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Exploring Multiple and Intersecting Identities: Themes and Suggestions for Action

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Exploring Multiple and Intersecting Identities:

Themes and Suggestions for Action

Hummingbird, Kma, and Cece Lee



            In Spring 2013, students working with Professors Jody Cohen and Alison Cook-Sather began facilitating focus groups to explore the way Bryn Mawr was supporting and could better support its increasingly diverse student population. This semester the three co-writers of this paper joined those facilitating focus groups as fellow student facilitators. While the groups were originally focused on the experiences of international students, we’ve broadened them this semester to look at all students on campus and their varied identities – acknowledging that even domestically we have a very diverse student population and that all members of our community face different challenges because of the way they identify themselves and feel perceived by others.

            Our method of facilitation involved pairing two student facilitators (generally one who had experience facilitating with one who was newly facilitating this semester) to lead a recorded discussion on identity with groups of participants ranging from two to five students. The focus groups lasted one hour each. We began each focus group with an activity called an “Identity Molecule” in which we asked participants to fill in a web diagram with different ways they identify themselves. The words students used to identify themselves and route they took was entirely up to them. We simply asked that students share as much as they were comfortable with in the group. The purpose of this task was to get students to reflect on their identity without feeling pressured to speak aloud immediately. We spent the rest of the hour both sharing out the identity molecules and answering questions together on topics such as who we interact with daily in different settings on campus, where we go to seek help or support on campus, and how can the college better support different aspects of our identities? In the following, we hope to both summarize and analyze some of the key themes we heard in these groups and offer suggestions for moving forward.


Changes in Understanding Identity and Misconceptions about Identity

            In the focus groups we led, all of the students spoke to feeling there were aspects of their identities which they didn’t fully identify with before entering Bryn Mawr or identified with in new ways once they arrived. Part of this comes from the difference between the make-up of Bryn Mawr as compared to the make-up of students’ home communities in terms of race, ethnicity, socio-economic class, religious practices, political ideology, and more. Additionally, students came to understand their identity in new ways based on how others perceived their identities. The mis-perception of identity came up as a major theme among the participants in our focus groups and is something we will explore in detail.

Although these experiences of coming to new understandings of identities were very much intersectional for our participants, for the purposes of connecting across different students we will address these understandings in the following groupings of identities: race and ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, ability and mental health, and nationality/mother tongue. We note that some experiences are not included – either because the particular students did not or were unable to participate in the focus groups that have been held so far or because of the time, energy, and spatial limits of this current project. We acknowledge and will try to name these gaps in our writing.


I. Race and Ethnicity

            Students took the “identity molecule” activity with which we began our focus groups in a range of directions, but an important commonality is that many students noted race in their molecules. One student called out this tendency and described race as “master status” because of the way she felt she had to identify her race. She explained she felt pressure to name race because it was something others immediately perceived – and for one participant who self identified as mixed race, this was something others often misperceived. The way students felt it was perceived by others often changed in the context of Bryn Mawr compared with home. For example, one Asian American student we spoke to said, "I wasn't aware that I could identify as a person of color until I came on this campus" (3/17).  For Asian American students in particular, interactions with East Asian International students highlighted differences in identity and sometimes pushed Asian American students to identify more fully with the “American” aspect of their identity. This was also particularly noted by Asian American students who often felt mis-identified by others on campus as East Asian international students.

A latina student spoke to the difference between her majority-latino home neighborhood and Bryn Mawr’s campus. Like the Asian American student we quoted from above, this student noted she didn’t identify as a “chicana” or “woman of color” until she came to Bryn Mawr. She also said when she came here, “I realized I AM the other. But at the same time I was able to strengthen my cultural ties to my heritage” (2/27). Another student of color in this particular group echoed this sense of strengthening cultural ties as she began to understand herself more on this campus as “the other.”

