Updated June 19, 2017
We've been asked to post examples of diversity statements, so here are a few to start. We plan on posting several more over the next few weeks. It is important to note that diversity statements are truly optional, and not everyone should write one. Contrary to what you may have heard, it is not a missed opportunity to write more about yourself. In fact, we wrote a blog a few years ago on when you should write a diversity statement. We hope these are helpful!
I was raised by a single mother, but my home was filled with family. My mother, sister, and I shared a room with two twin-size beds. My aunts, uncles, five cousins, and grandparents shared the two remaining bedrooms. In total, there were thirteen people sharing a three-bedroom, one-bathroom home. For the children, the nonstop playtime and carefree memories mitigated the obstacles that came with our socioeconomic insufficiency. For me, our tight-knit family and living situation made it much easier to overcome the absence of my father.
My father represented many of the negative stereotypes that Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants have to combat. He immigrated to the United States as a young adult and fell into a life of criminal activity during our city’s booming methamphetamine trade. His choices had an adverse impact on not only my family, but also our community at large. I was somewhat sheltered from learning too much about my father, but I knew enough to feel burdened with shame. In fact, that feeling was so strong that I became fixated on the goal of creating a life opposite to that which my father had built.
Pursuing a brighter future did not come without obstacles in my neighborhood and family. Rejecting the criminal element in our community required a deliberate choice to exclude myself from the majority and often made me feel left out. Many of my peers criticized me and called me stuck up or “white washed” because of the choices I made. My family fully supported my goals, but their own education levels and unfamiliarity with the college admission process restricted the amount of guidance they were able to provide. Counselors at my high school were overloaded by high dropout rates and unable to focus on college bound students. It was the small acts of support and encouragement that ultimately got me to overcome my inhibitions and fears of the unknown and pursue a bachelor’s degree: a friend who told me what the SAT was, a teacher who explained the FAFSA and college deadlines. These processes seem basic to some, but can be overwhelming to a first-generation student to the point where it becomes easier to put it off or quit altogether.
I did not spend my entire youth in that overcrowded yet comforting home. Eventually, my mother remarried and we were able to move out of my grandparents’ house. But I still know what its like to feel insecure about where you come from and what you lack—it is something I will carry with me throughout my life and career. My education and career goals have been shaped by my background, and I will continue to aim high despite the challenges that may come my way.
For as long as I can remember, I outwardly portrayed myself as a calm and controlled individual. It is a true reflection of my demeanor, but it is the complete opposite of what I have lived throughout my childhood and adolescence. When I was in fourth grade, my father admitted to me that he was addicted to crack. At the time I did not understand what crack addiction meant, but I was educated by his actions soon enough. Shortly after this confession, the family structure I knew and loved began to collapse. In addition to my family’s dissolution, the neighborhood we lived in is not a place where success stories are born or a location people would visit without important cause. My neighborhood could be described as a breeding ground for gangs, drugs, violence, and anarchy. One of the few bright spots of growing up in my neighborhood is the chemistry children had with one another by having similar troubles at home. It was not uncommon for my neighborhood friends to have a drug abusing parent, a single parent household, alcoholic parents, or experience domestic violence. Even though my father’s addiction clouded his judgment, both he and my mother always warned me about the dangers of our neighborhood. I was not allowed to cross the street without their supervision due to gang members on the corner selling drugs, and playing outside at night was dangerous due to occasional shootings. Growing up in a neighborhood like mine was a double edged sword; it was dangerous, but our common struggles made it easy to relate to one another.
Living with a drug addicted parent was full of uncertainty and confusion. There were many break-ins, but I always had a strange feeling about these break-ins because although valuables were stolen, certain sentimental items of value would remain untouched. I did not learn until much later in life that my father was the one stealing from us. Eventually my mother left my father and moved out in the beginning of my seventh grade year. My sister and I stayed with our father.
In winter the heating bills went unpaid and the temperature in the house would drop to the low forties. My sister and I would walk to the local laundromat at night and warm our blankets and pillows in the dryer in order to have heat through the night. Money for food was scarce, and my sister and I became accustomed to eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner out of vending machines on a budget of six dollars a day. Although this experience was mentally and physically damaging, it served as motivation for me to strive for a better life and made me never want to regress to that standard of living.
