A Practical Primer on Social Justice for On-campus Candidates by Andrea B. Conner

You’re safely tucked into your campus after returning from a busy placement experience at ACPA’s C3 or TPE. If you’re a candidate seeking your next position, perhaps you’ve even managed to successfully impress the employer teams and have landed a couple of on-campus interviews already.

During the first- (and second- ?) round interviews, you were likely asked some version of “a diversity question.” Perhaps it went something like this:

  • Describe your experience working with students from diverse populations.
    • Translation might be (but not always): I need to make sure that you’ve had exposure to students from various identities in general, but more importantly, I also need to make sure you don’t stumble over the phrase “students of color” and/or don’t cringe when you say “gay”.
  • We’re a diverse campus; what experience with diversity do you bring to the table?
    • Translation might be (but not always): I can’t legally ask you about your identities but this question helps me fish for information a little bit.

Perhaps you had some conversations with colleges or universities that went something more like this (my preference, as you’ll soon see):

  • Can you tell me what social justice means to you?
    • Translation might be (but not always): I need to make sure you can acknowledge general concepts of advantaged and disadvantaged identities, thus understanding power and privilege and perhaps even ways to work toward countering injustices.
  • What identity-related work have you explored on your social justice journey?
    • Translation might be (but not always): While I’d love an advanced social justice educator, I mainly want to know if you can express the concepts you’ve explored in workshops, training sessions, conference presentations, or class discussions. This way, I can get a sense of your personal comfort with the topics.

For thirteen years straight, I’ve sat on either side of the interview table, and I can tell you that I’ve heard (and offered up) a variety of painful, lovely, awkward, thoughtful, or genius responses to these questions. But what’s done is done; now I’d like to offer some advice for the on-campus interview, and any questions related to diversity/multiculturalism/social justice etc. that you field while right there in the thick of things.

  1. If you are not asked any questions related to privilege, the experience of marginalized or minoritized students on campus, or the impact Student Affairs staff can have – run, don’t walk, back to your airport hotel. Just kidding. You should ask THEM a bunch of questions, then. And you should trust your gut about whether their answers make you want to run.
  2. Avoid the phrase “diversity is important” at all costs. In my opinion, diversity is PRESENT – in varying degrees, of course, depending on the institution – and this quip tells me nothing about you or your opinions. Do you think that colleges and universities need to do more to increase access to higher education so that are campuses are as diverse as our national population is? Say so! Do you think that students should be exposed – through the curriculum and through life in the residence halls – to students who are different from them? Say so!
  3. Be humble and sincere about your path along this journey. Just like no one ever finds the end of the internet, no one is ever “done” with social justice. No one – not even the most experienced social justice educators/facilitators – have ever arrived at complete social justice … there are too many cultural and institutional –isms at play for this to have happened, or for you to feel bad about not having arrived at some pinnacle. What have you already worked on? And what issues would you like to learn more about? Your intellectual curiosity around the work that you have yet to do should speak volumes to your prospective employer.
  4. Demonstrate; I need examples. Instead of : “Ugh, it really bothers me when people leave a mess in the dining hall,” try: “When students show their privilege by assuming that someone else will clean up after them, it highlights some class issues at play. I’m interested in collaborating with the staff there on an awareness campaign.” And, instead of : “Yeah, I work with students of color in my assistantship,” try: “When I was advising students about class participation, I realized that this one student was having negative/triggering experiences in the classroom that was affecting his/her/hir work, so it was important to start there.” Again, though, be honest. If time or circumstances have kept you from having real examples to share about your work with diverse populations or toward social justice, explain what you’re gaining interest in and explain ways you could make an impact when you do engage. Even sharing that you’d like to be on the e-mailing-list for identity-based student groups so that you can try to attend some activities and stay in tune with campus issues will go a long way in showing what kind of staffer you’ll be.
  5. Go ahead and ask for what you need. You’ll usually start your on-campus interview with a meal or a 1-on-1 with the supervisor or selection committee or future peers. If you, yourself, are a member of an identity where you might like to find some community/get some answers, feel free to say, “Can you suggest any of these people on this interview list that might be especially good for me to chat with regarding the experiences of LGBT (or disabled, or Jewish, etc.) people on campus? Be sure to word it such that you’re not asking them to “out” someone. If there’s not anyone that jumps to mind, perhaps they might be able to arrange for you to meet someone for coffee during a break in your schedule. You may even be able to arrange for this while the interview schedule is created.

In my opinion, all Student Affairs departments – and not just Multicultural or International Student Affairs – have a role in creating more socially just communities on campus, and you could be a part of that process at your new institution. It’s not difficult to express an interest in social justice, but as you prepare for interviews you should get ready to go beyond that. My experience has shown that the candidates who can most clearly express strategies toward creating more socially just communities have the greatest strengths as future colleagues.

Andrea B. Conner is Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life and Orientation at Grinnell College in Iowa. A self-described ‘liberal arts college junkie’, she has attended or worked at five of the finest in the country (Coe, Macalester, Knox, Bard, and now Grinnell). Of all social justice work, Andrea is most passionate about the experiences of trans* students on campus, LGBT equality, gender neutral/inclusive housing, and providing training opportunities on general social justice concepts for constituents that wouldn’t typically have the opportunity. She lives in a multi-generational menagerie that includes her partner, her toddler, her mother, two cats, and three dogs. You can reach her at conneran@grinnell.edu or on Facebook.

3 thoughts on “A Practical Primer on Social Justice for On-campus Candidates by Andrea B. Conner

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