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The Graduate and Professional Student Assembly's new Equity and Access chair talks diversity at Penn.

Credit: Peter Ribeiro

Penn’s graduate schools span a breadth of disciplines. With that comes challenges of social cohesion.

There is now a new leader in the crusade to craft a community more receptive to the needs of minorities. The Graduate and Professional Student Assembly elected linguistics Ph.D. student Betsy Sneller last Wednesday as its interim equity and access chair after the incumbent resigned due to job conflicts.

In her new position, Sneller becomes the co-chair of GAPSA’s IDEAL Committee, the umbrella organization for all 10 of GAPSA’s affinity groups that represent students of racial and gender minorities.

Sneller plans to advocate for a University-wide, centralized diversity office at Penn, which she said students have been requesting for at least two years. The office would provide resources to students who feel marginalized.

Penn’s 12 graduate schools each have their own diversity offices, which do not all work to the same high standard, Sneller said. She explained that a centralized institution would ensure quality resources to students across all schools.

Rachel Stonecipher , Annenberg School for Communication Ph.D. student and vice chair of Lambda Grads — GAPSA’s affinity group for LGBTQ students — agreed.

“Penn’s diversity system is so decentralized that nobody’s really watching,” she said.

Not only is this decentralization a barrier to fighting prejudice, Stonecipher said, but it also hinders IDEAL’s ability to represent all of Penn’s graduate students. She described the difficulty Lambda Grads has in finding the 12 schools’ stances on different issues, which she found contradictory given that IDEAL was created to serve the entire graduate student community.

Sneller added that Penn lacks a convenient way for students to report racial bias. While most Ivy League schools have online reporting forms for these issues, Penn does not — instead, individuals must pick up a paper form and bring it to the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Programs.

She suggested that this hinders the University’s ability to find out about marginalization, because students won’t go through the effort to report small instances of bias.

Stonecipher mentioned that even she, the vice chair of an IDEAL subgroup, finds Penn’s process for reporting bias to be unclear.

Divya Karunanithi, an Engineering graduate student and Sneller’s co-chair of IDEAL, described other pressures that deter students from reporting prejudice.

“You can’t really go and talk about what your professor or peer did,” she said. For students, “talking about these things could mean that they are sabotaging their career.”

So individuals look to their respective affinity groups within IDEAL for advice, Divya said. According to Stonecipher, however, the affinity groups lack the power to act in any definitive way. When people report marginalization to her and Lambda Grads, all she can do is direct them to resources on campus like the LGBT Center and Counseling and Psychological Services.

“IDEAL has been sitting with all these stories that have been flooding into people’s inboxes, and we don’t know where to turn to do something about them on a structural level,” Stonecipher said.

Sneller noted that the University cannot formulate an institutional response if administrators are unaware of issues, as is the case now. Even Divya was shocked to learn about the depth of the prejudice in her community when she attended a student-led discussion on the subject at Penn Law School last year.

Sneller has hope that once the administration better understands the issues at hand, they will act. She found their recent statements regarding this week’s executive orders to be encouraging and possible indicators of future actions.

IDEAL is still working on the specifics of its desired institutional response to marginalization. Stonecipher said she wants the University to acknowledge that racism and bias are extant problems at Penn, but she also anticipates that the diversity office would provide counseling and “outreach programs to teach new strategies for anti-racist solidarity.”

She clarified that it would not be a service to navigate students through the legal system.

Sneller described that most of the racial bias that graduate students see at Penn comes in the form of microaggressions. Of course, she said, there exist “macro-aggressions” like the racist GroupMe incident in November, but microaggressions send similar negative messages. She described that repeated microaggressions hinting to students that they are are unwelcome can place “psychological burdens” on people.

Those in the majority have trouble seeing these microaggressions, Sneller said, which makes the issue harder to resolve. But she is still motivated to make change.

“I know that inequality is real,” she said. “I think it would be inhumane of me not to respond to that.”