Campus Diversity: Moving from Appreciation to Active Engagement

Posted: August 10, 2006

This opinion piece ran in the Springfield Republican on Monday, August 07, 2006.

By Liz Braun

When I ask students why they decided to come to Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley they frequently cite the college's diverse community as a powerful draw. It is true that our students are diverse across many dimensions: geography, race, socioeconomics, religion, politics, sexuality, and more.

But what does it really mean to be a diverse community? How do you create an institutional climate where each student can be successful and find her own niche? Colleges and universities around the country are grappling with these questions on a daily basis.

While many students today are clearly interested in, drawn to, and excited by diversity in all of its forms, they often arrive on campus ill equipped to navigate the diversity that surrounds them. Or, more simply, they don't understand that being an active member of a diverse community is a lot of work, and it might even be uncomfortable at times.

I believe one of the most important roles that college educators can play is to assist students in engaging fully with diversity rather than appreciating it from a distance.

There are, of course, numerous challenges to meeting this goal. One of our tallest hurdles is getting students to communicate with one another in a way that promotes growth, understanding, and an openness to different perspectives.

This is no easy feat for a generation that often prefers online communication to face-to-face conversation. Students are willing to say outrageous or hurtful things over email or online that they would never consider saying to someone in person.

More and more often I find myself mediating serious interpersonal conflicts revolving around electronic exchanges. Students' increasing reliance on online communication has become a real stumbling block in fostering genuine conversation between students and the creation of mutual understanding, and it is our job to promote effective communication whether it's in a dorm room or chat room.

Another challenge is that while students may voice an appreciation of diversity, many tend to view "diversity" as something separate from themselves or "other," particularly if they identify strongly with the majority population.

For example, I often hear white students talk about race as something that only applies to students of color. In order to be constructive participants in a diverse community students should understand that they each have a racial identity and how that identity affects one's place in society.

Our orientation theme this year, "Uncommon Women on Common Ground," reflects one of our key tenets: Each student brings an element of diversity to our campus, and each will also share in the common experience of being a Mount Holyoke student.

Finally, a persistent issue on college campuses is the presence of stereotypes that students may have about different groups of people. These stereotypes often surface during the roommate assignment process when students will state their "inability" to live with someone else based solely on one piece of their identity.

Long before ever meeting her prospective roommate, a student may say she doesn't think she can live with someone from a different country, or of a different religion, or with a sexual orientation different from her own.

When an incoming student raises this type of concern we try to turn it into a "teachable moment:" it is our chance to help the student begin to understand that living in a diverse community sometimes means putting one's self in unfamiliar and even uncomfortable situations, with the confidence that with an open mind one can learn and grow from these kinds of experiences.

At Mount Holyoke we try to meet these challenges by setting an expectation for students early on that a critical part of their education will be to learn how to engage in thoughtful dialogue and debate with other students.

This expectation is reinforced across campus: in the classroom, in our Speaking, Arguing, and Writing Center, during small group activities at new student orientation, and in the residence halls.

We have also created programs on campus that specifically focus on bringing students together for conversation, such as our Intergroup Dialogue Project, where groups of students come together to have conversations across lines of difference, or The Day of Listening, where faculty, staff, and students gather in the residence halls to discuss the value of listening well and to promote connections among community members.

Of course, these dynamics aren't special to college campuses; they reflect tensions that permeate our pluralistic society as a whole. But, as a residential college, we have a unique opportunity to use the challenges of a diversity community to prepare our students to be constructive citizens in the larger world.

In a truly diverse community there will be discomfort, conflict, and debate, but the benefits are well worth it: personal growth, honest dialogue, and increased understanding.

In order for "diversity" to be more than just a campus buzzword it must be something that all members of our community are fully committed to and engaged in.

It is a pleasure to be part of such a community where we are continually engaged in a process of reciprocal learning among students, faculty, and staff.

Liz Braun is dean of students at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley.

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