Incoming racialized students face uncertainty about September

Students and staff discuss Queen’s efforts to diversify incoming class

Image by: Curtis Heinzl
Though Queen’s has made progress

When Sam Zhang, graduating CÉGEP student, found out he was accepted to the Commerce program at Queen’s, he was thrilled.

In an interview with The Journal, Zhang called the program “top notch in Canada.” Shortly after he was accepted, Zhang began planning out his housing situation in preparation for life in Kingston because he lives in Montreal.

Yet as time went on, Zhang became more and more uncertain about attending Queen’s. Multiple factors drew him to McGill University, where he’d also been accepted to their Commerce program: the lower cost of tuition, the benefits of going to school in his hometown, and his interest in potentially changing his degree to Computer Science.

And then, there was another element to consider: the nagging sense he might not belong at Queen’s.

“Growing up in Montréal, there’s a lot of people, a lot of different ethnicities. I’m aware this isn’t necessarily the case in Kingston on the ethnic population proportion,” Zhang said. “I was a bit worried about not fitting in.”

Although Zhang eventually decided to enroll at McGill—citing a number of personal, professional, and financial reasons—he’s hardly the only prospective student to express concerns about the campus culture racialized students will face at Queen’s.

Following the stories of campus discrimination Stolen by Smith shared in 2020and a burgeoning nationwide interest in supporting equity and diversity in higher education, the University has taken steps to develop supports for
equity-deserving students.

According to the Human Rights and Equity Office’s 2022 Student Applicant Census Report, the proportion of Indigenous and racialized students entering their first year of undergraduate studies at Queen’s has generally increased from 2019 to 2021.

Despite these statistics, hesitancy about Queen’s’ reputation still lingers among the incoming class and prospective students. Although 34.5 per cent of undergraduate program acceptances went to students of colour in 2021, only 23.1 per cent of those who eventually enrolled at Queen’s identified as racialized.

Alison*, HealthSci ’26, an incoming queer and racialized first-year student from Brampton, will be starting at Queen’s in the fall. Although the program was one of her top choices, the stories she heard from her peers made her question what life at Queen’s might look like beyond acceptance.

“When I was researching Queen’s—after receiving my offer—to get more info on the school, because I was pretty set on going, Stolen by Smith just popped up immediately. It was obviously really concerning,” she said.

“My impression talking to other Queen’s students was that the overarching culture is overly white, which isn’t necessarily problematic. But I would appreciate diversity because I feel like feeling like a minority is not always pleasant, if you know what I mean,” she said.


Jiale Xie, HealthSci ’23, has been a member of the Dean’s Action Table on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in the Faculty of Health Sciences for the last year. Within the admissions working group, Xie researches the impacts of equitable admissions policies at Queen’s and provides recommendations for future action.

According to Xie, there’s broad support amongst university learners, faculty, and staff to diversify the admissions processes, and many institutions have begun to place an increasing emphasis on removing barriers to higher education for equity-deserving students.

However, stakeholders seem to have “mixed” opinions on whether these programs are equitable in their present form, Xie said.

Queen’s has implemented several strategies to improve the representation of equity-deserving groups in its incoming classes. There are special streams that prospective Indigenous and Black students can apply through, such as the Queen’s Accelerated Route to Medical School program and the Indigenous Admissions Pathway. Awards like the Commitment Scholars scholarship and Promise Scholars bursary also offer financial support.

Additionally, faculty and staff members at Queen’s that sit on admissions panels all undergo mandatory equity training before reviewing applications to ensure they understand how to take a student’s positionality into context when making their decisions.

But Xie believes it’s essential that the University is not just recruiting, but also retaining equity-deserving students. Although Queen’s may be implementing more equitable admissions strategies to accept an increasingly diverse class, the University must also continue to support those students throughout their studies, Xie said.

“Something important when we talk about admissions is to not think about it as just admitting people, and that’s because it really requires a longitudinal sort of support. If you don’t have a good culture at your program, in your institution, nobody’s going to want to apply anyway,” Xie said in an interview with The Journal.

As an international student, it was the personal challenges Xie faced in her education that spurred her to get involved with admissions policy research at Queen’s. 

“International students are not typically considered as an equity-deserving group, but I also face a lot of the same barriers as other groups, like first generation students,” she said.

“Being an international student really made me cognizant of how there’s a lot of barriers to someone wanting to pursue education that they want, which I think is devastating because education is something that I think everybody should be able to obtain if they want to.”

Alana Butler, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education and the faculty’s EDI coordinator, echoed Xie’s ideas. Butler studies the obstacles under-represented and low-income students face when accessing post-secondary education, with a particular focus on non-financial and cultural barriers.

“Some of those cultural barriers arise from being a member of an underrepresented group, where you’re the first in your family to go to university, because you don’t have a lot of social and cultural capital,” she explained to The Journal.

“The other [barrier] is literally just feeling isolated, because if you’re a member of an underrepresented group, if you have the experience of being the only one in the classroom a lot of times, that can be challenging for you.”

Although Xie recognizes that institutional change at Queen’s will not happen overnight, she believes the University is moving in the right direction.