After about a year of living with my father, I began my eighth grade year at my mom’s new home in a different neighborhood. I was separated from my childhood friends for that year, but we reunited the next year as freshmen in high school. Things had changed in that year: the friends that I grew up with became the gang members that my parents warned me about as a child. Out of all of my childhood friends, I was the only one to go on to college, let alone finish high school. The toughest part of my transition to my mother’s new home was this shift away from my childhood friends. Living with the feeling of turning my back on them by cutting off communication with them during high school was an isolating experience. If teachers saw me with them, I would be categorized as a gang member, or worse, if other gang members noticed then they would try to attack me because they thought I was a rival. I tried to explain this to my friends but they could not understand and eventually the friendships grew cold.
During the end of my ninth grade year, I was still adjusting to my new life. Although I no longer physically lived in that neighborhood, I still felt like I was alone and was stuck in the same position. My closest friends, the ones I could relate to, were all on a downward spiral in life; at the same time, I could not relate to the students in my honors courses. Many were discussing vacation trips, showing off new clothes or getting a new car for their birthday when getting their driving permit. While some of my classmates were planning on taking family vacations to Disneyland, I was planning to visit my father who had been recently arrested and was serving jail time for robbery. Instead of having memories of helping my parents wash their car in the front yard or riding a bicycle on the sidewalk as a child, I remember seeing people get shot and killed in my neighborhood or seeing a pregnant woman smoking crack.
Sophomore year of high school proved to be the lowest and most humbling part of my life. I remember vividly the moment I found out that I lost my first two friends to gang violence. “V is dead and J is arrested.” Those words made my heart race as I learned J killed V over a drug deal. At the funeral I approached V’s mother and offered my condolences. In a traumatized voice, she whispered to me, “I wished you could have taken V away with you and saved my son.” I can still hear her voice today speaking those words, and the chills still make my bones shiver.
There was a lot of guilt in the weeks that followed; I felt like there was more I could have done to steer them in the right direction. I began to replay my childhood and explore my life direction and I decided a change was needed. All of my experiences up until that point started to serve as an inspiration to become better than where I started and continue to build myself into a stronger person. My natural disposition allows me to see the positive things in every situation, and I realize that no matter how dire the situation seems, it could be worse. Many people say that phrase not knowing what that worse actually is. But I know. Opportunities that have come my way are very much appreciated, and I intend to make the most of them. Knowing where I once was, I am confident in my accomplishments and hopeful for future generations as I start a new trend in my family and build a strong foundation. My childhood is not a weight that drags me down; instead it has become the strength to push through adversity when challenges arise.
My life was supposed to be simple. I wanted to make my parents happy, to give us the future they desired. Winning Quran memorization competitions, fasting, and praying daily: my religious beliefs guided me throughout my childhood. After the September 11th attacks festered resentment for Muslims across the nation, I faced religiously charged backlash in my public school; as a result, I transferred to an Islamic school where I hoped to blend in better. It was clear, though, that another difference would soon set me apart.
My new classmates were quick to point out my effeminate mannerisms that unintentionally flowed from the flicks of my wrist. I, following my natural inclinations, also didn’t consider the implications of knitting in lieu of building toy airplanes. As my sexuality blossomed and the homophobic rhetoric harshened, I wrestled with conflicting feelings of living authentically and living without fear. I questioned whether my religious beliefs could sustain what I knew to be true about myself. I couldn’t see a way through to safe ground.
As a result, comforted by its familiarity, I resigned to the security of the proverbial closet. Clothing myself with a wardrobe of feeble masculinity, I prayed my actions would become my sexuality. By denying my identity, I rejected a part of myself for the sake of my parents. In my head, I was a martyr, bravely sacrificing for the greater good of my family. In my heart, I was a heretic, terrified to openly challenge my religious dogma and familial values.
Over time, though, the need to live genuinely became too great to deny. Sitting in a mosque attending a traditional Pakistani wedding, my own future telescoped before me. As I observed the beaming couple, I realized I would one day face a similar choice. How could I look into the eyes of a woman and speak of love as if I felt it between us? Dejected, I finally understood that what some call the closet felt more like a coffin. What once felt familiar was now incompatible.
Professing my queer identity to my parents swelled our home with such a rage that our relationship fragmented in an instant. They believed homosexuality was incompatible with Islam, and reparative therapy was the only cure for my dis-orientation. They kicked me out of the house and, with no place to stay, I happened to find a Buddhist abbey with a room to rent.
