Diversity is Experiential Education
By Chloe’ Skye Weiser QC’14,
To begin with a personal note, I did not have a diverse upbringing. Until I came to Queens College, a university setting that strikingly hosts students from 120 countries speaking 66+ languages and has its own, very active Center for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding (CERRU, http://cerru.org), I didn’t even know that diversity was something I craved. After taking a Linguistic Anthropology course my first semester, I felt the focus of my academic ambitions shift to the reciprocal relationship between language and culture. During my sophomore year, I began working in the Writing Center, where many international, ESL students are tutored in English grammar and/or any aspect of the writing process. I wrote a blog about this experience for this website and another one on the love of words. Four years, two study abroads, and after having met literally hundreds of students, I am a completely different person and knowledge-seeker. I do not believe this growth would have happened if I had attended college elsewhere.
Higher education is supposed to expose us to a wider range of intellectual and social experiences. For white people, the experience of diversity in such an intensive, direct way as I encountered at Queens College may be in stark contrast from their pre-college experience; for me, it crucially forced me to become aware of my own race. From immigrant Bangladeshi students to black or Hispanic students from Jamaica, Queens, for people of color, an understanding of the racial discrimination and educational inequality they may face is ubiquitous and essential (Daniel Tatum, 2003; Lee and Rice, 2007; Rich, 2012). White students, in contrast, must often take an active approach if they want to understand how race and privilege function, and how they can cooperate with others in diverse social settings—put rhetorically, “the real world.”
Ideally, higher education provides a window of understanding into this “real world,” and most saliently our future work-sphere. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in 2011 in the U.S., 21 million students were enrolled in a higher education institution. Higher education imparts personal fulfillment and accomplishment but also makes students economically competitive. Their wider access to specialized, higher-paying jobs yields 75 percent more earnings than for students with a high school diploma over a 40-year career span, even if a student initially has debt (Northwestern MutualVoice Team).
Racial background is extremely relevant to the experience of higher education. Fortunately, college enrollment of all minority groups have increased between 1976 and 2011 (NCES). In 2011, white students made up 61% of those enrolled in a bachelor’s program (down from 84% in 1976), black students 15%, Hispanic students 14%, Asian/Pacific Islander students 6%, and Native Indian students 0.9%. Despite this good news, race, class and ethnicity still play a fundamental role in determining who can access a college education, as well as pose a challenge to educators and administrators regarding how to cater to students from all backgrounds and promote healthy, cooperative relationships among students. Students from minority and historically underrepresented racial groups perceive campus environments differently from white students, which affects feelings of belonging, academic success, and university retention (Hall et al., 2011; Stephens, Hamedani, & Destin, 2014).
There is no question that human diversity pervades the link between international relations and the economic workings of society. Lee and Rice (2007) eloquently state that on college campuses, international students add to the “intellectual capital” of the U.S. by bringing knowledge and skills, especially in technical fields. Senior Kauffman Foundation Fellow Ben Wildavsky, new author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, sees the university position as a “brain race […] defined by the unprecedented movement of students […] and the growing movement of faculty around the world” in an effort to be competitive (Northwestern MutualVoice Team). Indeed, our country’s future is very international: Between 2000 and 2050, new immigrants and their children will contribute 83 percent of working-age population; census data shows that by 2050, the U.S. will have no racial or ethnic majority (United States Census Bureau).
Alongside the myriad economic benefits of diversity engagement, experiential diversity at the college level is a tool to combat societal tensions about race. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s social psychology book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (2003) is centrally motivated by the many questions she, as a diversity instructor, fielded from educators who were stumped by how to promote racial integration in schools, and gives a culturally sensitive, comprehensive background about racial identity formation among minority groups intended to help white people understand privilege and actively combat racism in their lives.Hall et al. (2011) found that, in examining the extent to which minority students and non-minority students differ in their predispositions to engage in campus-based diversity activities with ethnically diverse peers at a predominantly white college, “engagement with diverse peers is a learned behavior […] shaped long before a student stepped into college” (p. 420). The quality of pre-college interactions across racial lines was a major predictor of on-campus interactions. The experience of race is clearly relevant at all levels of development, but especially when students are at the crux of transition into adulthood, in college.
