Key terms and definitions

Language is a key element of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and can help or hinder efforts on-campus. By developing definitions for common terms and concepts relevant to DEI work, we assert that these terms are not interchangeable—diversity and equity are not the same thing and it is important to define them for our work. We also recognize that language is relational and like relationships, continually changing. As such, this is a living document that will need to be updated on a regular basis. The goal is not to avoid making mistakes, but to be sensitive to the power language has to capture, empower, or discourage interactions.

Academic Success - Demonstrated student achievement through indicators such as grade point average, rigorous coursework, acceptance to program major, persistence towards graduation and graduation.

Access(ible) - Opportunities for students to participate in curricular and co-curricular offerings provided by an educational institution. Removing barriers and providing support for historically underserved or underrepresented students to take advantage of those opportunities.

Accessibility - The quality and degree that devices, services, programs, systems and physical environment are available to as many people as possible.

Affinity Groups - Groups or programs that connect individuals based on interests, identities and circumstances.

Assigned Sex at Birth - The sex (male, female or intersex) assigned to a child at birth, most often based on the child’s external anatomy.

Barriers - Personal attitudes, lack of knowledge and/or skills, institutional, architecture, technology and/or administrative systems that limit of prevent access and usability.

Belonging - A sense of being secure, recognized, affirmed and accepted equally such that full participation is possible as one’s whole self.

Bias - Actions and thoughts stemming from fear, misunderstanding, hatred and stereotypes and may result in negative treatment of an individual or group.

Brave Space - A mechanism designed to create supportive environments where all students may equally participate in challenging dialogue. The space is never without the risk of discomfort for those participating, but they allow for a more enriching and extensive dialogue while simultaneously providing tools of support for those who are most vulnerable.

Cisgender - A gender identity, or performance in a gender role, that society deems to match the person’s assigned sex at birth. The prefix cis- means “on this side of” or “not across.” A term used to highlight the privilege of people who are not transgender.

Climate - The perceived level of acceptance and inclusion of individual needs, abilities and potential reflected in the attitudes, behaviors and standards of the unit or organization.

Co-curricular Learning - Learning that takes place outside of a traditional classroom (or curriculum) that directly relates to an education experience. Examples include clubs, organizations, workshops, study abroad, internships, symposia, conferences and lectures.

Cultural Repositioning – Cultural repositioning, is the reconstruction of a cultural concept of an internal concept of a group of people. Cultures are internally shaped by both forces encouraging change and forces resisting change.

Cultural Fluidity/Cultural Mobility - A term coined by Cultural founder Donnyale Ambrosine to describe the hidden diversity created by people who don’t or didn’t grow up in a homogeneous cultural environment. Culturally fluid individuals may straddle nationalities, ethnicities or cultures. The fluidity created allows understanding between or among their foundational areas of meaningful experience. It also may hinder a sense of belonging to any one area.

Cultural Humility - Having the self-awareness that one cannot be fully competent in another person’s culture and is responsible for learning about others’ identities and their lived experience.

Culturally Relevant/Responsible - Recognizing, understanding and applying attitudes and practices that are sensitive to and appropriate for people with diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives.

Culture - The ideas, values, beliefs, norms, language, traditions and artifacts of a particular group.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) - A program intended to allow undocumented-immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as minors to legally work and study in the United States.

Discrimination – The unequal treatment of members of various groups based on race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, physical ability, religion and other categories.

Diversity - The traits and characteristics that make people unique, including the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, neurodiversity, physical abilities, religious beliefs or other ideologies.

Equality - Refers to the legal, moral, and political opportunities afforded people of a historically marginalized group. Both equity and equality are critically important components of diversity and inclusion. (NWCCU)

  • Equality of opportunity refers to fair access to educational and occupational opportunity. To assess equality of opportunity, it is necessary to identify barriers that inhibit access, including the ability to fully engage an opportunity. Likewise, when opportunities are competitive or scarce, preparation to compete for an opportunity requires a focus on preparation and outcomes. Equality in preparation and outcomes is often presented as an alternative approach to achieve social equality. Issues in this alternative approach are referred to as equality in outcomes or from a social justice lens as equity.
  • Equality of outcomes refers to support provided to students based on need and for the purpose of increasing educational attainment or achievement to match outcomes of the historically privileged group (i.e. white, middle-class, able-bodied men). To achieve similar outcomes, some students need additional support and resources, not simply plausibly fair access. The pursuit of equal graduation rates among race groups is an example of an outcome that requires targeted support be provided race groups with low graduation rates.