My struggle to reconcile religion and sexuality had left me ambivalent towards religious practice. So, initially, the abbey was only a place to sleep: a momentary reprieve from school and three jobs. Yet, the ringing bells and chanting monks, which now replaced my alarm clock, slowly tugged on my inquisitive nature.
Using my experience as a guide, I studied Buddhism from a neutral lens. As I began to explore the subtle boundaries of cultural practice and religious dogma, I recognized how unadulterated doctrine is assimilated into deeper cultural undertones. Just as some pervert scriptures of the Quran to promote acts of terrorism, others craft its teachings to legitimize homosexual prejudice. My spiritual introspection has galvanized my Islamic understanding: I am a Queer Muslim. I reclaim my faith with a broader interpretation of the Quran – one that advocates inclusion. Through self-reflection, analysis, and contemplation, the fabric of my identity evolves.
In America, the Queer community continues to face prejudice. Yet, in Pakistani society we struggle with blatant persecution. In coming out to my mother, I remember the disgust emanating from her curled lips and grimace. At the time, I took it as a clear sign: believing in Islam had failed me. Today, I am able to use this foreboding memory to fuel new purpose in my advocacy work. My parents still struggle with my coming out, but by shifting the paradigm from myself to empowering my Queer Muslim community, I hope to serve others who endure a similar experience.
As a child, I never found it odd that my parents were immigrants, spoke English with heavy accents, and were only minimally educated. My mother arrived in the United States from the Dominican Republic at a young age, and although she was unfamiliar with the language, she made a fervent effort to forge a new and better life for herself. My father arrived to the U.S., from Ghana, under similar pretenses and worked hard to take advantage of the plethora of opportunities he found here. With their heavily accented English and menial jobs, my parents fostered an environment of love and support that allowed me to construct an identity that truly reflects the social, economic, and ethnic histories that have formed me. Because they were new to the area and struggling financially, my parents decided to settle in the most affordable area they could find, the South Bronx. The South Bronx is everything the media portrays it to be; dangerous, destitute and adverse. Nevertheless, it is still home, and as much as I have resisted it, growing up in the South Bronx has also had an undeniable impact on me.
As a college freshman, the many layers of my diversity unfolded in an inharmonious manner. It took me some time to integrate my experiences as a first-generation Latino and African American and a South Bronx native. I did not find many other students who shared my background when I began my undergraduate studies at the College of the Holy Cross. Along with standing out as one of the few persons of color, I also was an outlier socioeconomically. I soon began to feel inferior about my life and background. I avoided conversations that involved my home life and began wishing for another. I longed for affluent, American parents with professional careers. I desired the lavish home in the serene neighborhood or the summerhouse in Martha's Vineyard; I wanted to live the lives of the other Holy Cross students. Soon these longings festered into embarrassment towards my parents. I silently accused them of being lazy, choosing to be uneducated and thus forcing us to live in the South Bronx. I essentially blamed them for making me different in every possible sense.
Over time, I began to grasp that although I had a different racial and socioeconomic background than the majority of my classmates, these differences were not negative or adverse. My distinct experiences allowed me to stand out from many other students at my college; these experiences became sources of pride and strength. My background brought a fresh voice to the classroom setting, something that my professors greatly valued. As I fostered my perspective, I learned to develop and utilize this voice by speaking up and adding my diverse experiences to class discussions. I identified with the experiences of authors like Junot Diaz and Esmeralda
Santiago, who both lived in impoverished ghettos and faced the difficulties of having immigrant parents unaccustomed to the American way of life. I frequently contributed to discussions examining the social and academic difficulties Black students face on predominantly White college campuses. I began to understand that I needed to embrace my diversity rather than suppress it. Consequently, I began to value my multifaceted identity and came to trust in the significance of my diversity.
As I embark on a legal education, my experiences, not just as a person of color, but as a biracial and bicultural son of low income African and Latino immigrants, can help me contribute to the law school environment as well as the legal field. Diversity of thought and perspective are paramount in the study of law, and my unique voice can serve as an asset, allowing me to represent and bring forth the experiences of those who may not have a platform from which to do so.
Like most children, growing up I did not appreciate the tremendous influence that my parents had on shaping my values and beliefs. As an adult currently working with immigrants to Canada, I now realize just how much my parents and their experiences have impacted me.
