In a class exercise called Diversity Laundry, Xavier University senior Brenna Gosky faced down several t-shirts with religious symbols and many clothespins marked with traditions, facts, or elements relating to those symbols waiting to be matched correctly. With a high school world religion class under her belt, Gosky thought she knew about different cultures and religions. But when she could not attach as many clothespins as she would have liked, she realized just how much she has to learn.
As many colleges and universities consider how to identify and celebrate diverse campus populations, students benefit from events that allow them to experience and appreciate different cultures. And with the curiosity to delve into other cultures, students often gain a deeper understanding of their own culture as well.
Campuses recognize different cultures in many novel ways. Individual groups are popular—for instance, Asian or Native American student associations—and having those groups come together to share traditions with the larger community fosters understanding and builds communication.
Administrators say they want students to ask questions and be curious about the world and the people in it. When students graduate with a perspective that is not just accepting of other cultures but knowledgeable about other traditions and beliefs, they enter the world better prepared. “We see change happen person by person,” says Joe Virata, Director of the Diversity Initiative Program at the University of California, Riverside. “Eventually we hope we will see a cultural shift.”
Students educating students
Diversity initiatives are often met enthusiastically on campus and include everything from cultural celebrations to formal discussions concerning gender, stereotypes, or racism. Behind the scenes, universities work hard to recruit underrepresented populations and give them the resources they need to be successful; this may mean designating a special room for daily prayers or ensuring access to specific foods.
When students learn from each other, thought-provoking questions arise. “It is eye-opening to realize what you don’t know,” Gosky says of the Diversity Laundry exercise. Matching things like 99 prayer beads with Hinduism or five pillars with Islam was not easy for her or her classmates. But when the students were surprised or even slightly embarrassed, teacher Rabbi Abie Ingber asked how their parents or grandparents might have done. All the students agreed they might have fared even worse.
“They become aware of the trajectory of life,” says Ingber, noting that mindfulness increases with each generation. One year, Ingber coordinated a multi-faith mock wedding, incorporating traditions from the Jewish, Catholic, Hindu, and Muslim faiths. The eclectic event included a bride with henna-decorated hands, a chuppa, a Hindu tent, and jumping the broom. “It was eye-opening beyond belief,” Ingber says.
Multiculturalism has come a long way on campus. Ingber says “tolerance” used to be the buzzword when discussing other cultures or beliefs, but the term has since been found lacking. “You can ‘tolerate’ an itch,” he says. “You do not ‘tolerate’ another human being. You have to reach for celebration. At the time, it seemed so forward thinking, but that only worked to begin the conversation. Now there needs to be a celebration of ‘the other.’”
Over decades, the idea of diversity has shifted. “In the 1970s, it was about race and ethnicity,” says SunHee Kim Gertz, chair of the Diversity Task Force at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Now, diversity includes gender identity, sexuality, and physical abilities. But identifying groups is not enough. “There has to be dialogue,” Gertz says.
That begins when students teach others about their cultures. At the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, student ambassadors act as representatives of their countries, bringing a human face to the name of a country. “It is hard to keep a stereotype when someone is standing right in front of you,” says Nicole Kille, Wooster’s Assistant Director of Global Engagement.
The ambassador program started when the school realized international students didn’t really have a voice on campus or much interaction with students from the United States, says Kille. Every year, five ambassadors are chosen to research their own countries and go into the campus community and the larger community to tell their stories.
Ana Godonoga is a native of the eastern European nation of Moldova and spent her sophomore year as an ambassador. “It has been great for me to interact with different people and to hear what questions they have about Moldova,” she says. “You don’t fully appreciate your culture until you realize that you are that one person who represents a whole nation.”
Ambassadors break down stereotypes and assumptions too. Blain Tesfaye Fente is from Ethiopia and found it interesting how most Americans envision famine when they think of her home. “I believed it was important to tell my story . . . a middle-class Ethiopian who was privileged enough to have three meals a day and get an education,” Fente says. “More than anything, I want to tell them something that can provoke their thoughts and increase their interests in knowing more about their country.”
Diversity initiatives on campus range from student-led groups to campus-wide administration programs. And the college years are a perfect time to take it all in, so students graduate with a vast sense of awareness. “It is about what it means to work with people who view the world differently,” says Virata. “It is important to engage students on how we affect one another.”
For students, that can often come as a surprise. Student Karla Aguilar works in the Ethnic and Gender Program Offices at the University of California, Riverside, where she says she’s gained a new perspective on how unique each person is. “You attach faces to the things you learn in the classroom,” she says. “You become more aware.”
At Stevenson University in Owings Mills, Maryland, students can even earn credit for creating a diversity presentation about oppression, says Cheryl Hinton, Director of Multicultural Affairs at Stevenson. During the school’s multicultural week, they also attend events such as an African dance class or Indian performances. “It is the highlight of the academic year,” she says. “You step out of your own comfort zone.”
Mitchel Livingston, Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President of Student Services at the University of Cincinnati, says administrators believe diversity is so essential they incorporated a set of values, called Just Community, into the University’s mission.
College students, Livingston says, are at a critical transition point that makes diversity that much more important. They are learning their own core values, distinct from influences they might have had growing up. “Higher education is about lifting barriers,” he says. “Diversity will allow us to redefine ourselves.”
Campus cultural events
At the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, Nizhoni Chow-Garcia, Co-director of the Native American Future Stewards program, works to recruit Native American students. Since 2006, the number of self-identified Native American students there has quadrupled, and within that population, myriad tribe backgrounds exist. Students always learn from each other, Chow-Garcia says. “Then they are able to go outside of their own lives and get a sense of others’ lives, cultures, and a sense of community.”
For students, learning about other cultures is also just fun. Joshua Gonzales leads the Native American Student Programs at the University of California, Riverside, campus and says inspiration is contagious. “It is fun to introduce [new ideas] and to educate the community on and off campus,” he says. “People are learning and meeting and growing. Everybody has a story.”
Students at the University of Cincinnati enjoy the annual week-long Worldfest in which student groups celebrate their culture’s foods and traditions. “It enriches our community in a unique way,” says Nicole Ausmer, Assistant Director for UC student activities and the Worldfest project coordinator. “Students know the issues in the world.”
Debarun Das managed the Taste of India Worldfest event this year and says the week is a great way to experience cultures. Says Das, “Watching students from different backgrounds blending into the cultural festivities of each other goes to show no matter how many ‘boundaries’ man may have tried to create, we are all, at the end of the day, part of a bigger race called humanity.”