White students meanwhile experienced their race in a different way because of their racial privilege. However, this doesn’t mean that white students don’t feel negative associations with their race or don’t struggle on campus because of their race – simply that it’s not one of historical oppression. One white student spoke to feeling like “just another white girl on campus” and other white students echoed this sense of “invisibility” in being in the “faceless majority” (3/30) – a new experience for some and more familiar to others. Though many white students acknowledged their racial privilege and spoke to feeling both a new openness to express themselves within this community, they also noted a pressure to distinguish themselves within this privileged majority. One student spoke to assumptions about her background and cultural awareness because of her whiteness though she wasn’t raised in the United States and did not share much of the American pop-culture awareness of her peers (3/17).


II. Gender

            Acknowledging the gaps in our focus groups, we would like to note here that none of our groups included students who identified as trans* or outside the gender binary (as genderqueer, gender-nonspecific, or otherwise). Amongst the cis-gendered women we spoke to, acknowledgments and understandings of their identity as a women was not uniform. In a similar vein to race, a number of students spoke to not really identifying as women, or not identifying as strongly as women until coming to Bryn Mawr. Some students spoke to frustration that they noticed sexism more quickly outside of Bryn Mawr and one student said, “It makes me angry now instead of letting it slide" (3/17). Students in multiple focus groups both newly identified with and newly critiqued the term “feminism” – both because they felt their identities as women more strongly and because they’ve become more aware of the way feminism has traditionally not been welcoming to trans* and people of color.


III. Class

            Class did not come up as a topic of discussion explicitly in all focus groups, but when raised was a contentious topic; and even in spaces where class did not come up explicitly, certain comments by students implied class differences as undeniably present. Students who spoke to class differences spoke to feeling class in new ways at Bryn Mawr and also not seeing enough conversations about it. One student said class was not something everyone spoke about but was extremely present. She explained that she felt her peers assumed she was upper-middle class and that admittedly she’d had a lot of academic privilege, but that she actually comes from a working or lower-middle class background and feels that pressure on campus (3/17).  Another student spoke to her lack of class privilege and said, “Almost all of my closest relationships have been with people of a similar class to me because they understand – not being able to go out all the time. Do you have health insurance, are you working three jobs?” (3/30). A third student said, “There are a lot of students that work on campus but we don’t recognize that some are working for pocket money and some have to work” (2/27). All three of these students, and others, spoke to feeling mis-identified as being of a higher socio-economic class than they were and feeling isolated because of that mis-identification. Some spoke to assumptions they felt professors make about their access to particular forms of privileged knowledge in their high schools – assumptions, for example, that all their students were familiar with particular theorists or works in “the cannon.” Others spoke more socially about feeling unable to join friends out for dinner or to events and feeling isolated because of this.

            We would argue that this recognition of class may feel more present to students once at Bryn Mawr, where the range of class difference may be much larger than within students’ home communities. We would also like to point out that even when class didn’t come up explicitly, students often spoke about classed experiences of Bryn Mawr. For example, one student spoke to the resources at Bryn Mawr  and said they were available to those who feel entitled to help or who feel comfortable asking. She said, "At Bryn Mawr, there are a lot of resources if you're a go getter.” This comfort with asking for help is both cultural and classed (Lareau 2003, Bourdieu 1983) and students coming to Bryn Mawr without white upper-middle class privilege may have a more difficult time accessing resources on campus. Accessing resources is something we address more fully in our section on suggestions.


IV. Sexuality

            Queer identifying students spoke to sexuality in the context of Bryn Mawr from two different perspectives – though there may be others we simply didn’t hear from. One student spoke to the comfort and safety she felt on campus to be out. She explained that in other spaces she felt she had to come out constantly, while at Bryn Mawr she doesn’t feel pressured to identify her sexuality and also doesn’t feel as though people make assumptions about her sexuality one way or another. Other students who identified as queer felt more conflicted at Bryn Mawr. Multiple students (in different focus groups) said they identified as queer but don’t consider themselves part of the queer community at Bryn Mawr because they felt there was pressure to look and act in a particular way (2/12, 2/27, 3/30).