Equity/Equitable - Is concerned with social justice and fairness of policies. Not to be confused with equality, which seeks parity in the treatment of individuals and groups, equity seeks parity in the achievement of desired outcomes. Equity may, in fact, require “unequal” treatment, such as a deaf or hard of hearing student receiving an ASL interpreter to successfully complete a course. (NWCCU)

  • Equality - Seeking a situation where an individual and/or group has the same access. Refers to the legal, moral and political opportunities afforded people of all races. Both equity and equality are critically important components of diversity and inclusion.
  • Equity - Seeking equivalent treatment or outcomes for people with different needs and/or abilities so each person has the same level of opportunity.

Ethnicity - A distinct concept from race, the U.S. Census Bureau defines ethnicity or origin as “the heritage, nationality group, lineage or country of birth of the person or the person's parents or ancestors before their arrival in the United States.”

Ethnic Group – Any category of people within the larger society who possess distinctive social or cultural traits, a shared history and a sense of commonality, regardless of the group’s size, power, race, language or time of immigration.

Financial capability - The ability to manage financial resources effectively, understand and apply financial knowledge, demonstrate healthy money habits and successfully complete financial tasks as planned.

Financial Well-Being - The ability to meet all financial needs, today and over time; feel secure in the financial future; absorb a financial shock; and have the financial freedom to make choices to enjoy life.

First-Generation Student* - A student whose parent(s)/legal guardians(s) have not completed an undergraduate degree, including: 4- or 5-year bachelor’s degree program, an associate’s degree program or a vocational or technical program below the baccalaureate.

First-Year Student - Refers specifically to students who are starting their first year of higher education. This may include but is not limited to the following examples: international students, new students from other states or those who took a year off from education immediately after high school, etc.; but generally does not refer to graduate or transfer students new to a college or university.

Foster Youth - An individual who is considered a ward of the court, county and/or state due to having a parent(s) who is not able to provide care for them. The term “care” is broad and can include, but is not limited to financial, mental and/or residential resources.

Gender – A social construct used to classify a person as a man, woman or some other identity. The concept/nature of gender is fundamentally different from the sex one is assigned at birth.

Gender Expansive – An umbrella term used for individuals who broaden their own culture’s commonly held definitions of gender, including expectations for its expression, identities, roles and/or other perceived gender norms. Gender expansive individuals include those who identify as transgender, as well as anyone else whose gender in some way is seen to be broadening the surrounding society’s notion of gender.

Gender Expression – How one expresses oneself, in terms of dress and/or behaviors. Society, and people that make up society characterize these expressions as “masculine,” “feminine” or “androgynous.” Individuals may embody their gender in a multitude of ways and have terms beyond those mentioned prior to name their gender expression(s).

Gender Fluid/Genderfluid – A person whose gender identification and presentation shifts, whether within or outside of societal, gender-based expectations. Being fluid in motion between two or more genders.

Gender Identity – A sense of one’s self as trans, genderqueer, woman, man or some other identity, which may or may not correspond with the sex and gender one is assigned at birth.

Global - Learning experiences directly connected to international communities, cultures and contexts.

Inclusion - The behaviors and social norms that ensure people feel welcome, appreciated and valued as members of their communities. (NWCCU).

Inclusive Excellence - Inclusive excellence strives to exceed policies and quotas to create a vibrant, welcoming community for all. It shifts the responsibilities of diversity and inclusion away from a particular office or department to all members of the college community. Above all, inclusive excellence is the recognition that diversity, inclusion, and cultural competence are essential to the overall excellence of any higher education institution that seeks to prepare its students for an increasingly diverse and globalized society.

(Inter)Cultural Competence - An ability to learn about and interact effectively with people of diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. Areas of cultural competence include awareness of one’s own cultural worldview, attitude towards cultural differences, knowledge of different cultural practices and worldviews and cross-cultural skills.

Intercultural Engagement - Educational opportunities, events, and programs that invite individuals to experience new cultural contexts with the intent of developing greater cultural competence.

Intergroup Dialogue - A facilitated face-to-face discussion with the objective of creating understanding and healthier interaction between two or more social identity groups.

International Students - International students in the Unites States are considered nonimmigrants because of their sole purpose for being in the country is to complete a program of study at a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) - certified school.

Intersectionality - The many facets of an individual’s identity that overlap, guides how individuals experience life, how others perceive them and impacts their overall educational experience.

Intersex – Intersex is an umbrella term used for a person who is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not seem to fit the typical definitions of female of male.

Lawful Permanent Resident – Lawful permanent residents (LPRs), also known as “green card” holders, are non-citizens who are lawfully authorized to live permanently within the United States. LPRs may accept an offer of employment without special restrictions, own property, receive financial assistance at public colleges and universities and join the Armed Forces. They also may apply to become U.S. citizens if they meet certain eligibility requirements.

Learning Communities - A group of people actively engaged in learning together and learning from each other to explore common themes and encourage partnerships with professors and peers.

