The current Outreachy round brought some interesting changes to eligibility rules for students. As of now, we will consider the hemisphere their school is located in in order to approve or decline their application. This is based on the period in which students usually have summer breaks: December to March in the Southern hemisphere, May to August in the Northern one. Those located near the Equator are eligible in both rounds. We are also abandoning the concept of “credits” altogether, preferring to process every student as a full-time student.
As a reviewer, I consider those to be fantastic improvements. Depending on the country, the process of reviewing an application from a student could take from half an hour to days emailing applicants back and forth to confirm every single detail. It also caused a great amount of applications to stall last round as some candidates had their approval overturned after we implemented a more meticulous revision method. This round, we are finally managing to keep the amount of pending applications low—at the moment, we have reviewed more than a thousand applications, approved 50% of them, and have less than a hundred pending.
Discrimination and systemic bias vs. hardships
As applicants get used to the new application format, I’ve been noticing a few trends in essay answers. One of the most expressive ones is mistaking hardship with discrimination or systemic bias. This is common especially with applicants who come from a privileged background, and it comes in all sizes and flavors. For instance, in previous rounds, a cis, white, middle or higher class woman would have her application approved without further examination. However, as our policies on what constitutes discrimination and systemic bias become more refined, knowing the applicant is a woman isn’t enough to make them eligible. Their essay answers have to reflect experiencing discrimination for who they are, things intrinsically related to their identity. As a result, there were a few women who expressed they never faced any kind of discrimination whatsoever, and believe they never will.
As I gain experience in reviewing applications, the most telling aspect of essay answers is the way applicants frame their life experiences. Applicants who align with Outreachy’s mission usually describe situations where their access to basic human rights (i.e. education) were jeopardized or heavily hampered by their family or society as a whole, while privileged applicants narrate hardships that, in the grand scheme of life, are too small to compare (for instance, stating that their college rules concerning extracurricular activities are harsh on new students).
To reach a consensus on the matter, we have been building a document based on statements from applicants to clearly differentiate discrimination and systemic bias from “simple” hardships.
Debating this topic is a bit hard, especially in public. We don’t want to directly or indirectly coach applicants to give us the “right answers”; we want them to be truly open about their lives while having in mind we read every single one of their answers.
We still have more than a month of applications ahead of us, but I already consider the May to August round the most intense of the two—possibly because the popularity of the program is extremely high in the Northern hemisphere.
I’m planning to conduct some UI and UX tests on the Outreachy website in March, after finishing to solve my pending issues. I’ve been noticing since last round that many applicants from the United States don’t declare themselves to be black on our form, but do so in their essay answers. I suspect that has something to do with inconsistencies when filling their country of residence, and the visibility of said options.