            One aspect of this part of identity that we’d like to note is that while most students chose not to identify their sexuality, none of the focus group participants identified themselves explicitly as straight or heterosexual. We – as writers – hypothesize this may be because of heterosexism or straight privilege – that people who identify as straight do not need to say so, while those who identify as not-straight must “come out” and do so regularly (for more information on this, see Blackburn 2011).


V. Ability and Health

            Ability and health came up in a number of our focus groups as a topic – like class – that is not addressed openly on campus but is pervasive. One of the major difficulties of identifying with a disability or difference in ability on campus seemed to be the lack of support for students, both structural and social. Some students spoke to not feeling comfortable sharing with others that they had a disability, chronic illness, or learning difference. We hypothesize that within home communities where students have more history with others (family and friends), they may feel more support making the transition to Bryn Mawr particularly difficult due to its contrast. Other students spoke to developing mental health issues while at Bryn Mawr – two spoke to anxiety and depression that has been exacerbated by the academic expectations here (2/27, 3/30). One student highlighted the particular difficulty with non-normative health or ability when she said that these differences are often “invisible” (3/30). In this case, students are mis-identified or misperceived as sharing normative ability and this can make accessing support services or making space for open dialogue about health and ability on campus more difficult.


VI. Nationality / Mother Tongue

In nearly every focus group we held, if not all, language and its multitude of complexities found its way into the conversations. It was brought up in contexts of everyday interactions like in the classroom and talking to professors, as well as implying deeper ties to students’ identities themselves. Many students mentioned speaking their native language at school and in their residences is in many ways a double edged sword. Speaking among other international students provided a sense of comfort and this connection was welcome, allowed them to form a group of friends who shared their language, and created social support structures within the international community. However, the domestic participants we heard from shared they felt excluded from those in the international student community because they did not know the languages being spoken. For as comforting as sharing and speaking a language other than English is to the international students, both international and domestic students feel that it can also inhibit students ability to reach out to other social groups and in fact goes as far as to create barriers between students.

We saw a clear dichotomy form between where languages other than English were most comfortably spoken on campus. Participants created a separation between what they defined as public and private spaces. International students shared they felt most comfortable speaking their native language in public spaces such as the campus center or a dining hall, because everybody was talking, and it was an open space. In their own dormitories however, they felt guilty for speaking their native language because it was instead a private space and they felt speaking anything other than English was “not okay”. This surprised the researchers because the dorms are where we live, and if students do not feel free to speak the way they feel most comfortably, what does this imply in terms of their identity? Some domestic students expressed sentiments that helped explain why international students feel bad for speaking their native language. Many of the English speakers felt left out when hearing languages other than theirs spoken on campus, in any context. Also heard were feelings of awkwardness when needing to interrupt a conversation and not knowing when to cut in because they could not understand what was being said. Some students expressed curiosity and intrigue when hearing so many different languages being spoken on campus, but some feel that this causes more segregation than unity.

Many international students include academic settings as part of the private sphere, meaning that they believe their native language is “not acceptable” in this space. We found this created obstacles for the students whose first language was not English. Playing on this, one domestic student noted that when in academic settings, international students should only speak English, with no exceptions. She said this came from her frustration when her lab partners would speak in Chinese while completing the lab, leaving her not knowing what they were working on, and leading to several miscommunications. Some international students explained that they can learn more effectively if it is in their dominant language. This is a benefit to the international students because they can understand more clearly, but it excludes professors and other classmates who do not share the language. This is not the only academic challenge for students speaking a language other than English however. We found that many international students were embarrassed by their accents and sometimes felt difficulty expressing themselves. Some participants had feelings of being looked down upon by their professors and classmates, and explained that the reason they stayed quiet in class and did not express their opinions was because they were afraid they would not be understood. By not addressing how we can better perceive, understand, appreciate, and work with all languages being spoken on campus, we are losing voices in the classroom, and further, in the campus community.