For these reasons, “navigating sociocultural diversity” is not only an important skill to tackle at the level of higher education, but also “a critical 21st century competency” (Stephens et al., 2014). A 2011 Forbes study revealed that 85 percent of 321 large global enterprises, each having more than $500 million annual revenue, agreed or strongly agreed that diversity furthers innovation in the workplace (Kerby and Burns). In an “increasingly complex, pluralistic society” (American Council on Education), there is a need to capitalize on diversity for common benefit, but also because of deep-seated and detrimental segregation of many social spaces, institutional and perceived (Daniel Tatum, 2003; Lee and Rice, 2007; Nelson Laird, 2005; Rienties et al., 2011; Stephens et al, 2014). Experiential education can help by normalizing diversity engagement in mature environments and promoting cultural understanding of diverse backgrounds and belief systems.
Experiential education can take place anywhere. It is often hands-on, student-focused, global, environmental, and informal and can include active, service and cooperative learning; when effective, it is supported by learner initiative, reflection, critical analysis and synthesis (Association for Experiential Education). Kuh (2008) describes how active, experiential learning in post-secondary education manifests in “high-impact practices” such as internships, study abroad, volunteering, lab work, freshman year initiatives and capstone courses. All of this was the subject of a recent Sweden conference on research into experiential education sponsored by the World Association of Cooperative Education.
Diversity experiences can both overlap with but be unique from the forms listed above; can take place on or off-campus, in class or outside of it. They include conscious engagement with different races, ethnicities, social classes and religions, as well as students who are “continuing generation,” meaning that they are not the first in their family to attend college (Stephens et al., 2014). A diverse student population widens the cultural network of a campus, but if the campus is not diverse, diversity experiences can also take place through, for example, coursework and study abroad.
Interaction among diverse student populations fosters the expression of, and contact with, a wide body of human experiences and ideas, opening the mind and promoting intercultural tolerance (American Council on Education). Umbach and Kuh (2006), similar to Zhao, Kuh, and Carini (2005), found that diversity enhances the educational experiences of all students at liberal arts colleges. Among other gains, “diversity experiences show greater relative gains in critical and active thinking,” and college satisfaction overall (p. 169-170). Higher education is a major, recognized toolin connecting, on an experiential level, each respective generation with knowledge of cultural and economic exchanges that will make them aware, involved, and successful world citizens.
Given the benefits, higher education institutions have a responsibility to promote diversity to result in the most worthwhile gains.Universities are structured differently from each other, from public and private; large, medium and small; liberal and non-liberal arts. There are also major regional differences with regard to how diverse a student body is. Each university can use different strategies to maximize gains in students’ experiential learning.
George D. Kuh has been a major influence on the way these gains are measured and assessed. An education pioneer focused on student engagement, Kuh founded the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), an annual survey of first-year and senior students from hundreds of four-year higher education institution that was first administered in 2000. Its instrument, The College Student Report, measures the degree to which students participate in educational practices that prior research shows are linked to valued outcomes of college (Umbach and Kuh, 2006, p. 172). Kuh and fellow researchers believe that national data is more fruitful for improvement than university-by-university data (Pike and Kuh, 2005).
As a pertinent example, Umbach and Kuh (2006) use a 17,640 liberal art student subset from a larger NSSE sample of 98,744 undergrads in order to explore liberal art students’ experiential engagement with diversity in comparison with other university types.
