Creating an Inclusive Identity

Colleges and universities talk about inclusion, identity, and diversity on campus, but what do these things really mean--and what role do you, as a new student, play in them? We turned our campus spotlight on some of the multicultural programs at one school in particular to find out.

Colleges and universities talk about inclusion, identity, and diversity on campus, but what do these things really mean—and what role do you, as a new student, play in them? We turned our campus spotlight on some of the multicultural programs at one school in particular to find out.

In the last few years, as an admission officer, I’ve had lively conversations with current and prospective students about campus culture. As an institution steeped in tradition and invigorated with new, enthusiastic students every year, we wonder: does the institution change the culture of its students, or do students change the culture of their institution?

The idea that a college or university has the power to unquestionably change the culture of its students seems to underestimate the strength of individual identity. When we apply to college, we look for places that mirror our values, but we logically assume that no institution can change the core of who we are. We want places that are diverse too—institutions of higher learning that will nurture and respect a variety of perspectives. We want to retain our dispositions—our morality, our code of ethics, our personal preferences—while still having the opportunity to learn from others about theirs.

On the other hand, a campus community that is malleable enough to shift with each class of incoming students lacks an identity altogether. How would we choose from a list of colleges if they changed each year based on the students that live in their residence halls and attend their classes? A sense of campus identity is certainly a necessity. We want to enter a college with longstanding traditions, a coherent academic philosophy, and a social culture that will offer us the opportunity to blossom.

We look for a foundation of values that jibes with our own and a strong framework that allows us to create something meaningful and worthwhile during our college years. We want an opportunity to learn and to teach. Students go away to college to “discover themselves” and, to some degree, develop themselves. The real thrust of personal progress comes from a willingness to engage new ideas with an open mind and to respond in kind to the challenge of those ideas.

Identity

Before you can begin to think about the kind of person you want to be, you have to think about who you are. By now, you’ve likely determined that you want to go to college but haven’t decided where. You’ve got a set of hobbies and interests. Maybe you like guilty-pleasure pop music, complicated television dramas, musical theater, climbing trees, and soft cheeses. Movies are great. Books are better. You and your friends have your own way of talking to one another—nobody else understands your jokes.

Diversity statistics in higher education don’t really describe you, and it’s hard to connect those numbers with the peers you’ll meet when you check in for freshman orientation. Stats will never represent your favorite Beyoncé song or your opinion of the tastiest baked goods. Instead, you’re boxed into statistical categories: Caucasian. African American. Pacific Islander. Californian. New Yorker. International. Valedictorian. Top 20%. Private schooled. Public schooled.

These categories don’t answer the important questions: Where can you go to find “your people”? What percentage of students at these colleges wants to jam with you and your guitar? How many people are excited to talk with you about politics and social policy? Above all, you want to know where you can go to find people who will both accept and challenge you. Through difficult conversations and close personal connections, the best institutions will help you and your peers to develop a sense of belonging.

Inclusion

College campuses around the country are seeing an explosion in programs for people interested in identity exploration. At Reed College in Portland, Oregon, we’ve seen vast improvements in established programs for multicultural affairs and innovation toward new and exciting opportunities that allow students to have a say in the future of the institution. While administrative programs provide a framework for student engagement with tough issues like class, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation, the real engine of progress comes from active student participation and an attitude of inclusion.

The transition to college is challenging for every student. Some are living across the country for the first time. Most are experiencing a curriculum that surpasses the rigor of their high schools. Almost all are finally doing their own laundry. Everyone brings his or her own perspective to these new experiences, but inclusive-minded students stand to benefit most from institutional diversity. It’s not enough to be surrounded by ideas—students must be willing to both ask questions and listen to the answers, even when they are new and confounding. The true benefit of diversity comes from unlocking the differences between us—it requires hard work, an open mind, a willingness to be wrong, freedom from unfair judgment, and a desire to include people whose perspectives challenge our own.

Engagement

While established programs can be a great way for students to begin exploring concepts of identity and diversity, it’s even more important for students to be involved in creating new opportunities for themselves and for their peers. An inclusive disposition can be rather meaningful in opening new opportunities, but much of the work toward creating an enhanced community comes through activity and engagement.

The classroom can often be a difficult place to broach topics in multiculturalism. While culture and identity might be frequent topics of conversation in an anthropology course, it’s much harder to find issues like these in other departments. At Reed, students with a wide breadth of academic interests created the Do-it-Yourself ALANA Studies group—a collaborative effort with faculty to enhance the diversity of Reed’s curriculum through talks and workshops that explore African, Latino, Asian, and Native American identities. One of last year’s events was a faculty lecture on singer Sam Cooke, and the ways his work relates to the core issues in (African) American Studies, including historical memory, cultural identity, and the salience of performance. Instead of treating the academic curriculum as an impediment to discussing identity issues, our students have found a way to enhance the cultural context of their learning experience. Events coordinated by this study group are open to all interested parties on campus, and will only continue to be groundbreaking and challenging through the engagement of broad groups of students, faculty, and staff.

Building a community identity

What about developing the open-mindedness of a community as a whole? In the last few years, Reed has seen remarkable evolution in its Multicultural Resource Center (MRC). What was once a static space for open conversation and dialogue has become a more dynamic campus presence—a cornerstone for lectures, weekly talks, and other new and exciting diversity-related programming.

The explosion of programs and positions within multicultural affairs at Reed College has been the direct result of student engagement. Each year, we see the improvement of long-standing programs like the MRC and new initiatives like the DIY-ALANA studies group. This fall, Reed will begin to see the benefits of having a Dean for Institutional Diversity, a position created just last year. Each of these developments has been the direct result of student engagement. Our students have pushed for more involvement from the MRC, by organizing meetings and conversations about creating new administrative support for institutional diversity.

When you arrive on your new campus in the fall, you’ll begin to feel the effects of an institutional culture and the way that it shapes your personal identity. Understand that this flexibility doesn’t move just one way. Your attitude toward shaping the culture of your new institution will go far in determining the programs available to future generations of college students. Work to create an attitude of inclusiveness and understanding, and be sure to remain engaged with the community as a whole. A truly successful institution prides itself on tradition, but progresses forward with the hard work and insistence of its students.

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