LGBTQIA+ - This acronym refers to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning/Queer, Intersex and Asexual identities. The plus includes other gender or sexual identities that may not be captured in the other letters of the acronym and allows for the evolution of identities and terms related to those identities. Although all the different identities within LGBTQIA+ are often lumped together (and share sexism and homophobia as a common root of oppression), there are specific needs and concerns related to each individual identity. As professionals we must understand that the sexual identities are fluid and ever evolving. As a Division we must regularly review the new and changing ways that people identify and shift our definition and understanding of new terms as they emerge. For example, the acronym QTPOC referring to Queer, Transgender, People of Color acknowledges the unique history of oppression and contributions made by individuals with these intersecting identities. Different individuals may choose to identify with this term over LGBTQIA+ or choose a different term altogether depending on where they are in their own understanding of their identity.

Marginalized - The process in which groups of people are excluded by the wider society. Marginalization is often used in an economic or political sense to refer to the rendering of an individual, an ethnic or national group or a nation-state powerless by a more powerful individual.

Mentor - An individual who shares their knowledge, personal experience and expertise to provide guidance to their mentee, through motivation, emotional and social support, and role modeling.

Mentorship - A relationship based on guidance and support between a mentor and their mentee.  Mentorship may be structured or informal, and may change based on the needs of the mentee.  Mentors are not necessarily older than their mentees.  Effective mentorship strives to be co-intentional and is based on mutual trust and respect. Mentorship can involve guidance with career path, majors, social wellness, goal setting and connection with resources.

Minoritized - A devalued social group given less (or prevented) access to societal resources. Minoritized identities experience diminished or no access to their own language, religion and/or culture; a process that may be rationalized by dominant identities as a way to maintain power.

  • Traditionally, a group in this position has been referred to as the minority group. However, this language has been replaced with the term minoritized in order to capture the active dynamics that create the lower status in society and also to signal that a group’s status is not necessarily related to how many or few of them there are in the population at large.

Mixed Status - A term to describe families whose members include people with different citizenship or immigration status.

Multicultural - A collective variety of cultures. Goals for multicultural education include cultural competence, equity, accessibility and inclusion.

Neurodiversity - A movement and approach to education that suggest variations in the human brain regarding mental functions including learning, attention, memory, health and mood are not to be seen as deficits but natural variants.

Opportunity Gap - Refers to the fact that the arbitrary circumstances in which people are born such as their race, ethnicity, ZIP code and socioeconomic status determine their opportunities in life, rather than all people having the chance to achieve to the best of their potential. 

Oppression - An unwanted pattern of subjugation, persecution, domination, abuse and exploitation which consciously or unconsciously undermines freedom and liberty. It can be employed physically, politically, institutionally and/or economically by one racial group over another (or others).

Personal Safety - A person’s sense of safety as it relates to social, intellectual, physical and cultural interactions and spaces.

Power - Power occurs when some individuals or groups wield a greater advantage over others, thereby allowing them greater access to and control over resources. Thus allowing them to exercise one’s will over others. Wealth, whiteness, citizenship, patriarchy, heterosexism and education are a few key social mechanisms through which power operates. 

Prejudice - A pre-judgment or unjustifiable, and usually negative, attitude of one type of individual or group toward another group and its members. Such negative attitudes are typically based on unsupported generalizations or stereotypes that deny the right of individual members of certain groups to be recognized and treated as individuals with individual characteristics.

Privilege - An invisible package of unearned assets, advantages and benefits that individuals inherit based on their circumstantial membership in one of society’s “dominant” groups. Generally, those who experience privilege do so without being conscious of it.

Race - A social construct that divides people into distinct groups based on characteristics such as physical appearance, ancestral heritage, cultural affiliation, cultural history, ethnic classification, based on the social, economic and political context of a society at a given period of time. (Racial Equity Resource Guide)

Race (For Federal Reporting) - The general racial and ethnic group which most clearly reflects the individual’s recognition of their community or with which the individual identifies. IPEDS categories for Federal reporting include 7 groups: American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, White, Hispanic or Latino ethnicity and two or more races, but not Hispanic or Latino (i.e. multi-racial). Any selection that includes Hispanic or Latino ethnicity is counted in that category only even if other identities are selected.

  • NOTE ON DEFINITION FROM IPEDS: Categories developed in 1997 by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that are used to describe groups to which individuals belong, identify with or belong in the eyes of the community. The categories do not denote scientific definitions of anthropological origins. The designations are used to categorize U.S. citizens, resident aliens, and other eligible non-citizens.
  • In case of interest regarding Federal definitions:
    • American Indian or Alaskan Native - A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains cultural identification through tribal affiliation or community attachment.
    • Asian - A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia or the Indian Subcontinent. This area includes, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand and Vietnam.
    • Black or African American - A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.
    • Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander - A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa or other Pacific Islands.
    • White - A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, Middle East or North Africa.
    • Hispanic or Latino ethnicity - An indication that the person traces his or her origin or descent to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America and other Spanish cultures, regardless of race.

