Updated: Apr 21, 2022
When tertiary education systems are built on prejudice, and not created with inclusivity in mind, how do we even begin to break them down to encourage a diverse space that is both safe and welcoming?
Through her work while she was both studying at the University of Warwick as well as the work she continues to do there, Tiana Holgate has been tackling this issue. For a year, she worked full time as the Welfare and Campaigns Officer for Warwick’s Student Union. She was responsible for representing the 28,000 students on campus and shaping their experience. Tiana states that her main motivation in deciding to run for that role was because she is passionate about mental health, and she believed she could make a difference. “University can be overwhelming, everyone is coming in from different backgrounds, and it is important that they have the support they need.”
In addition to that, Tiana was also focused on making sure that the students’ union was an inclusive space. Tiana was studying a BA in Sociology at the time (though the role required her to take a year’s sabbatical) and she had a specific focus on race and politics. She was understood to be the first black woman in the role and wanted to reform the students’ union to create more opportunities for other black students in the organisation, as she recognised that she would not have been able to hold that role without the black women that came before her and supported her. “Students’ unions should be places of change, and they should also be a place of community, where students should be able to see people like them.” It is known that students experience racism and microaggressions across Higher Education Institutions; student support services aren't exempt from this. “It was not always a welcoming place, and I was desperate to shift the culture.” To kick off this process, she organised a University-wide research project into Culturally Competent student support. This was to look at their experiences within the union and University, to gauge where the problems were, and to determine if everyone got the same support.
“We spoke to about 70 different students, and it was incredibly useful throughout the year.” Tiana spearheaded this initiative in the hope of creating a system of support for the University which was culturally competent. They focused on the intersectionality of these issues, and suggested a support system that was cognisant of needs and concerns based on differences in culture, religion, race, sexuality, gender, etc. “At the end of the day, I think it is all about valuing a person at their core. And just changing one person can be significant. Having one less action that is discriminatory - that can completely change an experience for an individual.”
Tiana believes that focusing on the individual is one of the biggest mistakes companies make when it comes to diversity and inclusion. “Companies fall short when they focus on statistics, rather than the individual. Some places treat you like a box that needs to be ticked off.” When organisations boost their diversity in numbers rather than by how they have adapted their culture, it feels far less personal and far more performative. “At the end of the day, people won’t stay at companies where they don’t feel valued - whether it is because of your race, your gender, your culture or anything else.” Tiana is quick to point out that this is more relevant with gen Z than ever, and that companies that feel they need to keep up are going to fall behind. She argues that moving away from recruitment numbers and looking at the people and the culture is a better way forward.
Now working as a Student Liaison Officer at the University of Warwick, Tiana is carrying on the incredibly impactful work she started as a student. University spaces are often ones plagued with institutional problems, and cultures that have not been built with inclusivity in mind. Having people like Tiana that are willing to step forward to undo those structures, as well as support and guide students as she does, is perhaps the most effective way to change these frameworks from the ground up.
Want to keep up to date with Tiana and her work? You can find her here:
LinkedIn : linkedin.com/in/tianaholgate