Responding to Identity

For each of the unique identities we heard expressed in our focus groups, there were an equal number of ways we noticed students responded to them. We noted not only were there a myriad of ways students felt the college community responded and perceived them, but there were also multiple ways the person themselves viewed and handled their identity. A few ways students responded to their identity included students lying or avoiding admitting their identity, students seeking out surroundings that resembled their home environments, and students carving out their own space on campus, including but not limited to joining affinity groups. The first response, lying and avoiding admitting a certain identity was one we noted as problematic. It illustrates that there is something about the community that inhibits a student’s willingness to be open and honest about who they are. When we pushed this further, we found some students were less willing to share aspects of their true identity when they thought they might be perceived as being the wrong kind of a certain identity, relating to a bigger issue of misconceptions of identity, mentioned above.

Another way we recorded students’ response to identity was through their seeking out environments that looked like the ones they had at home. International students expressed feeling most comfortable with students that shared their international identity and language. Domestic students viewed this in a different light however, and perceived it as the international students segregating themselves and not wanting to spend time with them. By doing this however, they felt more comfortable, more confident in speaking a language other than English, and had people around them that understood the challenges they faced being in a new place. Both domestic and international students expressed how the college does not give enough guidance on how to form a cohesive community. Without this, students find the international students naturally segregate themselves into an “outsider” group because they seek out environments that look like home.

An interesting example of both searching out home and being torn between two languages came from one of our participants. She explained how she had a professor who identified with her as the same culture. Because of this connection, she and the professor would speak Chinese outside of class. One day the professor wrote the participant an e-mail in Chinese, and the student noticed that she hesitated and questioned whether she should respond in Chinese, or if it was more “proper” to respond in English since it was an academic exchange. This brought up something we noticed was all too familiar: the international students believing that their native languages were not “good enough” because “academic English” was what they needed to know to be successful in college and professional environments. International students echoed this student’s experience by saying their professors specifically told them that they needed to change the way they spoke and wrote in order to do well in their class and beyond, into further academia. Despite being told that their English skills needed work to be successful, these students did not feel that the resources available to them now, mainly the writing center, were up to par with their needs. This leaves students in a difficult situation, feeling like they do not have the help they need, and as a result, many feel guilty and blame themselves for the obstacles they experience.

Language without a doubt plays an essential role in how we as humans identify ourselves. Having to navigate when and if a student’s native language should be used, or wondering if it is good enough for an academic setting causes many identity crises for students. Fueling this is that they feel they should not use the language they feel most comfortable speaking, out of fear of being looked down upon, or considered as less qualified to be here. Some give up their native language to “fit in”, or refrain from using it so that they do not upset or make anybody uncomfortable. When told that they could use some help with the English they do speak, many students find that the resources provided are not enough. What can the college do to help the community not only acknowledge that English is not the only language spoken on campus, but embrace and celebrate that fact? What supports can they provide for students that do need help?

Another way students responded to their identities is one that is particularly relevant to recent campus-wide discussions: many of our participants explained that they sought out membership in affinity groups. This idea links closely to another that came up multiple times and is currently an issue on campus. Some domestic students told us that they felt excluded from some affinity groups despite the clubs being open to the college as a whole. On the other hand, some white domestic students spoke to not wanting to attend affinity group meetings for students of color out of a desire to not infringe on students’ safe space. Some of the Asian American students we spoke to specifically said that they felt like they did not belonged in ASA (Asian Students Association) club meetings because of their struggles with who to identify with. Since other American students did not consider Asian Americans as “American” as them, and Asian International students did not consider them to be native Asian, they felt left out and alone in the middle. We heard that students wanted to carve out a safe space on campus where they could be around students who looked like them, spoke like them, and shared the same identities. To what extent do they end up excluding, even unintentionally, and what are the consequences of this? Feeling excluded from an affinity group was mentioned multiple times and in different contexts, making us contemplate what these groups are supposed to achieve, and if they are successful. We do not doubt that they do help and are a comfort to many students, but what about the ones who do not feel this way? What does it means to need a space on campus, who is “allowed” to have one, and how it is perceived by the community?

