberate. Inequities must be addressed,” says del Rosario, who is mixed race, Chinese American and White.

Aggressive diversification strategies at the iSchool have had a measurable impact on student demographics. In Magassa’s group of 47 information science doctoral students, 21 come from diverse backgrounds, among them Native Americans, Latinos, African Americans,  Asians, Pacific Islanders, and international students. That’s almost half the Ph.D. candidates.

And among Ph.D. graduates in the 2013 class, a remarkable six out of eight were minorities. One of those was Jeff Huang. “It felt welcoming at the iSchool, like everyone in my cohort was from a different background or country. When we got together, everyone felt comfortable sharing their own experiences because everyone was so different,” says Huang, who is now the only Asian American in the computer science department at Brown University, where he teaches user interfaces and human computer interaction.

He is, says Huang, actively discussing diversity among new peers, organizing get-togethers, and sharing “a little of the iSchool culture.”

The welcoming culture at the interdisciplinary iSchool is no accident. Along with inviting a world of ideas, it invites a world of new scholars to continually expand them. “I believe excellence in information provision and practice is only available to those who embrace the tremendous diversity we have culturally and ethnically in this country,” says iSchool Dean Harry Bruce.

Diversity efforts at the iSchool include establishing a four-year Washington Doctoral Initiative (WDI) fellowship program, funded by an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant and aimed at diversification of the library and information science fields. The WDI program has financially supported four Ph.D. students at the iSchool, including Magassa, and provided them with an intensive doctoral mentoring program.

Another WDI fellow, doctoral candidate Beth Patin, has been instrumental in shaping the iSchool’s iEracism student group. “The idea was to start a pro-active group that really looked at curricula and policies affecting us as students that haven’t been looked at through a critical race lens,” says Patin, who co-designed a course at the iSchool with professor Eliza Dresang teaching cultural competencies using multicultural material for youth.

Patin and other graduate students agree that one area needing improvement at the iSchool is diversity in faculty hiring. “We have only a few U.S. ethnics on faculty, and every other person of color is from another country. That’s not to say the international faculty don’t bring diversity, but the experience of a professor from another country is very different from someone who has faced cultural pressures in the United States,” says Patin, whose father was the first African-American in Alabama to go to a white school, escorted by National Guard troops.

The iSchool, which plans to add six new faculty members in the coming year, is tackling hiring diversity from multiple angles. “Every single faculty job description going out for new positions requires a diversity statement from applicants, similar to teaching and research statements,” says del Rosario. “We are working with faculty search committees to help them understand what that means and how it is weighed into the criteria when reading packages, doing phone interviews, and conducting interviews.”

Factored in that matrix is expertise working with diverse populations. “It’s not only about your racial or ethnic background as a faculty member, it’s about the experience you bring and how you integrate diversity into your research and course content and pedagogy,” says del Rosario.

Faculty members of color provide students important role models and mentorship, say iSchool students and alumni. “If you teach a subject matter from only one perspective, it gets boring and you lose different points of view,” says Parmit Chilana, born in New Delhi, raised in Canada, and part of the multi-ethnic ‘13 graduating Ph.D. class.

Chilana is herself now a role model at Canada’s University of Waterloo, where she is an assistant professor in management sciences at the school of engineering and part of a faculty that is about 13 percent female. “As a female and person of color, you automatically become a mentor to many students,” she says. “I want my students to know that they can succeed regardless of who they are – that they should aim high, invent things, and work on research that will make a difference in the world.”

This openness to alternative thinking is deeply embedded in diversification efforts at the iSchool.  “There are many ways of knowing and of thinking and of exploring, many different orientations and perspectives and research methods that we can apply to discovery,” says Dean Harry Bruce, who is quick to put the school’s diversification efforts in perspective.

“I won’t say we have done everything right or achieved all our diversity goals,” he says. “We fall short of that. But we are making a very visible effort and making very visible progress.”