While Umbach and Kuh expected that students attending private and/or large universities have more diversity experiences, small liberal art school students report high level of diversity experiences. They found that the schools defined as liberal arts colleges, which tend to also perform well in measurements of student engagement, “create distinctive learning environments for students in terms of diversity experiences” (p. 183), and the students that attend them are significantly more likely than counterparts at other types of institutions to engage in diverse experiences and report greater gains at understanding people from diverse backgrounds. The results corroborate the positive correlation between “institutional climate for diversity”—the encouragement to interact with people from different backgrounds, diversity experiences, and college satisfaction. Positive effects were multiplied the more different types of diversity experiences that liberal arts schools required. Overall, the study found that “an institution does not have to be highly structurally diverse [ethnically] to foster meaningful diversity experiences” (p. 184), and liberal arts colleges take advantage even of situations with limited on-campus diversity. While some institutions use little diversity as an excuse for their inability to enhance diversity-related experience for their students, these institutions can look to small liberal arts colleges to remedy this.
We find a specific example in Nelson Laird’s (2005) assessment of The University of Michigan, which he characterizes as a large, but not very structurally diverse public university. The study investigates two outcomes of exposure to diversity: academic self-confidence and critical thinking disposition, considered together, and self-agency, or the degree to which a student values working in his or her community or correcting social injustices. Data came from two sources, the Classroom-Based Survey of Thinking and Interacting (CBSTI) and the California Critical Thinking Disposition Inventory (CCTDI). The study had 289 participants in an introductory course, 87% of which were first- or second-year students, 53% of which were women, and 26% of which were people of color. 80% grew up in mostly white neighborhoods and 67% claimed that their friends were all or nearly all white; some questions asked students about the frequency with which they had meaningful and honest discussions, shared feelings and problems, and had tense and/or guarded interactions with racial groups outside their own.
Self-measures indicated high belief in academic integrity and critical thinking for 60%+ of students, and the importance of self-agency for 43%, but there were differences between those who had and had not taken diversity courses. The study found that critical thinking disposition was negatively influenced by fraternity/sorority activities, which the author posits is because they encourage homogeneity, and negative quality of interaction with other racial groups. In addition, positive quality of informal interaction with diverse peers and being female were the most significant predictors of open-mindedness. Interestingly, females were also significantly more likely than males to place higher importance on social agency; Nelson Laird et al. (2005) points out that gender differences on a range of attitudes tend to be accentuated, not diminished, during college years. Student backgrounds provide many considerations, and universities may want to seek the best methods to engage both genders of all races and ethnicities in teaching and encouraging cultural pluralism.
Higher education can also play a role in making the transitional university experience more accessible for “first-generation” college students, as compared to those with at least one college-educated parents. Pike and Kuh (2005) compare the impacts of being a first- or second-generation student. Significantly, they found that first-generation students were overall less engaged and less successfully integrated into diverse college experiences, perceived the college environment as less supportive, and reported less intellectual development. More engaged groups included female minority students, those pursuing an advanced degree, and those living on-campus. Overall, living on-campus allows better access to diverse experiences, and engagement with diverse experiences in general improves after the first year. The researchers speculate that less engaged students might not know the value of engagement or how to become engaged. To rectify this, college recruitment officers can gear special presentations towards first-generation students and require them to live on campus for the first year—a major step towards experiential engagement—along with requisite financial incentives. These implications are particularly relevant to an institution like Queens College, which hosts many international and first-generation college students.
Some Examples of Specific Methods and Practices
The approach of Stephens et al. (2014) resonates with the aforementioned in that and it seems highly experiential; even though it is brief. It encourages emphasis on difference when helping acclimate first-generation students to the “middle-class culture of higher education” (p. 2), leading to a positive awareness of diversity among diverse students. As a response to the trend in lower grades and success rate among first-generation students, the researchers used senior college students’ real-life stories to conduct a difference-education intervention (in the form of a student panel) in which the first-generation freshman learned about why social-class backgrounds are a source of challenge and strength, and the authors compared it to a standard intervention that provided similar stories of college adjustment without highlighting students’ different backgrounds (p. 1). According to the study,
[T]he difference-education intervention eliminated the social-class achievement gap by increasing first-generation students’ tendency to seek out college resources (e.g., meeting with professors) and, in turn, improving their [GPAs]. The difference-education intervention also improved the college transition for all students on numerous psychosocial outcomes (e.g., mental health and engagement). [p. 1]
The researchers suggest that difference-education can be empowering because it “may render [student] differences a normal, rather than stigmatizing, part of the college experience” (p. 9), which will improve student integration in the community.
