If you had asked me two years ago why I chose the college I currently attend, one of the reasons I would have said was that it was “more diverse.” Coming from a top-performing high school where more than three-quarters of students identified as Asian or Asian-American, I was happy to finally get out of my high school bubble and go to a college with more racial and ethnic diversity. Ironically, my college is still considered a predominantly white institution, but anywhere I was not in the majority on campus was good enough for me. But even though racial diversity may be an important factor when choosing a college, racial identity is only a part of the conversation about campus diversity.
I know “diversity” can mean a lot of things, but for the sake of this article, it will refer to an environment with a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, religious and political beliefs, socioeconomic classes, gender identity and sexual orientations, nationalities, and even differences in opinions. On a small scale, diversity can simply be living in a community with individuals who are different from you. While there are currently debates and movements to make my college’s campus more welcoming to minorities and historically marginalized groups (as our campus is still majority white, middle to upper-class), living in the dorms and participating in a special summer course on power and social justice has taught me a few lessons about what it means to live in a “diverse community.” Although I do not think that everyone will ever agree on what that means or looks like, here are five lessons that diversity has taught me.
1. Diversity makes you a more aware and well-rounded person
Thanks to media outlets like Facebook with its trending news section, people our age are able to keep up with what’s going on. However, I’ve noticed that most of the times these daily updates are usually about which celebrities just broke up with their partner, or when the latest gadget will be released on the market. Every once in a while a serious news update will appear about a shooting or a protest about certain issues. In the past, if the issue did not affect me and my community, I would think little of it.
Living in a diverse community brings all such issues to light, because even if an issue does not affect you directly, it will almost certainly affect someone else on your campus. While it is often overwhelming to hear about so many problems that you never had to deal with before, diversity gives you the opportunity of receiving a well-rounded education and heightens your sense of awareness. Personally, it also allowed me to reflect on the privilege I have, since I do not have to bear the burden of many issues because they do not relate to my identity or community I grew up in; however, as a new member of this diverse campus, I know I must take the time to listen and understand what others are going through, even if they no not directly affect me.
2. Diversity keeps you accountable for what you say
Who doesn’t enjoy jokes and comedy? For many, that includes observational humor that may be aimed at a certain ethnic or religious group. In my high school, because it was predominantly Asian, students would make jokes about Asian stereotypes and the fact that our school often embodied that stereotype all the time without worrying that they were offending someone. It was a way of collectively bonding over a shared experience and helped many to get through the difficulties of high school together. While these jokes might have been acceptable in our small high school group where everyone voiced that they felt comfortable with that humor, the same jokes would most certainly not be appropriate in another community where individuals feel oppressed because of their racial background.
In fact, calling people out for saying insensitive things is quite common and accepted on my campus. Another thing I have witnessed is that people may even confront others on their word choice and language. For example, when greeting friends, a lot of people say something along the lines of, “What’s up, guys?” or “Hey, guys!” However, at my school, people who do not identify as a “guy” or are transgender often feel excluded when people use such gendered language. Although the intent is never to exclude anyone based on gender, people may perceive your word choice differently than your intention. I may not be bothered when people address me in a group as a “guy” colloquially, but because other people in my community are, I will respect that and use more inclusive language such as, “Hello, everyone” or just a simple “Hey!”
Thus, I have learned that living in a diverse community keeps you accountable for what you say. While certain jokes and language may be acceptable in your small homogenous community that you grew up in, it might not be okay in another one; just like in America we use certain words and hand motions that are accepted and understood here, other countries might react differently if we were to use the same language abroad. While I do not believe people should be afraid to speak or live in fear that they may be punished if they accidentally say something offensive or controversial, I do believe that living in a diverse community prompts you to be more aware of your speech and how it might be perceived by others. If you are unsure if what you are saying may be offensive, simply ask the people in your circle if using such language is acceptable, and create a dialogue from there.
3. Diversity should make you feel a bit uncomfortable, but that’s okay
College is already uncomfortable, from having to do difficult assignments to getting to know your classmates and professors. But now you will be living constantly with people who are vastly different than you, and that can be nerve-racking. You may be living with a roommate completely opposite from you, or assigned to do a group project with people who do not share the same interests as you, etc. The one thing I have learned from this is to simply deal with it. Get over it and don’t complain, because being uncomfortable is actually one of the best things about college.
If we were all to go through college playing it safe by only having friends who were just like us, taking easy classes to ensure we would get good grades, and participating in activities where we were sure to succeed, we would never grow professionally and as individuals. College would be pretty pointless. If you are never uncomfortable throughout your four years, you are doing college wrong and not allowing yourself to reach your full potential. That being said, no one should be so uncomfortable to the point of where they cannot function emotionally and academically; in the case of extreme hardship for whatever reason, one should contact on-campus support, such as the wellness center. Most of my uncomfortable college experiences have been due to conflicting beliefs, which brings me to my next point . . .
4. Diversity allows you to be critical of the ideas you grew up with
In class you will be learning a lot of different theories about politics, history, and how the world functions. Outside of class, you will hear students open up about their personal lives and listen to their opinions and world-views. There may be times—perhaps many times—when these theories and world-views conflict with your opinions and the ideas you grew up with. But living in a diverse community has taught me how to think critically about my own beliefs.
For example, during a social justice course I took, we did an activity where everyone would stand in a circle, and people would step into the circle if they identified with the statement being read. For instance, “Step into the circle if you’ve ever been cat-called.” I was surprised by the number of people who stepped into the circle; growing up in a sheltered Christian household, I never heard about such things or witnessed it in public. After the activity, we had a reflection session, and many students came forward and opened up about times they were harassed or assaulted. Listening to their stories, I felt conflicted at times, because the community I grew up in often shakes off abuse and questions its validity, but hearing the emotional response from other students allowed me to be critical about what I learned back home. I realized that there was a possibility that the community I grew up in could handle such issues in a way that did not end up in blaming the victim but rather with love and support. I would have never reflected on such issues and grown spiritually if I did not put myself in a more diverse community.
5. Diversity forces and prompts you to sometimes stand up for your own identity and beliefs
Being a college student is one of the best experiences of my life so far, with so much to explore and discover about myself. College is also the time where most people feel more comfortable voicing their opinion. However, I’ve observed that people can become overwhelmed in our new diverse community, so much so that we try to make our voice the loudest and our identity the strongest, even if that means taking down other people’s identity and beliefs. Living in a diverse community has taught me that sometimes I need to stand up for what I believe in, even if the majority on campus will not stand with me. This lesson sounds cliché, but I think college is the perfect time for people to find their voice and be content in their identity. As students we have to write theses after theses about what we think about certain topics and show data to back up our statement, but so often we hide behind our papers and fail to actively voice what we believe to be right and just agree with the majority. I do not think everyone needs to be an activist or super involved in every issue (I’m certainly not), but we should take the opportunity that a diverse campus gives us to feel safe that we can present our true selves.
Diversity is such a hot topic now on college campuses that I believe I will learn many more lessons than just the five I have written about here in my next three years of college. While living among people who are vastly different is eye-opening and even sometimes frustrating, I am thankful to be in a learning environment that has allowed me to grow and experience so much.