The Sociology of Higher Education

Outspoken or Supressed?: The Public vs Personal thoughts of Student Workers at the University of Chicago

By John Kunzo III & Ileana López-Martínez

This project was completed for pedagogical purposes for an undergraduate sociology course at University of Chicago. While we are sharing results from our mini-project with the public, it is important that readers understand these are NOT findings from a human subjects research project intended to contribute to generalizable knowledge.


“Diversity and Inclusion” has become a buzzphrase in higher education, in turn, it is important to gauge the effectiveness of programs and policies universities have founded in an effort to promote the newfound missions. As a student worker at a University, you have a number of allegiances that you must pledge. On one hand, you are a representative of your school working to advance its mission. On the other hand, you are an individual who has an identity that carries thoughts and opinions about that very university. With this in mind, we set out to research the following questions: How do the personal and public thoughts on the University of Chicago differ for students of color working for the university? How do they reconcile conflicting opinions if they arise?  We hypothesized that students of color employed by the University of Chicago, especially those who aid in admissions and promotion, will have contrasting narratives about the university when they’re working than in their personal lives. When they work for the university, they are expected to represent the university in positive ways and rework negative stories into positive ones. Their personal opinions, however, may differ from the “spins” they make while working. In turn, this can lead to issues for the students in telling half-truths, which can result in implicit bias from the university toward student workers and their experiences, as well as creating a false narrative on the institution. Our research contributes to understanding if universities are making progress in D&I efforts, or if they are empty words. In addition, their position as student workers makes them vulnerable, leaving them to choose between public advocacy and risking their job. While working for the university, these students may also be subject to tokenization and held up as examples of the successes of D&I even if they have been failed by the university.

Literature Review

The failure of the university to support their minority race students often leads to tokenism, wherein the student is used primarily to promote the experiences of others (Kelly 2007). In an op-ed written in 2018, Esther Cepeda shares her own experience of having to be the “official Latina” in every class in which she was enrolled. She hypothesizes that the role of minority students in primarily white institutions is to “[round] out the life experiences and social interactions of people so rich they’ve been sheltered from having to get to know people of other races.” This is what we expect to hear from students working for the university, and not just those working in admissions. Anything public-facing has the potential to use students for tokenism. Cepeda’s op-ed points to a potential problem arising in the narratives of our targeted audience. As employees of the university, in any role, they are seen as representing the success of the university in bringing in people from diverse backgrounds. This op-ed juxtaposes the mission of Harvard with the author’s actual experience. It communicates the difference between reality and what is presented in a brochure. Observation of posts from the Instagram account titled “Black at Miami,” (2020) indicates that this experience is not unique to Harvard or other Ivy Leagues. Miami is known for its status as “The Original Public Ivy” (Miami University Website), so it carries weight as a staple in higher education. In turn, one could expect the experiences of students at the university to be positive. Instead, this page demonstrates the opposite. Black At Miami is an example of how students of color (particularly Black students) can be marginalized at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI). The anonymous option given to respondents telling their stories informed our methodological decisions. In addition to observing the firsthand accounts of students, we researched workplace theories of  performance pressures/enhancers, boundary heightening, and role entrapment (Kelly 2007).We believe tokenization is essential to thinking about the narratives student workers create when in their professional positions. We hypothesized that performance pressures and role entrapment, in particular, would play key roles in the narratives of student works. There is little research done on student workers specifically, so we supplemented workplace theory with literature on how diversity plans are implemented at PWIs. By understanding that the majority of diversity work is given to faculty of color (McKinley Jones Brayboy 2003) and the dynamics of performance pressures and role entrapment, we hypothesized that student workers may feel similarly about their roles for the university.


In order to gather student responses from our target population, we developed a survey of questions to distribute, distributed the survey using our own student networks, as well as listservs and Facebook groups.The survey was created on Google Forms for ease of distribution to the population. The form was developed with the intention of understanding the individuals’ racial & ethnic make-up, their relation to the University of Chicago, and a series of questions related to their experience as a student worker. In our survey, only two questions were mandatory: the student’s year and the place on campus where they were employed. All other questions on the survey were not mandatory in an effort to attract more respondents. 

