Diversity among Graduate Students at AAAL: A Survey Report

Featured article by Xiao Tan (Arizona State University), Frances K. Wenrich (Boston University), Zakaria Fahmi (University of South Florida), Sarvenaz Balali (Texas A&M University)

 

Introduction

AAAL, as a transdisciplinary and multicultural organization, is committed to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. Along similar lines, the Graduate Student Council (GSC) applies a variety of initiatives and strategies to promote diversity and inclusiveness in our community of graduate students. As part of this effort, this year we administered a survey to gain a deeper understanding of the needs and perspectives of our graduate students and their attitudes toward our practices for embracing diversity. A total of 94 responses were received. In the following sections, we will report on our analysis of the survey results in terms of respondents’ demographic information and their viewpoints about our diversity-related practices. We will then provide a general overview of the responses to the survey and will elaborate on the implications of these responses for the scope of diversity and inclusivity in the GSC.

Demographic Landscape

The first section of the survey addressed institutional and individual characteristics pertaining to the geographical distribution of students’ institutions, types of institutions, and areas of research. It also addressed student demographics regarding their level of study, age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, residency status, generational education, and disability/service status.

Institutional Characteristics

The geographical distribution of the institutions displayed national and international concentrations. Domestically, our graduate students are predominantly from the southwest and northeast regions of the United States. Internationally, the students’ affiliations are distributed across the globe, but most noticeably in Canada, the UK, Japan, and Morocco. These results also indicated that the majority of these institutions are public universities (80.4%), while private universities come at a much lower rate (18%). Finally, areas of research indicated the predominance of second language acquisition (SLA), corpus linguistics, second language (L2) writing, and sociolinguistics.

Individual Characteristics

Students’ level of study showed that the majority of the respondents are enrolled in doctoral programs (85.9%), while 11 respondents (12%) are enrolled in master’s programs, followed by postdoctoral students at 1.1% (1 response). Additionally, students between 30-34 years of age comprise the major age group in the survey findings. Figures 1-3 describe the distributions of age, gender, and sexual orientation in the data.

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In terms of race and ethnicity, “White/Caucasian” is the predominant racial background among survey respondents at 48.9%, followed by “Asian” at 27.2%. The findings for race and ethnicity are illustrated in Figure 4.

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With regards to students’ residency status, the results show that the international student population outweighs domestic students with 55.6% (50 responses) versus 44.4% (40 responses). In terms of students’ generation of college attendance, it is striking to see that a great majority of respondents were first-generation graduate students with 61.4% (51 responses), while second generation was at 22.9% (19 responses), and third generation at 9.6% (8 responses).

Furthermore, the percentage of students who reported having a disability was 10.9% (10 responses). While a minority (28.3%, 26 responses) reported being caregivers for family members, the majority of the respondents (71.7%, 66 responses) did not identify themselves as such. Figures 5 and 6 show the percentages of students with disabilities and those who reported providing care for their family members.

 

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Rating of Experience

The second section of the survey intended to gather data on graduate students’ attitudes toward the GSC’s effort to promote diversity, equity, and inclusivity. The survey results illustrate that overall graduate students in the AAAL community have had positive experiences with GSC-organized events. More than half of the respondents indicated that they would agree or strongly agree that the GSC supports members from diverse backgrounds (50%) and values diversity, equity, and inclusivity (55%). The satisfactory rate, however, drops slightly on questions regarding the GSC’s effort to address students’ needs at different career stages (42%), foster communication among members of diverse backgrounds (40%), and feature diverse topics and panelists at GSC events (44%).

Moreover, respondents expressed their need to have more opportunities to connect with scholars from other disciplinary backgrounds. In terms of the GSC’s support for students with special needs, such as international students and students with families and/or disabilities, an overwhelming percentage of respondents indicate that they are unaware of such support. This gap might be explained partially by the demographic make-up of our respondents and partially by the lack of explicit effort to address those needs.

Experiences and Suggestions

When considering the diversity experience of current members, we asked three questions in the third part of our survey. These open-ended questions centered on how the AAAL community responded to events and opportunities that were offered by the organization and how we can improve moving forward. The first question received multiple responses grounded in the benefits of attending the national conference. Respondents noted how this setting fostered networking opportunities and formed connections through the mentor/mentee program. The mentor/mentee program offered an opportunity for members to better understand expectations of working in academia and also addressed questions these students raised. In addition, the AAAL workshops were seen as beneficial for professional growth and gaining a better understanding of the field of applied linguistics. While many members found these aspects of AAAL to be positive elements of the community, others noted that there is room for improvement, especially in assisting those with a diverse background.

When looking to improve equitable opportunities in AAAL, members echoed how they would like to see an increase in creating space for minorities and promoting financial aid for members. Requests for a more diverse space in terms of LGBTQ+ representation and inclusion accompanied calls to recognize marginalized communities and international students. Survey respondents noted how they would like AAAL to expand their target demographic to include international students where it was greatly felt that domestic students were mostly being considered. Lastly, students asked for better representation and recognition when identifying students of different ethnicities as seen in the survey where we requested demographic information. Members would like to see an appropriate representation on the GSC which would reflect the true diversity encompassed by AAAL.

The results of this survey will allow the GSC to critically review ways in which graduate students can be included and acknowledged by AAAL. As numerous responses noted, many members are new and have not participated in or interacted with the AAAL community yet. In future event planning, the GSC will consider creating events and connections so that these new members are welcomed in an equitable environment at the conference. By understanding the perspectives of AAAL members, we can move forward in welcoming new and former members to inclusive events.

Concluding Remarks

Honoring diversity has always been a priority for AAAL. In the past few years, the executive committee has invested in a variety of diversity efforts, such as publishing An Open Letter Regarding Diversity in AAAL. In addition, the Secretary and the PAEC (Public Affairs & Engagement Committee) regularly summarize and report on issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access in the newsletters. As the Secretary pointed out in the summer issue of 2019, the work on diversity is ongoing, and it is not exclusive to the executive committee. By providing insights into who AAAL’s graduate students are, what they value, and what they need, this report contributes to building a more inclusive community for future applied linguists.

 

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Xiao Tan is a PhD candidate in Writing, Rhetorics, and Literacies program at Arizona State University. She also serves as the Associate Director of the Second Language Writing program at ASU. Her current research interests include multimodal writing, second language writing and teacher education.

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Frances Wenrich is a Graduate Student in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at Boston University-Wheelock College of Education and Human Development. Her current research investigates topics including psycholinguistics, language engagement and second language acquisition.

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Zakaria Fahmi is a Ph.D. student in the Linguistic and Applied Language Studies (LALS) program at the University of South Florida. His research interest includes the discourses and ideologies of language and culture in education, media, and society, social approaches to bi-multilingualism, language contact, and corpus linguistics.

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Sarvenaz Balali is a PhD candidate in English specializing in applied linguistics at Texas A&M University-Commerce. Her current research focuses on the sociocultural aspects of language education, the experience of cultural discontinuity in particular. She is enthusiastic about studying the interaction between sociocultural and cognitive dimensions of second language education.