Ramón Barthelemy: DEI may be misunderstood, but our work continues

DEI is not meant to exclude anyone or privilege one group, but rather it is the insurance that we include everyone.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hands come together to support a silent rally at the Utah Capitol before the Senate Education Committee hears HB261, the anti-DEI bill that would dismantle diversity offices in Utah public education and government, on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.

As a scholar, advocate and policy maker, I have endeavored to make science more accessible for all people. A flurry of bills, both within Utah and across the country, seek to limit efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), but the work will continue.

Legislators and community members pushing for DEI bans oftentimes frame it as exclusive and not meeting the needs of all students. However, to me, the core work of DEI in the sciences is to ensure that all students have the resources they need to succeed, such as mentoring, tutoring, opportunities to work with faculty on research and sometimes basic essentials like housing and food.

DEI is not just about race, it includes all students, whether you are first generation to college, from a rural town, have a different culture than your peers or if you came from a low-income background. DEI is one way to make sure that students from unique places in the world can achieve the same as their more well-resourced peers.

This was my college story, as I was from a working-class background studying astrophysics at a major public university. I was not like my peers, I was the first in my family to attend a four-year college, took out large debt to study my passion and realized quickly that I needed to help others achieve their dreams. This is what led me to scholarship, advocacy and policy making to make sure that the sciences could be for everyone. And it is exactly what I have done at the University of Utah and will continue to do.

I am one of the few tenure-track faculty who comes from a family where they were the first PhD, had to pay for college almost entirely themselves, and was not raised in an upper middle-class setting. I was also the first openly queer or Latino faculty member to be on the tenure track in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. I came with one goal in mind: Make sure none of my students would ever have to be the first again. In this aim I have worked with my colleagues across campus to secure more than $5 million federal funding to conduct research and develop programming to support students and scholars who would otherwise not have the same opportunities as their peers.

An example of this work includes a new post-graduate program in our department, which brings in students who might not otherwise have an opportunity to complete a PhD in physics or astronomy. We look across the USA for students who are bright, hardworking and just need a chance to succeed. Students like this come from every background — they are veterans, they are parents, they are tax-paying citizens and they aren’t defined by any one identity. They are defined by their goal to discover new physics.

DEI is not meant to exclude anyone or privilege one group, but rather it is the insurance that we include everyone. Small biases linger across academia that we always need to address, including a focus on students returning to school from the workforce, who are often forgotten.

However, if diversity, equity and inclusion are the words we aren’t allowed to say because of a bill that recently passed the Utah House and Utah Senate (HB261), so be it. We as a faculty will continue the fight to ensure that every student has an opportunity to be the next great scientist.

Ramón Barthelemy

Ramón Barthelemy is a physics professor, policy scholar and award-winning researcher on gender, race and LGBTQ+ issues in the sciences. Ramón is also a Democratic candidate to represent Utah House District 24.

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