One of the many things we learned from these focus groups is that for as many ways as students identify, there are an equal amount of ways that the identities are perceived and responded to by the college community and the college itself. A common thread among all of the stories and responses is the need for Bryn Mawr to be more pro-active instead of reactive to the issues that we face in terms of diversity. We also noticed some of the ways students responded to their own identity were some of the things that further segregated them from the larger community. We discussed everything from how students perceived themselves, to how the campus responded to them, the affinity groups some participants belonged to, and the desire to create spaces when others did not see the need. We all have different stories, and we learned each is retold differently every time somebody else reads it.


Building Support for Students: Some Suggestions

Through the Teaching and Learning Initiative (TLI), we were able to conduct research for the college to better understand and support Bryn Mawr’s international students and students from underrepresented groups in the U.S on campus. Using data from our focus groups and suggestions from the student body, we have compiled several solutions to create a safer and more conducive environment for positive dialogue and action.

On an academic side, the student body has expressed that there is a need for all faculty members of the college to teach in ways that acknowledge multicultural identities in the classroom. There is also a need to continue to grow a more diverse faculty. Some students suggested the college implement a social justice requirement where students are required to take a class that touches on topics of social justice so that the Bryn Mawr community can feel more prepared to mediate challenges students face when they are misidentified or misperceived on campus. However, other students have cautioned against a curricular requirement as it might be counterproductive and create a negative environment for students – particularly those who have not previously been involved in discussions about diversity and who may feel they are irrelevant or unnecessary. Finally, based on negative experiences with writing due to differing english writing preparation before arriving at Bryn Mawr, students hope for an expansion of the Writing Center’s services to also focus on grammar and other structural aspects of writing for students who require more skill-based feedback than content-based feedback.

In terms of more social and emotional support, students are feeling a gap. In most of our focus groups, students indicated that the pop-up self-care events and others sponsored towards self-care or “stress-busting” were band-aids for a much larger cultural problem at Bryn Mawr. Students coming from this perspective suggested that if we need to talk so much about caring for our mental health, there should also be more open dialogue about mental health on campus and about the “culture of stress” that seems to exist here. However, an outlier group suggested holding more events where the students are able to see and meet resources available to them such as the counselors from the health center, the academic support and learning resource specialist through pop-up events or self-care events. As one student noted, “it’s easier to ask for help from someone you know than from someone you don’t know” (3/26).   Opportunities to meet and get to know people who serve as resources to students on campus may mediate some of the differences amongst students regarding who feels entitled or empowered to ask for help.



We would like to acknowledge that perspectives are missing. We are missing international student voices from non-East Asian international students. We can and should hear more voices of black and latina students.  As noted above, we have yet to hear from students who do not identify as cis-gendered women. This is a work in progress, though, and we anticipate and hope the conversations we have been facilitating will continue.

Overall, the feedback gathered in the groups indicates that students are facing challenges on campus based on the way they identify and feel identified. The suggestions here do not cover everything that is possible or even everything that was suggested. We hope for now that these suggestions will help the college better support all of its students’ varying identities. Continued work with students and continued space-making for student voice and feedback are the only things that will allow the Bryn Mawr administration to make necessary changes, and this work of gathering students’ thoughts and feedback should never be considered finished.


Works Cited:

Blackburn, M. V. (2012). Interrupting hate: Homophobia in schools and what literacy can do about it. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1983). The Forms of Capital. In The forms of capital (pp. 241-255). S.l.

Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.