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Mosaic in a classroom. Photo by Katelynn Carver

One of the first classes I took at HDS challenged me to think about the word ‘diversity’ and the way it gets used in academic and social settings. You know, “encouraging diversity” as shorthand for having more people of different backgrounds, abilities, experiences join the committee, class, or discussion, or just the word itself used to mean certain categories of difference. I know there are times those ideas can be useful, but my own experiences tell me sometimes ‘diversity’ is more about those categories than about the people in them.

Because of that, when someone asks me about diversity at HDS,  I think most often the question they’re trying to ask me is, “Are there people like me at HDS?” My answer to that question is, “Yes, no, and maybe.”

I answer “Yes” because HDS has students, staff, and professors from many different ‘categories of difference’ — age, sex, sexual orientation, gender presentation, ethnic identity, ability, socio-economic class, country of origin, religious tradition, and all the sub-categories in between. Admittedly, sometimes there are only small numbers of HDS community members who identify as a particular category, but part of that is because we’re a small community, so it’s hard to have a “critical mass” of any one identity group.

I answer “No” because every HDS community member is different. I don’t just mean “I’m a special snowflake!” different — I mean that every person you get to know at HDS has their own narrative arc. Every Catholic student I know at HDS has a different path to that tradition, a different way of expressing a connection to that faith. Every Latin@ student I’ve met has a different experience of family and community and a specific-to-them way of engaging with those experiences in and out of class. Even people that I initially think of as being just like every other choose-an-identity inevitably turn out to defy my preconceptions.

And that’s why I answer “Maybe” — because if you’re willing to be open to new sources of difference and commonality, HDS can help you learn how to find people “like you” in unexpected places. For example, when I arrived at HDS, I thought of myself as a polity of one — the only neo-pagan of my particular tradition (Reclaiming) here. There are times I felt alone, or at least envious of those who had more clearly defined affinity groups to worship and socialize within. At some point, though, I realized that when I stopped focusing on my own categories and just opened myself up to the people around me, I found areas of commonality I never expected. I have a classmate who is just about as far removed from my own religious tradition as you can get — but when he and I began talking to each other, we realized we had similar and profound experiences of communicating directly with the Divine.I have a classmate who disagrees with me on just about every topic — but we both agree that respectful disagreement should be part of our classroom conversations, even when it feels challenging and unsettling.

So, here’s what I’ve learned so far at HDS: difference isn’t just about categories. It lives in individual contexts. From the first day I came to HDS — the very first conversation the morning of the first day of orientation — I have been challenged to set aside the urge to think of people in categories and experience them as individuals. I’m not saying that we’re all alike under the skin, or that anyone can ever completely understand another person. I’m saying that engaging otherness — ‘diversity’ — can be an amazing source of learning, and that Harvard Divinity School is a place where that can happen, if you’re open to it.