Another set of studies began with diversity courses, which are common in higher education because they are considered a place where student attitudes and values will be challenged (Nelson Laird et al., 2005, p. 454). In 1992, nearly 50% of campuses had ethnic and women’s studies programs (Levine and Cureton, 1992, through Nelson Laird et al., 2005) and in 2000, 64% had or were developing a diversity requirement (Humphreys, 2000, through Nelson Laird et al., 2005). Nelson Laird et al. (2005) uses the lenses of cross-course comparison and accentuation to analyze diversity courses at a flagship Northwestern university. While the term diversity is applied most frequently to course content, it is also relevant in the arenas of purpose and methods of instruction (p. 451).
The Laird study compared two courses highly inclusive of diversity—a social diversity course and a women’s studies course—to one barely inclusive, an introductory management course. The classes had a combined total of 398 students, of which 80% were female and 75% were white. Whereas the diversity courses focused on racism and sexism in the U.S. and included active learning techniques that encouraged diverse peer interaction, there was only one day devoted to race and gender in the large, lecture-style management course. Of note,
81% of the management students somewhat or strongly disagreed whereas 71% of the women’s studies students and 98% of the students in the social diversity course somewhat or strongly agreed that group activities in class contributed to their learning. In addition, 72% of management students indicated somewhat or strongly agreeing that they had few opportunities to interact with classmates. Only 28% of the women’s studies students and 8% of the social diversity students agreed with the same statement. (p. 456)
Of course, these findings have far-reaching implications—not only did diversity courses allow for direct personal interaction across races, this interaction was directly linked to the quality of learning. Overall, the research found that diversity courses heighten the positive interaction students report with diverse peers and that they positively influenced students’ social action engagement commitment, which is likely accentuated over time with future courses.
Zhao and Kuh (2004) investigate the impact of learning communities on student engagement. Learning communities can be 1) students co-enrolled in two or more themed classes, 2) students part of classrooms that treat the classroom as the locus of community-building with relevant activities, 3) on-campus residential learning communities with the students in (1) to encourage interaction, communities geared to targeted groups such as honors students or even academically underprepared students. Students at private and public institutions are equally likely to participate while more first-year than senior, more full-time than part-time, and more students of color than white students are likely to participate in learning communities. Based on NSSE data, the study found that, for 80,479 first-year students in 365 different 4-year colleges, participating in a learning community is positively linked to student engagement (ex. academic effort), self-reported social outcomes, and overall college satisfaction.
Lastly comes one of the most well known forms of experiential diversity is study abroad—in 2009, 3.7 million students, up from 0.8 million in 1975, did so (Sood, 2012). Study abroad can be short-term, like a month to a few months, semester-long or year-long, and may variously include completion of classes, an internship, service opportunities or academic research. American students have much to gain from cultural and linguistic immersion; in 2011/12, a total of 283,000 studied abroad with the largest proportions in the U.K., Italy and Spain (Institute of International Education). Disciplines with the highest proportions of study abroaders are Humanities, with 27.9% of those enrolled 2007-08; Social Sciences with 21.5%; and Business and Management with 20.2% (NAFSA). The Institute of International Education (IIE), whose program Generation Study Abroad is attempting to widen access, claims that “international experience is one of the most important components of a 21st century education,” but also that less than 10% of American students ultimately do so.
The Institute for the International Education of Students (IES) notes a host of benefits for study abroaders (McMillan and Opem, 2002). Among the highlights is “participants’ increased understanding of their own cultural values and biases. Eighty-two percent of alumni said that they had developed a more sophisticated way of looking at the world as a result of studying abroad.” Study abroaders are more likely to seek out a diversity of friends, which, when considered with other experiential methods like diversity courses and learning communities, could be a compounded effect of positive interaction with diverse peers on campus. In the arena of career preparation, having a study abroad under one’s belt sends a message to employers about personal ambition and determination. Study abroaders also gain, through international experience, skillset “that distinguish[es] them as future world leaders who have the understanding and skills to navigate effectively, humanely and positively across different cultures.”