My mother was a young woman in her early twenties when she crossed the Atlantic alone, arriving at Pier 21 in Halifax, before taking the train to Montreal, and then Toronto. She was the youngest daughter of six children, and had never before this experience traveled away from her familiar neighborhood of Kalogonia (literally "the good corner") in Sparti, Greece. However, she was of a time when dowries were expected of families by grooms. Appreciating how hard her parents worked, she chose to leave home to alleviate this future obligation when she, one day, would marry. Having limited education, no English language, little money and few other family members abroad... I am often amazed when I consider the journey upon which she embarked. I often wish I could meet my mother at the age of 25 and discuss her fears, challenges and hopes at the time. But she survived, indeed succeeded, in many ways... with grace, determination and tremendous kindness, bringing to Canada a future husband, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews.
As a man in that era, my father had the opportunity to travel more than my mother before arriving in Canada; mandatory military duty at that time for all Greek men meant that he had seen many parts of the country, including snowy parts of Northern Greece (a prelude of things to come, perhaps). Born and raised in a small village in southern Greece, my father's entrepreneurial spirit shone through from a young age: He was the first young man in his village to buy a bicycle as a means of transportation, and to set up shop as a tailor in the next village. But he wanted more, beyond Greece, and when a friend he trusted told him his sister in Canada was "of age" for marriage... my father agreed to the engagement and subsequent travel across the Atlantic. He, too, arrived without much money, no English language and limited education, but a drive to succeed, a strong work ethic and solid family values. Even in the toughest of times, his humor and positive attitude pulled him forward. To this day, "don't worry, be happy" is one of his favorite English sayings!
Together my parents built a life as newcomers in a land they would come to greatly appreciate, one which they saw as opening up opportunities for them and their future family. Along the way, their experiences provided me many valuable "life lessons," including the following five:
Respect: Throughout their lives, my parents demonstrated a solid respect for all individuals, regardless of their background. They truly enjoyed people, with the result that their customers, neighbors, colleagues and employers from a wide cross-section of ethnicities, ages and income levels cherished them! Fundamentally, my parents also taught us to always respect ourselves and our families, which then made it easy to extend the same care and appreciation to others.
Language: Both of my parents struggled to learn English. They certainly found ways to cope, but on occasion my father would speak with regret that he had not more fully learned the language of his adopted country. There were experiences and opportunities he felt he had missed, as a result. From a young age, my parents helped me realize that the power of words, of language, cannot be underestimated for one to be a fully engaged citizen. Their struggles were my motivation to learn as much as possible, at all times.
Patience: Anybody knowing my father would agree that he likes to get things done immediately and would be surprised at my suggestion that I have learned patience from him! However, as a general philosophy, perhaps because of the era in which they were raised, perhaps because of the challenges they faced, both my parents appreciated that sometimes, some things... just take a little while. Waiting is okay; there is no need to rush through life, all the time. If something is meant to happen... it will. Born and raised in an agrarian society, they reminded me frequently that nature has its own timetable and cannot... and should not... be rushed.
Determination: My parents left their place of birth for an unknown country, with little information about what to expect. Each for their own reasons, was determined to make things work, despite challenges and roadblocks. They simply kept pushing through, not giving up in the face of adversity. As a student, whenever I neared the end of an essay or studies and felt I had no more energy or drive left, my father would offer encouragement by saying in Greek, "Τώρα που έφαγες τον γάιδαρο, θα αφήσεις την ουρά;" The literal (funny) question asked me how I planned to leave the tail -- when I had already finished off the rest of the donkey! But the essence, of course, was a reminder that since I had made it this far... I certainly had it in me to accomplish my ultimate goal!
Work and Play: This lesson is perhaps the most relevant and ties all other lessons together. My parents showed me what a strong work ethic meant. When they worked, they worked very hard. However, our home and life was also full of music, games and family activities. I still remember times after a full day at their store, my parents would close up shop late at night, get us into the car, and drive nearby for an ice cream... or further away to Niagara Falls to enjoy the evening lights on the water. They did not worry about "work-life balance"; they just incorporated both elements into their lives, when and as they could. Sometimes one area drew more of their attention, but eventually (with patience), the tide always seemed to turn the other way again.
Follow Gina Alexandris on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GinaAlexandris