Building a sense of belonging and inclusivity

Written by: Sarah Chun

Thank you to Winny Yang, Rachel Xu, Jenny Chen, and Karen Lee for their insights and edits on this blog!

I felt like I was reliving the same day every day for the past year in a virtual learning environment. Luckily, an upper-year student reached out to me one day and encouraged me to join Tech+ UW, a student organization focused on empowering underrepresented students to pursue a career in the tech industry. I was the only first-year student on Tech+ UW when I first joined in September, but I finally felt a sense of belonging as I learned personal stories and adventures of upper-year UW students through intimate one-on-ones and team calls.

I later learned about the opportunity to join the organizing team at Hack the North, Canada’s biggest hackathon, when approached by another Tech+ UW member. Believing myself to be under-qualified, my first instinct was to say “no”, but with kind words of encouragement, I built up the courage to apply and here I am — Hi, I’m Sarah, one of the Logistics Organizers for Hack the North 2021 👋

As a first year student who struggled to find a sense of belonging in the University of Waterloo community (especially online), the following “inclusivity checklist” is something that I appreciated at both Tech+ UW and Hack the North, fostering a welcoming environment:

  • Personalized reach-outs 🗣
  • DEI (Diversity, equity, and inclusion) focused applications 📝
  • Safe space guidelines 🥰
  • Donuts & team-wide socials 🍩
My first year orientation at the University of Waterloo — virtually.

🗣 Personalized reach-outs

Coming from a high school where almost all clubs welcomed anyone to join, I found it bizarre that nearly every UW student organization required an application with a resume and sometimes even an interview. I applied to both Tech+ UW and Hack the North only because kind upper-year students took the time to reach out and encourage me to join both of these organizations. Although these reach-outs may have only taken ~2 minutes, the gentle push is what helped me build enough confidence to apply.

📝 DEI-focused Applications

For industry jobs and student organizations alike, the application serves as the first impression for many prospective candidates. Asking for an applicant’s pronouns should be as customary as asking for a name or email address. For first-year students like myself, understanding technical jargon (i.e. PM/VC/blockchain) may be difficult, so it would be helpful to include concise definitions of technical jargon in the application. In addition to that, applications should always provide adaptations for the application process and position responsibilities, allowing and supporting everybody who is interested. In order to reduce barriers for students to join organizations, we should always ask for pronouns, reduce technical jargon within the application, and ask if any accessibility requirements are needed.

🥰 Safe Space Guidelines

Something that I personally struggled with was being afraid to voice my opinions during Zoom calls because I feared being judged or labelled as the “ignorant and dumb first-year student.” I became more comfortable with speaking up with the help of an internal team DEI statement (safe space guidelines):

  • Confidentiality: encouraging others to share experiences and lessons, not gossip and identifying personal details (i.e. names)
  • Sharing the air: challenging ourselves and others to share their opinions and avoid “hogging” the conversation by being aware of how much you are participating
  • Be understanding: respect everyone’s right to skip/pause/rewind during the discussion
  • Impact of your words: acknowledge that your actions and words may have unintended effects on other people and that their feelings are valid, regardless of your intentions
  • Avoid assumptions: do not assume or make judgments on anyone’s gender identity, sexual preference, survivor status, health status, economic status, religion, background, beliefs, and opinions

🍩 Donuts (1 on 1’s) & Team wide socials

I feel the most included at Hack the North during intimate “Donut” conversations, virtual one-on-one coffee chats with another randomly chosen team member. These opportunities allowed me to naturally connect with other team members that I would have not otherwise spoken to.

Team-wide socials at Hack the North, such as Jackbox and Drawphone, brought moments of joy during dull, grey, and monotonous periods of quarantine. By giving opportunities for those from various sub-teams within an organization to connect and create a kinder, inclusive community together.

Results from the 2021 Hack the North Logistics Team Drawphone icebreaker.

Through personalized reach-outs with words of encouragement, accessible applications, the implementation of safe space guidelines, and team socials, we can work together to bring our community a little closer and kinder, fostering a community where everybody feels welcomed to join.

If you’re interested in joining the Hack the North community to empower students from across the globe to dream big, you can be involved by attending Hack the North 2021 as a hacker, Workshop Lead, Mentor, or Volunteer — all are welcomed and appreciated 💙

PS, applications are open! You can now apply to be a Workshop Lead or Mentor and sign up to be a Volunteer for our upcoming event in September at www.hackthenorth.com ⚙️

3,000+ students from across the globe join us at Hack the North, Canada’s biggest hackathon, for 36 hours ofdreaming big and building incredible projects.