Nov. 15, 2021

Survey says: When it comes to anti-racism, we reflect more than we act

PURE Award-supported path toward meaningful research was spurred by real-life questions
ucalgary campus survey on anti-racism article hero

University of Calgary students self-reflect more than engage in action when it comes to addressing racism, according to study findings by an undergraduate student.

More than 70 per cent of the UCalgary student population is enrolled in undergraduate programs, and biomedical sciences student Jenna Salem designed her research, launched this past summer, around understanding this demographic’s attitudes, behaviours and actions, to better understand the impacts of racism on campus.

Salem’s study, funded through the Program for Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE), was designed to help her better determine how undergrads can effect change, making spaces such as UCalgary’s campus more just and equitable.

Through a 25-question survey, Salem sought to understand how undergrad students at UCalgary practice “anti-racism” — which is defined as opposing and challenging racism through action, thus promoting equity and justice. The survey gauged undergraduates’ anti-racism knowledge, attitudes and practices, measuring two areas: interpersonal interactions and communal action. Salem says the questions were informed from her personal experiences.

“As a visible minority, I’m pretty aware of the spaces I occupy, if they make me feel safe, included, celebrated,” says Salem. “We know racism exists. It’s systemic, it’s ingrained in society and present in post-secondary institutions. But why is it present and what do our students do to combat it?”

Salem’s collaboration with her supervisor, Dr. Turin Chowdhury, PhD, an associate professor in the Cumming School of Medicine, coupled with her own personal experiences and that of her community, led to the success of her project.

“This is a topic in a big puzzle,” Chowdhury says. “Jenna is very brave.”

Research informed by real-world questions

Celebration over tolerance is key to Salem, and a way to honour diverse experiences. “We often hear we should be tolerant of our differences and diversity, but I don’t like this word,” she says. “I think we should celebrate our differences if we want to create spaces that are genuinely safe and accepting.

If I want to see that switch from tolerance to celebration, I can start with my research. So, I started asking questions.

In addition to informing the research through personal experiences, Salem and Chowdhury took a community-engaged approach.

“When we collect data from a community, we should always have the intent to return to that community with findings to improve circumstances or facilitate change,” says Salem. “One of the biggest lessons Dr. Chowdhury taught me is that, as researchers, we must strive to use our knowledge in meaningful and proactive ways. Translating our findings into action is an essential part of research.”

Three main takeaways  

So far, Salem has garnered 265 responses. After analyzing the data, three conclusions have formed from the responses:

  1. UCalgary students generally have more awareness and understanding of racism than they do in engaging in action to address it; they more often reflect to themselves than act or engage in dialogue.
  2. Ethnic minorities are more active in anti-racism activity, both on interpersonal and communal levels.
  3. Females in general are more vocal and active than their male counterparts.

In making sense of the results, Salem doesn’t want to get too ahead of herself. As a new researcher learning basic tenets, she says, “We can only go as far as the data lets us.”

Yet, now armed with initial data and proof points, there are more questions to ask, and more actions to incite. “For me, personally, I want to use that data in a meaningful way and see change on campus. We can use these results to focus conversations and pinpoint efforts in order to answer the question: How do we promote more anti-racism action?”

Turin Chowdhury

Turin Chowdhury

Student-supervisor mentorship central to PURE program

Back in fall 2020, the then-first-year student found herself in a class with Chowdhury. Inspired by his work with immigrant populations, and after further reading the professor’s published studies, Salem decided to connect over email. Chowdhury was impressed with Salem’s motivation and interests and took her on as a student. After successfully applying for PURE funding, Salem worked with Chowdhury on her project last summer, from design to analysis and final reporting.

Mentorship is an important tenant of PURE. Salem says she found the mentorship she received through the process invaluable: “(Dr. Chowdhury) guided me through all the steps, especially the study design: Is this realistic for me as a first-year researcher? Where are my abilities? What's going to help me grow and not overwhelm me? That’s something I really appreciated. You can have all these big ideas, but, as a first-year researcher, you don’t know the feasibility.”

Next steps

Now that Salem and Chowdhury have findings from which to inform their initial research questions, they hope to disseminate their findings, as well as form new questions for further study.

Salem says she hopes the data gained from her study can provide information and inspire more action at the university, thus completing a loop in community-engaged research. She has been working with student groups on campus to publish her results in hopes of renewing and focusing conversations on anti-racism action.

Chowdhury is proud of his student and hopes to see more anti-racism action on campus, action informed by student voices. “We need to be bolder about our commitment to anti-racism,” he says. “Who better to inform and lead this than our own students?”

About PURE

PURE provides UCalgary undergraduate students with the opportunity to conduct meaningful research and encourages experiential learning in their chosen area of interest during the summer months, in collaboration with UCalgary researchers. It is co-ordinated through the College of Discovery, Creativity and Innovation within the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning.

Watch a replay of the 2021 PURE Celebration of Achievement, where Salem and Chowdhury, along with others, were recognized for their work. Discover and read the range of projects funded in 2021 by PURE by reading study abstracts here. The 2022 PURE program opens for applications in early December; learn more

Turin Chowdhury is an associate professor in the departments of Family Medicine and Community Health Sciences in the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). He is also a member of the CSM’s O'Brien Institute for Public Health and Libin Cardiovascular Institute.

The Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning is dedicated to better understanding and improving student learning at UCalgary. Its mission is to strengthen teaching and learning communities, cultures, and practices to create extraordinary learning experiences. Every year, the Institute publishes a detailed community report to share and measure its progress toward key priorities.

Learn more about the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning

The College of Discovery, Creativity and Innovation (CDCI) advances undergraduate research across the academic community by focusing on three areas: curricular course-based undergraduate research experiences; non-curricular undergraduate research experiences; and undergraduate research events, engagement and outreach. Based out of the Office of Experiential Learning within the Taylor Institute, CDCI commits to developing authentic undergraduate research experiences and improving access, equity and inclusivity in its opportunities.

Learn more about undergraduate research initiatives at CDCI