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Social Census to unpack student experiences with identity and belonging

February 23, 2024

In an attempt to boost awareness of student diversity on campus, the Office of Inclusion and Diversity has released its inaugural Social Census—a campus-wide survey that aims to understand how students navigate their identities and find community at Bowdoin.

According to Senior Vice President for Inclusion and Diversity Benje Douglas, the office hopes the Social Census results will shed light on how students of different identities interact on campus and what difficulties might arise as a result.

“There’s still things that I hear about with some regularity that are challenging students based on identity, based on race, sexual orientation, gender, class and religion,” Douglas said. “We’re not a perfect place, so finding opportunities to truly think about how those intersecting identities relate to [students’] time here, I think is really important.”

Douglas said that the Social Census data—in addition to community dialogues the office will hold upon its release—will ultimately be used to improve administrative policies that foster belonging on campus.

Douglas worked with seniors Marcus Gadsden ’24 and Jai DuVal ’24 to design the Social Census, starting the process at the beginning of last semester. Though the team received feedback from faculty and staff, they primarily worked with student leaders across campus in crafting the Social Census, including students from the Athletes of Color Coalition, Bowdoin Student Government, affinity groups and Residential Life.

“We thought it’d be good to reach out to the leaders on campus as they have an understanding of what belonging might mean, especially in their inner circles,” Gadsden said.

Douglas, DuVal and Gadsen faced a number of challenges in constructing the Social Census, as they carefully sought to construct questions that would reflect the full range of student experiences on campus.

According to DuVal, framing questions in a manner that does not assume a particular Bowdoin experience was important.

“If we ask the question, ‘where do you go out on the weekend,’ that question would assume that people went out on the weekend instead of staying in,” DuVal said. “[We wanted to] word questions so that they’re accessible to everybody, making sure that everybody can answer the question that will best relate to their experiences.”

In particular, Gadsden noted that the Social Census hopes to include students who feel more constrained by socioeconomic pressures.

“One question I love that we ask about is how socioeconomic status impacts your life here,” Gadsden said. “I think it’s not talked about, but having to work on campus is something that a lot of students have to deal with, and that really impacts your schedule and your ability to socialize and hang out with friends.”

Gadsden and DuVal noted that the utility of the Social Census also depends on engagement from students who hold dominant group identities.

“Bowdoin is definitely a PWI [predominantly white institution], so there’s this misconception that white students don’t have anything to contribute to what belonging means on campus,” Gadsden said. “[We’re] hammering that point that everyone’s perspective matters.… We really want to hear from everyone.”

Douglas, Gadsden and DuVal agree that outreach in a variety of manners is critical, as they want the Social Census to reach all students. As part of its outreach efforts, the Office of Inclusion and Diversity is tabling in Smith Union and hanging posters to encourage participation. Furthermore, students who have yet to fill out the Social Census will receive multiple email reminders to complete it until they have done so.

Douglas said that he and his team will approach the Social Census results with an open mind, with the hope that the results will be informative and instructive in making Bowdoin a more welcoming space to all students in the coming years.

“I am open to hear whatever students have to share—eager to hear whatever students have to share. I think it will be valuable,” Douglas said.


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