Defining Diversity

Assistant Dean of Admissions, Co-Director of Multicultural Recruitment, Swarthmore College

A diverse college or university is an exciting and beneficial place to be a student. Why? Students who have classmates, professors, and mentors from different backgrounds are exposed to new viewpoints and perspectives. As a result, they are more likely to become open-minded and global thinkers. Diversity enriches discussions inside and outside the classroom and can prepare students to embrace a multicultural world upon graduation.

What does it mean when colleges and universities talk about “diversity”? The word is often used when talking about the presence of people on a campus who differ in terms of race, culture, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and ability. It also means the presence of people with diverse opinions, political views, and academic passions. However, a true, comprehensive definition of diversity should also include ways in which a diverse population engages with and explores its differences.

Many campuses feature cultural organizations and campus centers where you can participate in discussions on diversity and difference, as well as find a supportive new community. Colleges may also offer programming and a curriculum designed to educate its community on issues of difference.

Quakers founded Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts college in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. It was progressive in its inclusion of women as a coeducational institution right from the start. The College was also one of the first schools in the United States to open its doors to students from diverse backgrounds. Since then, Swarthmore’s mission has included the importance of diversity in its community and in curricular offerings.

Nearly 40% of Swarthmore’s domestic students identify as students of color, and 7% of students hail from international backgrounds. And students and staff actively engage in conversations inside and outside of the classroom on diverse issues, allowing each student to explore his or her identity. A highlight of fall orientation is the Swarthmore Summer Institute, a multiple-day program in which student resource personnel and current Swarthmore students facilitate discussions on diversity and difference on campus with incoming first-year students.

For many students, the degree to which a campus is diverse will determine how much they feel they “fit” with the school. During your college search, you may wish to evaluate the diversity of each school you consider. As you do so, remember that your analysis will have a personal slant. Just as only you are the expert on whether a campus is right for you, how diverse a campus feels is determined by who you are and your own ideals for a future community.

Make diversity personal

Not everyone shares the same goals when it comes to finding a new, diverse community at college. As a means of evaluating diversity, begin with evaluating yourself. Ask yourself some questions throughout your college search, such as:

  • What kind of community will allow me to grow personally as well as intellectually?
  • Do I wish to be part of a community that identifies similarly to me?
  • Am I looking to be challenged by new viewpoints, or am I hoping to find a community of people who share my opinions?
  • What kind of conversations about diversity do I wish to have in college?

Do your research

Once you have generated some preliminary thoughts on what you are looking for in a college community, it is time to explore what different institutions offer. College guidebooks and websites generally outline the cultural organizations, resource centers, and campus programming available to students. Take a look at what is offered—or not offered—and think about how likely you are to find the community that would most help you grow.

Ask people about diversity

Current students, faculty, and staff have inside knowledge on the ways in which people engage with diversity on campus. They can also provide insight on what it is like to be a member of an identity-based organization or department. If you are interested in a particular club or program at a school, don’t hesitate to contact its coordinator or a group member. Speak with as many people as possible to gain a variety of perspectives. Ask substantive questions of the people you contact, such as “How is diversity a part of everyday life on campus?” and “How comfortable do you feel finding out more about your identity and discussing identity issues?”

Think about the mission

Almost every college and university has a mission statement that influences the kind of environment the school hopes to foster on campus. Missions will not just shape academics, but also social and extracurricular culture. Schools will often include goals to recruit and retain diverse students, faculty, and staff and may consider diversity a crucial element of the campus community.

Look at what is being taught

A diverse curriculum can indicate a campus’ attitude toward embracing difference. Colleges that value diversity are more likely to have departments that focus on the literature and research of historically unrepresented peoples. Departments such as cultural and ethnic studies, and gender and sexuality studies are often founded by diverse communities who wanted every voice to be considered on campus. Institutions can also promote diversity by providing a wealth of campus programming, such as guest speakers, performances, and workshops that focus on multicultural issues. Many institutions will encourage students to immerse themselves in a new culture through study abroad as well.

Swarthmore recognizes the importance of engaging with diversity off campus too. Half of the student body studies abroad during their four years on more than 100 programs worldwide. The College’s Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility helps students get involved in service and activism to help diverse communities locally and abroad. How much a campus is willing to emphasize the importance of multicultural perspectives is a first step toward determining how you will be treated on campus!

Diversity on a college campus shapes not just your own identity, but the identity of the college as well. While diversity may be one of many factors you use to decide which colleges are right for you, the implications of diversity are wide-ranging and can affect many aspects of your college experience and personal growth.

Campus! Clubs! Culture!

Colleges and universities offer plenty of extracurricular activities, and many pertain to culture—celebrating it, learning about it, living it. Here’s just a small sample (of a small sample) of some of the multicultural clubs and organizations found on campuses across the country.  

Swarthmore College

  • Swarthmore African-American Student Society
  • Swarthmore Asian Organization
  • Enlace: Latino/a Cultural Group
  • Swarthmore Queer Union
  • Swarthmore Women of Color Collective
  • Deshi: South Asian Cultural Group
  • Swarthmore Multiracial Student Group

Case Western Reserve University

  • Asian Fusion Dance Association
  • Chinese Students and Scholars Association
  • Egyptian Students Association
  • Japan Connection
  • La Alianza
  • La Dolce Vita—Italian Club of Case
  • Persian Club

New York University

  • Armenian Hokee
  • Caribbean Students Association
  • Iranian Jewish Club
  • Korean Students Association
  • Mexico Lindo y Querido
  • South Asian Students Association (SHRUTI)
  • Venezuelan Society at NYU

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