The recent unrest and protests at college campuses across the United States has become a hot topic for news pundits, parents, and students alike. Racial tensions, controversy, threats of violence, and rumors at the University of Missouri, Ithaca College, Yale, and others have sparked a national debate over race, diversity, and inclusion. Many students of color, as well as students of other diverse backgrounds have not felt like their administrations have done enough to provide safe learning environments.
There are numerous reasons why students are voicing their concerns regarding the blatant and intentional intolerance they’ve faced on campus. A legacy of racism ingrained in many of our institutions, such as owning slaves to maintain buildings and be grounds keepers, continues to pervade campuses today. Even after desegregation in the 1960s and 70s and through today, student of color are forced to take classes centered on European history which often constitutes as core curriculum, while courses that explore the history of other regions in the world are made electives, if they are offered at all. Thus, white students are not required to learn of the cultures and histories of people of color in the same way students of color are required to learn about White American and European culture and history. Overtime this has proven to be a problem, as colleges began admitting students of color, but did not change their curriculum or traditions to serve the interests and needs of such diverse student backgrounds. These newly integrated colleges became environments where being white is the default and students of color remain outsiders.
Another issue that should be explored in depth is the lack of exposure many students have to diverse people and cultural differences. For many college students, the university campus is the first time they will have significant interaction with people that are not like them. Because public primary and secondary school systems are often segregated as a reflection of how our neighborhoods are divided, students rarely have cause or opportunity to interact with peers that represent the type of diversity they’ll encounter at college. Unfortunately, this means many lack the social and cultural capital that prepares them to approach sensitive issues on race and diversity with the understanding that encourages an environment of respect and inclusivity. Furthermore, while many institutions are actively promoting diversity and recruiting students of color, the schools, and often faculty members themselves, are ill-equipped to address the needs and concerns of minority students.
It should be noted that diversity and inclusion on college campuses doesn’t only benefit minority students. Learning with people from various backgrounds encourages collaboration and innovation, benefiting all students. Research shows that the overall academic and social effects of increased racial diversity on campus include higher levels of academic achievement and the improvement of friendships and relationships.
Whether we realize it or not, a college campus is like opening the door to the entire world without traveling anywhere else. Not only are college campuses filled with students of various ethnicities and sexual and gender identities, there are also always a number of international students and students who identify with various faiths as well. Instead of being a point of contention, this is an opportunity to increase cooperation and understanding. Unfortunately, too many students seem to squander this chance to develop a sense of self, increase their cultural awareness, and realize the unique environment that college campuses present.
Increasingly, students are seeking opportunities to study abroad as a way to immerse themselves in new exciting environments and cultures. Studying and traveling abroad is a great way to do that, but it is also important to take advantage of opportunities to learn from the people of diverse backgrounds right here at home.
There are several ways to learn more from the people around us.
First, we must be intentional. It is often necessary to make a conscious decision and a concerted effort to step out of our comfort zones and seek out people and environments that are not exactly like us. Most colleges and university have international student groups, interfaith groups and various organizations that can help students develop relationships outside of their typical social circles.
Second, we have to be willing to listen. There is a wealth of knowledge that can be learned simply from allowing someone to share their experiences with you. Third, students should look for opportunities to serve. Volunteering and joining student organizations are great ways to get to know people and develop better interpersonal skills.
Finally, be willing to speak up. We often find ourselves in situations in which we see a lack of respect for people of various cultures and backgrounds. Those of us who are committed to learning and growing must be willing to take the lead and address injustices when we see them so that our colleges and universities are a place conducive to learning for all of us.
Author: Byron Francis