However, it’s important to note that study abroad can be holistically improved as a channel for diversity. A NAFSA infographic in an article titled “Trends in U.S. Study Abroad” compares the percentages of U.S. Postsecondary Enrollment 2011-2012 among different racial groups to the percentages of students that studied abroad in the same years. To start with, Caucasian students made up 59% of total students enrolled and 76.4% of those who studied abroad. In comparison, Black students made up 14.6% of students enrolled but 5.3% of study abroaders. Hispanic students made up 13.8% of students enrolled but 7.6% of study abroaders. Asian and Pacific Islanders made up 6.1% of students enrolled and 7.7% of study abroaders. That Caucasian individuals disproportionately make up three-quarters of study abroaders illustrates the operation of race and social class in U.S. higher education. So, study abroad is not just an experiential activity that can promote diversity, but should be a spotlighted activity in which diverse participation must be improved.
The Promotion of Cultural Understanding
In a study that compares international and American student educational engagement, Zhao, Kuh, and Carini (2005) acknowledge that on-campus cross-cultural/cross-national relationships help American students cultivate the skills and competency to work and live with diversity. However, the research reveals the importance of efforts towards international students’ campus adjustment, including fostering positive interaction between them and American students. Based on NSSE data from 317 universities, the findings indicate that international students (of which there were 691,000 studying in the U.S. in 2009 [Sood, 2012]) are more engaged first-year students, surpass their American counterparts in academic challenge and student-faculty interaction, and report higher gains in emotional/social development and general education. By senior year, international students are more adjusted and similar to their American peers, reporting even more development and educational gains. One significant and puzzling finding, though, was that as diversity/international student population increases, both international and American students perceive campus environment as less supportive. Rienties et al. (2011) posits this is due to international students’ perception of cultural misunderstanding and discrimination, and Zhao et al. (2005) suggests more research be done on American students’ perspectives.
In attempting to create more inclusive and open-minded climate in higher education, we must consider that while experiential diversity is extremely productive and culturally relevant, the internationalization of a student body does not discount occurrences of discrimination and cultural misunderstanding (Lee and Rice, 2007; Rienties et al., 2011). It is neither fair nor logical for American students to benefit from exposure to diversity in order to be economically competitive, and, in theory, more well adjusted human beings, without addressing the pervasive racism and cultural misperceptions that do exist among us all. In fact, studies such as Lee and Rice (2007), which investigated international students’ perceptions of discrimination while studying in the U.S., call for investigation into faculty and student attitudes towards international students and the difficulties they face.
Becoming more culturally- and economically-well-rounded individuals should be a reciprocal process.Recall how Hall et al. (2011) found that students with prior exposure to diverse peers most successfully continued to engage with them in a college environment. If campus life is a students’ first exposure to diversity, the expansion of opportunities like those listed above can help create a safe and encouraging arena for contact with diverse peers. Ideally, learning to recognize our biases, connecting diversity experiences with social structure, and attempting to change our attitudes is a continuous side effect of experiential diversity.
In concluding, I’d like to end on a personal note and return to the impact that diversity experiences have had on me as a student. In four years, I have studied abroad in Greece and Israel and had a massive informal diversity experience through my tutoring job in the Writing Center. Literally hundreds of students later, I now see the experiences I can gain through travel and experiencing diversity as a means to an end in professional and personal fulfillment. My plans include a 2014-15 Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in the Czech Republic in order to learn about how a post-Communist society functions, then hopefully continuing on to complete nonprofit work and graduate school abroad.
American Council on Education. “On the Importance of Diversity in Higher
Education.” Fairleigh Dickinson University. Retrieved from http://www.fdu.edu/visitorcenter/diversity.html
Association for Experiential Education. What is Experiential Education? AEE.org.
Retrieved from http://www.aee.org/about/whatIsEE
Daniel Tatum, Beverly (2003). Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the
Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race. New York: Basic Books.
