Apr 11th, 2024, 02:00 PM

Baby Steps to Big Change: The Future of DEI at AUP

By Spencer Hooker
(Source: aupinstagram on Instagram)
AUP’s DEI journey began in 2020 following the summer of Black Lives Matter and COVID-19. Four years later, what's their next step for lasting change?

Before coming to the American University of Paris, I attended Flagler College. My first year at Flagler happened to be the first year the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) office was established. Flagler is a small, Primarily White Institute (PWI) in Florida that dealt with issues ranging from confederate monuments and white supremacists to students doing Black face on Halloween and daily microaggressions from faculty members. While it wasn’t by any means the most diverse or equitable campus just because it had a DEI office, it did provide students with empathetic staff members who cared to listen and help find solutions, as well as a space on campus that made our diversity feel celebrated instead of marginalized.  

The American University of Paris prides itself on being a diverse and inclusive campus, with 1000 undergraduate students holding over 110 different nationalities and the university boasting about facilitating a dialogical environment that offers “active engagement with issues related to race, ethnicity, culture, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation.” Yet AUP fails to offer an office focused specifically on facilitating these conversations.  

Instead, these conversations are only held if a faculty, staff or student chooses to engage them. The effort for a more inclusive community needs to occur on an administrative level, not just an interpersonal level. While the passion from the students looking to take up space on campus and promote diversity is admirable, it is also disappointing that these efforts always fall on students to create celebration for diversity. Though AUP does offer a Diversity Council that serves as an empathetic ear when the inevitable microaggression arises, I would like to see the campus become proactive instead of being reactive when it comes to building a more inclusive community for marginalized students on campus.  

Black and Abroad put on events throughout Black History Month so Black students had representation on campus. 

In an interview with the Diversity Council’s Graduate representative, Ira McIntosh highlighted that the Diversity Council is widely misunderstood by students as a group that holds significant power, when in reality the council serves as the support system of advocates that can direct students elsewhere, saying, “We’re kind of like telephone operators that can help connect student, faculty and staff to the appropriate offices.” McIntosh reiterated that the council is still new and trying to find their footing on campus. While the Diversity Council has a track record of supporting marginalized groups at AUP, McIntosh acknowledged there's more progress to be made.  

Dwyette Turnquest, a student from the Bahamas pursuing a Masters in Global Communication at AUP, presents a skeptical view on the school’s DEI initiatives, saying AUP “often uses tokenism to present as a diverse and inclusive institution, but lacks the courage and care to take further action to be a diverse, inclusive and equitable school.”  

The tokenism perspective is echoed through AUP social media and advertising. There's a meme about campus photographers that anyone who is Black or a person of color on a PWI campus knows. PWI photographers are trained to capture every moment of joy a student of color has on campus. During my first week at AUP, the photographers captured a moment of my own joy, and before I knew it, I would see my face plastered on the 2024’s Spring Orientation Guide. I’m not suggesting the university to exclude all people of color from their promotional material, but there is a tight line to walk when including your students of color. This promotional material can portray a more diverse campus that creates a misrepresentation for incoming students of color. 

(Credit: The American University of Paris)

While the Diversity Council plays a vital role in this school's social ecology, a DEI office can provide a more structured, consistent path to fostering a diverse and inclusive community. Enhancing the student experience is going to take a multifaceted approach that should be directed by people with a plan. Something of this scale, such as creating a new office with its own budget, will take years of planning. In the meantime, there are smaller steps the university can take. 

To start with, the school – with the assistance of its student leadership office or SGA – could attempt to put on more events for cultural celebration. Allocation of a dedicated budget to help fund these events is a critical component. While the Diversity Council works tirelessly to connect student organizations with offices and student clubs to help find funding for events, setting aside funds ensures cultural events have the financial backing of the AUP community. 

Cultural competency workshops and other events put on by the school or its student leadership would also be helpful in fostering more meaningful conversations surrounding issues pertaining to race, ethnicity, culture, gender identity and sexual orientation. For students from marginalized communities, educating others can feel overwhelming. By empowering more students to participate in these discussions, even if the issue doesn't directly affect them, we can ensure the burden doesn't fall solely on marginalized voices. As McIntosh said in our interview, having “extra advocates is never a bad thing”. 

A challenge AUP faces in tackling DEI is tied to a 1978 French law that bans the collection of racial data. Since the law's passage, France has turned into a color-blind society, thus impacting how universities like AUP focus on what it means to be a diverse campus. Rather than looking at the different ethnicities we have across campus like colleges in the US, AUP chooses to focus instead on students' nationalities. To learn more about how AUP became a color-blind campus, consider reading Lucia Rio’s 2022 Peacock article

My nationality is American, but I’m a Black man before anything else. While the school continues working towards diversity and inclusion, we, the AUP community, can commit to becoming better allies by educating ourselves. Let's actively seek out resources and engage with causes unfamiliar to us; Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour.