In Search of the True Meaning of Diversity on Campuses

MHC senior Maya Dean was one of two students of color asked by the Chronicle of Higher Education to write about her perspective on diversity after spending a semester at Spelman College, an historically black liberal arts college for women located in Atlanta, Georgia. The piece ran on September 28, 2007.

By Maya Dean

When it comes to institutions of higher education, sometimes diversity seems like just a few numbers on a sheet of paper. During my last two years in high school, I couldn't help but wonder if some universities were recruiting Latinos from Spain and Africans of purely Portuguese descent just so prospective students would think the institutions were diverse, when they really weren't. I had the privilege of searching for the true meaning of diversity in both historically black and majority-white college settings, learning from those experiences that the academic focus of the historically black college was centered on issues that affect peoples of African descent only, while the majority-white college focused more broadly on issues affecting the global community as a whole.

When I began the application process for colleges, I had a dilemma that helped me narrow down what type of educational environment I truly envisioned myself blossoming in. Being both black and Native American, I had a hard time deciding which race box to select on applications.

My experiences at the very diverse high school I attended in Southern California helped me better understand not only the concept of race, but also what it was I wanted in a college. Rigorous academic programs; diverse faculty and student bodies; a warm, friendly social environment; and a sense of purpose and belonging were the key elements I desired. Eager to find the setting that was just right for me, I went on the Northern College Tour sponsored by my math-and-science academy with 30 other juniors, visiting many of the most prestigious universities in California. Sadly, none of those top-tier institutions seemed as diverse in person as they appeared to be on paper.

New England was where I found the college that I would gladly call home for the next few years. With students from about 70 countries around the world, Mount Holyoke College offered racial and ethnic diversity hand in hand with a variety of different religions, languages, political views, opinions on sexuality, views about the appropriate place of women in society -- the list could go on and on. The atmosphere was precisely what I had been seeking as I relentlessly tore through the stacks and stacks of college mail I received as a junior in high school.

Though such an environment seems like a natural place for cultural, religious, political, and linguistic barriers to form, instead it opened up a large arena for dialogue to take place between people of varying backgrounds. Each student enters the institution with a sense of identity based on characteristics about herself that she feels are important. The foundation of her identity is severely challenged during her first year of college by discussions about the philosophical critique of race as a social construct, about religious prejudices against Muslims, or about discrimination against homosexuals, for example. Those everyday challenges were exactly what I was hoping to encounter in college. They have shaped me into a woman comfortable with her biracial identity, her faith, and her outstanding academic capabilities.

As a first-year student, I was pleasantly surprised by how much the concept of diversity, mentioned so frequently in Mount Holyoke's brochures, really did exist in the student body. In my residence hall alone, I had the privilege of forming friendships with my roommate of Korean descent, my student adviser from Ghana, and my neighbor from India that were more like the bonds sisters share. Our marked religious differences did not keep us apart; in fact, they may have even helped strengthen the ties between us. All four of us being bilingual, we became accustomed to hearing five languages spoken each time we called families and friends overseas. We had countless discussions about our experiences as women in each of our social groups, both at home and abroad; about whether God existed; about the importance and purpose of education in the lives of women; etc.

My eye-opening encounters with diversity at my prestigious New England women's college did not prepare me for what I would experience at Spelman College, a prestigious historically black women's college in the deep South. I participated in an exchange program to see what diversity would mean at an institution created with the purpose of educating African-American women. Aware that HBCUs are not characterized by racial diversity, I was eager to find out what kind of diversity did exist in the student body at Spelman, where I would spend the spring semester of my junior year.

During my time at Spelman, I participated in no discussions about racial or ethnic diversity, different political views, different religious views, or different views on sexual orientation. The college's focus seemed to be heavily centered on problems facing African-Americans and other peoples of African descent, while at Mount Holyoke I was involved in discussions of many issues in the global setting.

Although many students at Spelman were very politically active on behalf of the people of Sudan and South Africa, for example, I did not come into contact with any students who had come from those or other foreign countries to attend the college. Meeting no international students greatly affected my experience as a student there. I did not have the privilege of hearing debates about controversial topics from points of view that starkly contrasted with my own.

Many of the social events and academic discussions I attended emphasized the importance of black women's succeeding academically and using their influence to make a difference in the lives of blacks all over the world. My home institution encouraged students to make a difference in the lives of all types of people, not just people of a single racial heritage.

Despite the differences in diversity at the two women's colleges, the emphases on assuming a position of leadership and on working for social justice were common threads linking the academic focus of the institutions. At both Spelman and Mount Holyoke, I acquired invaluable knowledge about the power women have to better the living conditions of people around the world, and -- more specifically -- about the responsibility I have to help the upcoming generation of African-American youth be successful in higher education.

Both colleges have helped shape me into the woman I want to be: bold in my desire to help those who are less fortunate than I am, comfortable with my faith, and confident in my ability as an African-American and Native American woman to achieve the great things I set my heart and my mind to.

Maya Dean is a member of the Class of 2008 at Mount Holyoke College, with a major in psychology and a minor in philosophy. After Mount Holyoke, she hopes to earn a master's degree in clinical psychology and volunteer as a counselor in the refugee camps in Darfur.


Related Links:

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Diversity and Inclusiveness at MHC

Spelman College