The courage to embrace diversity

© Michael Jordan

A welcome celebration at the University of Potsdam was an occasion for the DAAD to greet some 400 scholarship holders from the Berlin-Brandenburg region on 14 November. The programme included a panel discussion on the topic of diversity and equal opportunities in academia.

It’s not that long ago that Shelby Smith would never have dreamed of studying abroad. Had her parents had their way, the main intention would have been for the young American to quickly obtain her degree certificate. She had a full-time job while still at high school, but in 2021 she still passed her American High School Diploma with home schooling in the evenings. And she was the first in her family to go to university. She began her studies at Murray State University, which was where she first heard about the Gilman-DAAD Germany Scholarships programme. It’s specifically intended for students like her – first-time graduates with a rather unusual educational biography. Smith successfully applied and was eventually able to switch to the University of Regensburg.

Two years later, Shelby Smith is sitting on the podium of a packed lecture theatre at the University of Potsdam telling DAAD scholarship holders from around the world about her experiences. The DAAD had invited over 400 beneficiaries from almost 50 funding programmes to attend a welcome celebration on 14 November. Its main aim was for them to get to know one another and network, as stressed by DAAD Secretary General Dr Kai Sicks in his welcoming address. But also to make use of this opportunity to address a topic that is particularly pertinent to the DAAD: diversity and equal opportunities in academia. ‘I didn’t think I’d be able to do this’, Smith recalls regarding her scholarship application. ‘But I was encouraged when I realised that the funding is explicitly intended for students like me. I think it’s really important to promote heterogeneity and equal opportunities in this way.’

Taking family backgrounds into account

Dr Kai Sicks also referred to the fact that diversity means so much more than supporting as many people as possible from different backgrounds. He, together with Kumar Ashish, spokesperson for the Federal Association of International Students (BAS), Dr Juliane Stude, head of the field of research ‘Teaching Diversity – Diversity in Teaching’ at the University of Münster, and Shelby Smith all participated in the panel discussion, which was moderated by Dr Michael Harms, deputy DAAD Secretary General. The DAAD Secretary General feels that ‘It involves reaching out to people with different family backgrounds and prerequisites’. This is precisely an aspect that has intensely occupied the DAAD of late, for instance via elaboration of its own diversity strategy. Among other things, this involves making selection committees aware of the potential reasons for educational biographies that are not directly linear. ‘We asked ourselves whether our funding is truly tapping the full potential of the young people we support. Or are we sometimes narrowing the perspective?’, Sicks asks.

The higher education institutions pose themselves similar questions and react accordingly. Juliane Stude reported that her own university, the University of Münster, had deliberately decided on an active diversity policy that is jointly supported by all its organisational structures. A Mentimeter survey among the participating scholarship holders revealed that such policy modifications, which are also now being initiated at other universities, are absolutely making an impact. At least more than half of them stated that they perceived their German university to be more diverse when asked how diverse they felt their German host HEI to be compared to their home country.

Providing space for discourse

Yet Stude feels it still remains challenging to go beyond mere mission statements and to effectively tackle issues such as racism and discrimination. The fact that there is still a lot to do in this regard was also emphasised by Kumar Ashish, who in his role as spokesperson for the Federal Association of International Students closely monitors the external perception of diversity and equal opportunities in the German science system. ‘I frequently converse with members of the LGBTQ+ community who come to German universities because they expect to find a more diverse climate here. And are then disappointed by the reality’, Ashish recalls. ‘There’s definitely a lot that still needs to be done.’

Juliane Stude’s ‘Teaching Diversity – Diversity in Teaching’ project brings together German and Indonesian student teachers to examine diverse teaching and learning cultures. ‘A decisive aspect here was for us to clarify our respective understanding of diversity before dealing with the practical implementation of equal opportunities. This involves identifying and honestly addressing certain taboos. The next step is to provide space for discourse that enables a constructive platform for dealing with these extremely conflictual aspects’, Stude stated in the context of the panel discussion. ‘We need to be really careful not to simply end up with the phrase ‘Heterogeneity is important and good’ without actually going a stage further. It’s essential for us to take the time and space to engage in dialogue regarding the challenges surrounding diversity.’

Breaking down language barriers

This another aspect that the DAAD takes extremely seriously, as Kai Sicks reported. Multiple current programmes addressed students who were denied studies in their home country due to ideological, political or religious reasons or based on their sexual orientation. ‘We’re simultaneously creating dialogue formats that enable different people to join in conversation and exchange opinions on different topics. The intention is to somehow counter the discursive impudence that is currently evident throughout society.’

Both Shelby Smith and Kumar Ashish finally had some suggestions from the perspective of international students. Ashish believes that language barriers remain among the greatest challenges. ‘German universities need to become much more international when it comes to facilitating the integration of students from abroad. Learning German is of course good and proper. But it shouldn’t be a prerequisite for being able to master administrative matters.’ Smith sees it as important to provide even better local mentoring, especially for students from challenging backgrounds such as her own – with little cultural skill and hardly any international experience. ‘My initial time in Regensburg came as a genuine culture shock. I’d have liked to receive more support during this difficult initial phase.’

* mandatory field