Last year, she worked as a teaching assistant for the Health Sciences program’s core first-year pharmacology course. Walking into the classroom and seeing how diverse the freshman cohort reminded Xie of just how much of an impact a more inclusive class can make.

“It’s such a great thing that there’s more and more people like me coming into the classroom and studying Health Sciences,” she said.


Gurdit Sood, HealthSci ’25, told The Journal he was “fundamentally a horrible student for most of [his] life.” By the time he entered a tutoring program in Grade 9 to save his struggling grades, he was told he would have to start his review all the way back with Grade 3 math.

Sood initially felt ashamed by this setback, but as he began to study, he kept returning to one saying from his faith: nirbhau, nirvair.

Nirbhau, nirvair is a Punjabi phrase and an aspect of Sikh scripture that means “without fear, without hate.” To Sood, it became a crucial part of his academic journey as he struggled to master mathematical concepts that had evaded him for most of his life.

As someone who grew up in a crime-heavy area of Surrey, B.C., and later moved to a highly competitive school in Mississauga, Sood said he didn’t get the chance to build up an impressive resume of extracurriculars like many of his peers.

For students like Sood, Queen’s might have once been out of the picture. But for the 2020-21 application year, the University updated its admissions policy to the Commerce, Health Sciences, and Nursing programs so students no longer needed to list extracurricular activities in their Personal Statement of Experience, and instead only wrote two brief essays.

This ensured that low-income, first generation, and otherwise marginalized students who didn’t have the opportunity to get involved in extracurriculars were not disadvantaged in the application process.

So when it came time to apply to university, Sood wrote his Supplementary Essay for the Health Sciences program on the concept of nirbhau, nirvair, and the ways his faith had motivated him to take personal responsibility and persist in the face of academic hardship.

“I talked about that in my [Supplementary Essay] because that was something that really happened. I didn’t make anything up; that whole process and my religion has been sort of a cornerstone for me,” he said.

Changes like this gave applicants from atypical backgrounds like Sood the opportunity to incorporate aspects of their lived experience and positionality into their essays—and thus, a shot at a university like Queen’s. Zhang and Alison, who were accepted into programs that required a Supplementary Essay, also recounted writing about cultural experiences in
their applications.

“Making [the Supplementary Essay] open-ended was beneficial to me, because I could reflect on the limited experiences, I had due to the situations I was in,” Sood said.

As more and more racialized students enroll at Queen’s with the aid of new admissions processes, the University is continuing to look for ways to support students of colour after they’ve been accepted.

Karhinéhtha’ Cortney Clark, Indigenous access and recruitment coordinator for the Faculty of Health Sciences, is one of these resources. Clark provides Indigenous students with wrap-around support in every aspect of university life, including for academic, personal, and cultural conflicts.

According to her, events like the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Report and the discovery of unmarked mass graves at Kamloops Residential School have raised public consciousness on the importance of decolonialization across Canada, particularly in professional and educational fields.

“I understand how it is navigating an institution like Queen’s and being from an Indigenous community where protocols and values may not always line up with the academic rigor of the institution. I’m here to negotiate that space for Indigenous ideologies, and ways of being and knowing and doing, to actually flourish,” Clark said.

“It’s important to decolonize our institutions, and this is just a step to create those partnerships and propel reconciliation between the Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous communities that are the dominant voices amongst our institutions.”


For most members of the incoming class, Orientation Week is their first introduction to campus life. However, a history of unsafe alcohol use, hazing, and rape culture around Orientation has made some students hesitant to participate.

Katie Browne, Orientation Roundtable (ORT) Coordinator, told The Journal hosting a welcoming Orientation is a priority for her team this year. ORT has expanded its anti-oppressive training program, installed a new equity grant to fund Orientation events that promote inclusivity, assembled a carefully selected cohort of orientation leaders, and implemented more accessible events that cater to a variety of student interests and activity levels.

“I think one of the biggest obstacles might be that this incoming class really missed out on a lot of their time during high school, so we’re really trying to find a way to welcome them into like a community that might be really big and might seem really stressful and overwhelming to them,” she said.

After two years of online Orientation, Browne said ORT has a chance to reflect on what sort of experience they want to deliver moving forward. As a past Orientation leader herself, Browne saw gaps in training and accessibility she hopes to address this year and in the future.

“We’re truly striving for students of all backgrounds to have a safe and inclusive Orientation. We want everybody to feel like Orientation is accessible, no matter whatever their personal circumstances are.”


As Alison prepares to arrive in Kingston in the fall, she acknowledges her experience at Queen’s may be imperfect. Without first-hand experience of the campus, it’ll be hard for her to determine whether she’ll be a good fit, and her choice is complicated by Queen’s historical reputation.

Still, Alison remains hopeful about what awaits her—and after doing some more research about Queen’s, she’s excited.

“I am still a little nervous about cultural gaps and the associated social influences that come with Queen’s infamous white-dominant student population, but since accepting my offer, I think I have worked on having a more open mind,” she said.


*Name changed for anonymity


diversity, first year

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