Data Collection & Analysis

To attract the aforementioned respondents, a variety of avenues were used. The survey link was posted in UChicago class pages, minority-focused group chats, university-run listhosts, and distributed to personal contacts. Through these avenues, we were able to receive 13 responses to the survey. Although a higher number of respondents would have given us more data to analyze, we were cognizant of the virtual environment and “internet fatigue” (Wiederhold 2020) that potential respondents were facing. With classes and extracurricular activities requiring forms to be filled out regularly, an additional form could be viewed as a chore. In turn, we recognize that we may face response bias in that the most passionate students responded. However, our analysis is not meant to be generalized, and recognize the bias. Additionally, because we are creating a zine, the passionate responses are appropriate as they will attract attention and in turn, readers. This will ultimately allow for our research to reach a larger audience.

Our analysis involved reviewing responses, finding common themes, and categorizing passages based on said themes. In reviewing responses, we determined that of our 13 responses, 11 could be analyzed. Responses on other two surveys were not substantive and lacked enough information that could lead to takeaways. Next, we looked for common themes in the responses. Some of the themes we found were the expectation of professionalism regardless of the role, opinions on the university’s DEI efforts, and the reconciliation with public vs private opinions of the university and their work among others. Through these themes, we are able to further analyze the responses through the lens of each respondent. Our analysis was qualitative, and consisted of creating a deeper understanding of the themes and how they may impact students on the job. In turn, this analysis is specific to the minority student workers on campus and how they operate.


Three major themes emerged from our data, which together illustrate the tensions students of color face between their professional and personal lives as student workers: first, the participants shared their disappointment or frustration with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts on the part of the university; second, the students noted that professionalism necessitated a filtering of the student’s personal opinion on such issues; and third, the data suggests that students felt they had to simply “deal with” these tensions or risk their job.

Works Cited
🍞 Bread Krampus 👹. 2014. “A Handy Guide to How Administrators Usually Defeat Student Campaigns. Cc @studentactivism @USStudents @StrikeDebt Http://T.Co/GpXzsRlRRX.” Tweet. @forstudentpower (blog). January 14, 2014.

Anderson, Jill. 2019. “Harvard EdCast: Colleges as Courageous Spaces.” Harvard Graduate School of Education. October 30, 2019.

“Black at Miami Univeristy (@blackatmiami) on Instagram • 31 Photos and Videos.” n.d. Accessed October 18, 2020.

Cepeda, Esther J. 2018. “OPINION | Being a Token for Diversity Has a Cost for Students.” November 2, 2018.

Kelly, Hilton. 2007. “Racial Tokenism in the School Workplace: An Exploratory Study of Black Teachers in Overwhelmingly White Schools.” Educational Studies 41 (3): 230–54.

Khan, Mishal Sameer, Fatim Lakha, Melisa Mei Jin Tan, Shweta Rajkumar Singh, Rina Yu Chin Quek, Emeline Han, See Mieng Tan, Victoria Haldane, Montserrat Gea-Sánchez, and Helena Legido-Quigley. 2019. “More Talk than Action: Gender and Ethnic Diversity in Leading Public Health Universities.” The Lancet 393 (10171): 594–600.

Masta, Stephanie. 2019. “Challenging the Relationship Between Settler Colonial Ideology and Higher Education Spaces.” Berkeley Review of Education 8 (2).

McKinley Jones Brayboy, Bryan. 2003. “The Implementation of Diversity in Predominantly White Colleges and Universities.” Journal of Black Studies 34 (1): 72–86.

Tamtik, Merli, and Melissa Guenter. 2020. “Policy Analysis of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Strategies in Canadian Universities – How Far Have We Come?” Canadian Journal of Higher Education 49 (3): 41–56.

Thornhill, Ted. 2019. “We Want Black Students, Just Not You: How White Admissions Counselors Screen Black Prospective Students.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 5 (4): 456–70.

Wiederhold, Brenda K. 2020. “Connecting Through Technology During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Pandemic: Avoiding ‘Zoom Fatigue.’” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 23 (7): 437–38.

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