Racial Wealth Divide - The effect and historic intentionality of racial economic inequality including disparity in wealth and asset ownership.

Racism - The systematic subordination of people from marginalized racial groups based on their physical appearance, ethnic or ancestral history or cultural affiliation. Racism is considered a deeply pervasive, systemic issue perpetuated by members of the privileged racial group holding dominant social power over others.

Residence - A term which for the purposes of these regulations is synonymous with the legal term "domicile," and means that location in which a person is considered to have the most settled and permanent connection, intends to remain and intends to return after any temporary absences.  Residence results from the union of a person's physical presence in the location with objective evidence of an intent to remain at that location for other than a temporary purpose.

Rural - Any prospective or current student from or residing in a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) region determined to rural. 

  • The Census Bureau defines rural as “any population, housing, or territory NOT in an urban area.” Its definition of rural is closely tied to its urban definition. There are two types of urban areas:
    • “Urbanized Areas” – population of 50,000 or more “Urban Clusters” – population of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000.
    • “Nonmetro” does not mean rural.

Safe Spaces - An environment/area that provides opportunities for equitable access and conversation where individuals feel comfortable representing their full identities and sharing their unique perspectives.

  • The creation of physical spaces of access is an important one, considering the cultural shifts in marginalization for varying demographics. Cultural anthropology studies the value of space-making in terms of both studying a specific culture and, more broadly, understanding the disjointedness of our growing transnational economy. Theorist Arjun Appadurai (2011).

Sensory Room/Space - A multisensory environment designed for individuals to regulate themselves and renew focus after experiencing challenging environments, without leaving campus. Sensory space can be a dedicated area in the corner of a room, or a larger area furnished with items to help individuals de-stress and process sensory information.

Social Justice - Full and equitable participation of people from all social identity groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs.

Social Wellness - Involves positive connections that build healthy, nurturing and supportive relationships as well as foster genuine association with those around you.

Socioeconomic Status - Social standing or class of an individual or group often measured as a combination of education, income and occupation.

Systemic - Symbols existing within organizational culture, climate, policies, procedures and/or practice that creates unequal access or exclusion.

Transfer Student - A college student who changes institutions of higher education. A common transfer path is students moving from two-year community colleges to four-year institutions, although there is considerable movement between four-year institutions and individuals returning to higher education after some time away.

Underrepresented - Groups whose participation in higher education that has been historically impeded due to age, ethnic origin, national origin, race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity, marital status, disability, religious beliefs, creeds and income.

Undocumented Immigrant - Foreign-born individuals who do not possess a valid visa or other immigration documentation. Someone who entered the U.S. without inspection or with fraudulent documentation; or entered with documentation/visa but overstayed without authorization.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) - A flexible and proactive approach to teaching, learning, and space design that strives to maximize access for students of all backgrounds and learning preferences regardless of ability.  UDL considers the potential needs of all learners in the design and delivery of instruction, minimizing the need for accommodations, while maintaining high academic standards.

Xenophobia – Any attitude, behavior, practice or policy that explicitly or implicitly reflects the belief that immigrants are inferior to the dominant group of people. Xenophobia is reflected in interpersonal, institutional and systematic levels oppression


To learn more about issues with first-generation student identification and support, look to an institutional source:  

Closing the Opportunity Gap: Identity-Conscious Strategies for Retention and Student Success. Edited by Vijay Pendakur (2016). Sterling, VA., Stylus Publishing.

Lowman, J. (2019). The “College Knowledge” Gap: Time to test our assumptions directly. In M. Choroszy & T. Meek, Access for all: Expanding opportunity and programs to support successful student outcomes at the University of Nevada, Reno. University of Nevada Reno Press. Summary: For many students in Nevada and throughout the nation, they are the first in their family to go to college – these students are identified as “first-generation.” The population of first-generation students continues to increase year-over-year and their unique needs have shaped the way education practitioners must approach serving future students effectively

Prosperity Now. (2020). Communicating on Race and Racial Economic Equity. 

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. (n.d.). Financial Terms.

University of New Hampshire, Social Wellness

Fabriq: Experts define social wellness

UC Davis eight dimensions of wellness

Racial equity tools glossary

Planned Parenthood: Gender Identity

Human Rights Campaign 

Institute for Democratic Renewal and Project Change Anti-Racism Initiative, A Community Builder’s Tool Kit, Appendix (2000)

NACO DEI key terms and definitions