Hemant Shah, the director of the University of Wisconsin school of Journalism, has long known about the problem with diversity in the school. As a person of color himself, this issue is near and dear to his heart, so he has taken actions to promote diversity within his own profession.
In high school, Shah knew he wanted to go into communication because he wanted to learn more about how people communicated, and at the University of California-San Diego, he earned his bachelor degree in both communication and sociology. As he moved onto gaining his masters, his interest in communication narrowed into mass media and the use of symbols sent through TV and film. Shah became intrigued with the meaning of those symbols and how they affected people’s actions. With that question in mind he decided to pursue his masters degree in mass media at Purdue University. Once he completed graduate school, his interest in mass media focused more on journalism, and he began his PhD research. While researching, he thought it would help if he became a working journalist as well, and thus began working as a journalist at the Bloomington (Ind.) Herald-Telephone — a decision he says was “one of the best” in his academic career. After he earned his PhD from Indiana University, he worked at the University of Iowa for one year before transferring to UW-Madison, where he has been ever since.
Although aware of the lack of diversity in the school of journalism, Shah believes it reflects the geographical situation of Wisconsin, which is a predominantly white state. However, he also believes it’s partly due to retention rates, and a lack of respect to cultural differences.
“Many faculty do not understand what it means to be a first generation student, which many students of color happen to be,” he says.
Most of the faculty is also white, so there’s a certain difficulty in relating to the students of color as a means to keep them interested in journalism. Currently there are only a few students of color in the school of Journalism. Shah and the other faculty members are working to increase that number by developing a diversity and inclusion committee.
The diversity and inclusion committee is working with multicultural programs like the Multicultural Center (MSC), the PEOPLE program, and similar programs in order to create more outreach to students of color. Shah hopes the committee will be able to reach out to students of color and help them learn about the requirements for applying to the school of journalism, as well as learning more about career opportunities, internships, and more. With this committee, Shah hopes to encourage marginalized groups to feel more motivated about getting involved in changing the underrepresentation of minorities in the media. He wants students of color to “reach out specifically to make their presence more known.” He believes if a person is unhappy with american journalism, the only way to fix it is to join the profession, because it must happen from the inside.
This lack of diversity is reflected with his work colleagues as well. Shah’s workspace is predominantly white, and male. It might homogenous racially and ethnically, but Shah says, “there is diversity in classes, ideas, and thoughts, which is noticeable.”
However, even with that, there is still a racial and ethnic diversity missing. Statistically, groups make better decisions when there are more racial groups present to have more diversity, and Shah admits that decisions made by the board may not be cognisant of perspectives of marginalized groups not at the table. It’s a struggle they work through, and while they might have blind spots, the board carefully considers every marginalized group before making any rulings.
For aspiring journalists who are interested in the school of journalism, Shah tells them to gain practical experience as a journalist. He encourages everyone to work hard, be active, strengthen their writing skills, and most importantly, be patient. He hopes more students of color become interested in journalism in order to bring a new component to the school.
This piece was produced by a Madison365 Academy student. For more information visit madison365.org/academy.