Hall, Wendell D.; Cabrera, Alberto F.; and Milem, Jeffery F. (2011). A Tale of Two
Groups: Differences Between Minority Students and Non-Minority Students in their Predispositions to and Engagement with Diverse Peers at a Predominantly White Institution. Research in Higher Education, 52, 420-439.
Institute of International Education (2013). Open Doors Data: U.S. Study Abroad.
IIE.org. Retrieved from http://www.iie.org/Research-and-Publications/Open-Doors/Data/US-Study-Abroad
Kerby, Sophia and Burns, Crosby (2012, July 12). The Top 10 Economic Facts of
Diversity in the Workplace: A Diverse Workforce Is Integral to a Strong Economy. Americanprogress.org. Retrieved from http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/labor/news/2012/07/12/11900/the-top-10-economic-facts-of-diversity-in-the-workplace/
Lee, Jenny J. and Rice, Charles (2007). Welcome to America? International Student
Perceptions of Discrimination. Higher Education, 53.3, 381-409.
McMillan, Amy Ruhter and Opem, Gayly (2002). Study Abroad: A Lifetime of
Benefits. IESabroad.org. Retrieved from http://www.iesabroad.org/study-abroad/news/study-abroad-lifetime-benefits
NAFSA (2013). Trends in U.S. Study Abroad. NAFSA.org. Retrieved from
National Center for Education Statistics (2011). Fast Facts. Retrieved from
Nelson Laird, Thomas F. (2005). College Students’ Experiences with Diversity and
Their Effects on Academic Self-Confidence, Social Agency, and Disposition Towards Critical Thinking. Research in Higher Education, 46.4, 365-387.
Nelson Laird, Thomas F.; Engberg, Mark E.; and Hurtado, Sylvia (2005). Modeling
Accentuation Effects: Enrolling in a Diversity Course and the Importance of Social Action Engagement. The Journal of Higher Education, 76.4, 448-476.
Northwestern MutualVoice Team (2014, May 19). What’s a College Diploma Worth?
Why Higher Education Matters. Forbes.com. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/northwesternmutual/2014/05/19/whats-a-college-diploma-worth-why-higher-education-matters/
Pike, Gary R. and Kuh, George D. (2005). First- and Second-Generation College
Students: A Comparison of Their Engagement and Intellectual Development. The Journal of Higher Education, 76.3, 276-300.
Rich, Motoko (2012, March 21). School Data Finds Pattern of Inequality Along Racial
Lines. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/21/us/school-data-finds-pattern-of-inequality-along-racial-lines.html?_r=1
Rienties, Bart; Beausaert, Simon; Grohnert, Therese; Niemantsverdriet, Susan; and
Kommers, Piet (2011). Understanding academic performance of international students: the role of ethnicity, academic and social integration. Higher Education, 63, 685-700.
Sood, Suemedha (2012, Sept. 26). The statistics of studying abroad. BBC.com.
Stephens, Nicole M., Hamedani, MarYam G., and Destin, Mesmin (2014). Closing the
Social-Class Achievement Gap: A Difference-Education Intervention Improves First-Generation Students’ Academic Performance and All Students’ College Transition. Psychological Science, 1-11.
Umbach, Paul D. and Kuh, George D. (2006). Student Experiences with Diversity at
Liberal Arts Colleges: Another Claim for Distinctiveness. The Journal of Higher Education, 77.1, Special Issue: Moving Into the Next 75 Years, 169-192.
United States Census Bureau (2012, Dec. 12). U.S. Census Bureau Projections Show a
Slower Growing, Older, More Diverse Nation a Half Century from Now. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/population/cb12-243.html
Zhao, Chun-Mei and Kuh, George D. (2004). Adding Value: Learning Communities
and Student Engagement. Research in Higher Education, 46.2, 115-138.
Zhao, Chun-Mei; Kuh, George D.; and Carini, Robert M. (2005). A Comparison of
International Student and American Student Engagement in Effective Educational Practices. The Journal of Higher Education, 76.2, 209-231.