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Multiculturalism on Campus: Where Does it Live?

Here are a few questions to consider as you begin to look under the hood and kick the tires of the colleges on your list: is multiculturalism an integral and intentional component of campus life?

The countdown has begun! The daunting task of making that big choice about which college is right for you looms in the not-so-distant future. You’ve already considered majors, athletic programs, faculty, graduation rates, gender balance, and whether or not there’s stuff to do on the weekend. Your “must visit” list may have already been whittled down from the 20 schools you absolutely loved just a few short months ago to a more manageable and reasonable six or seven. What then is left to consider before you can confidently announce to family and friends that you now have a “short list” of colleges (and reasons) that justify applying to those schools? Does being on a campus where programming and support for students from a variety of different backgrounds already exists matter? If you have decided that this is important to you, approach it thoughtfully and with purpose.

Keep in mind that you know yourself best. What makes you comfortable in a space may be very different than what is needed by a parent, classmate, or even your closest friend. Take the time for honest self-assessment and then drill down to find out what your academic and social needs are. Take those things into account as you check out colleges that appear to be good matches for you. During your campus visits and fact-finding explorations, gather as much useful information as possible about each institution by initiating conversations with others who are more familiar, but remember to respect your instincts too.

What’s important to you?

Here are a few questions to consider as you begin to look under the hood and kick the tires of the colleges on your list: Is multiculturalism an integral and intentional component of campus life? Does the campus community embrace and reflect the challenging dynamics of differing viewpoints and experiences? Do community members actively and boldly practice the values of inclusivity and meaningful representation? Is there consistent and earnest work underway to create and nurture a culture that values all students, faculty, and staff and eliminates barriers that may lead to exclusion? Is multicultural programming and support intentionally woven throughout the fabric of the campus?  

You can look at school statistics to offer important snippets of information for you to consider as you wade through the mounds of attractive college view books that are being crammed into your mailbox every day and as you spend numerous hours checking out websites with sleek navigation. But is this everything? Look further. Rapidly changing demographics in our communities underscore the increasingly urgent need for the creation and fostering of campus cultures that integrate and sustain all dimensions of students and their life experiences. If you were not your uniquely bright and wonderful self, perhaps statistics at face value would be sufficient and you would have all of the relevant information necessary to move to the next phase of college application and selection. Not so fast! You are not just another prospective college student; you are you—bright, discerning, and self-aware. You have already decided that it will be important for you to integrate into your chosen campus community and share your many perspectives and talents with others. You already understand the importance of learning about other cultures and respecting other ways of being. Your instinct tells you that the promotion and seeking of multicultural awareness and inclusion is important to the process of your becoming your best self.

Groups on campus

Most colleges and universities will have a multicultural center or organization that provides excellent innovative programming and programming support for students of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Some of the more common multicultural groups and organizations found on campuses are:

  • Asian Pacific Student Union
  • Japanese Student Association
  • Chinese Student Association
  • Vietnamese Student Organization
  • International Students Association
  • Black Student Union

These groups are made up of students who take pride in their heritage by celebrating through a wide variety of organizations. The clubs exist in order to spread awareness of other cultures by providing performances, lectures, or ethnic foods to the rest of the community. For example, the purpose of the Black Student Union is to promote activities of common interest, as well as cultural and educational beliefs for the African American student body. Similarly, the sole purpose of any Chinese Student Association is to broaden the understanding and appreciation of the Chinese culture, language, and history through social events, guest speakers, culture shows, etc. And you’re sure to find campus examples that encompass your background and interests; you’ll discover the options are vast and varied amongst U.S. colleges, from the El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan club at Brown University to the Rainbow Alliance at Northwestern University to the Asian American Pacific Islander Student Association at University of Redlands. (And if you don’t happen to find the perfect group for you on your campus, start your own! It’s what student unions and faculty advisors are there for!)

Some colleges and universities offer more unique multicultural clubs and organizations, as well as the common groups you can find on most campuses. For example, my school, Santa Clara University, has devoted campus resources to exploring issues of socioeconomic diversity in addition to many multicultural institutions. The University is home to the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education; students in this group experience a variety of immersion programs that offer opportunities to thoughtfully engage, experience, and come to better understand other communities and individuals who have limited access to wealth, power, and privilege. Another on-campus Center of Distinction, the Markula Center for Applied Ethics, provides a core foundation for dialogue and research by students, staff, and faculty on ethical issues confronting not just the local community but larger society. Participants are encouraged to step away from what is familiar and comfortable in order to ponder questions of what is right and just for not only the privileged few but for the poor and marginalized.

As you continue to explore all of your college options, keep in mind that multiculturalism on any campus lives not just in programs and clubs, but also in the fabric of the community. Knowing what is most important to you as a unique individual will provide the most reliable tool for assessing colleges as they relate to your needs for a community that appreciates and supports all of who you are and who you are becoming. Your everyday life on campus should be comfortable and inclusive of your background and goals. Your personal and professional identity will be shaped and molded in part by your undergraduate experience. Ask the right questions, listen intently to the answers, and observe carefully what you hear and see. Treat yourself well during the journey and expect that others will too. Find your right place and settle in for a wonderful ride.

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