Addressing Diversity with First-Year Students

January 30, 2017

BY: Joseph B. Cuseo, Ph.D. - Professor Emeritus, Psychology - Educational Advisor, AVID for Higher Education

With Martin Luther King Jr. Day falling in January, the topic of diversity often becomes more paramount in the minds of educators. I’d like to take this opportunity to describe how the topic of diversity is addressed in our book for first-year students, Thriving in College & Beyond: Research-Based Strategies for Academic Success and Personal Development. The book includes a 33-page chapter on diversity that is designed to develop student awareness of: (a) what “diversity” truly means, (b) the multiple forms or dimensions of diversity (both visible and invisible), (c) the misuses or abuses of diversity (prejudice and discrimination), and (d) the multiple benefits or advantages of diversity (for the individual and the nation).

We define human diversity as the variety of group differences that exist within humanity (the human species). Groups of humans differ from one another in multiple ways, including physical features, religious beliefs, mental and physical abilities, national origins, social backgrounds, gender, and sexual orientation. We suggest that the relationship between humanity and diversity is analogous to the relationship between sunlight and the multiplicity of colors that make up the visual spectrum. Similar to how sunlight passing through a prism disperses into the variety of colors that comprise the visual spectrum, the human species living on planet earth is dispersed into a variety of different groups that comprise the human spectrum (humanity).

We point out that understanding and appreciating diversity involves:

(a) acknowledging differences—being aware of them,

(b) accommodating differences—interacting with them in a fair, non-prejudicial or discriminative way, and

(c) cultivating differences—capitalizing on them to promote learning and personal development.

Here are some of the more salient points we make in our chapter on diversity.

To appreciate our diversity is not to depreciate our commonality (humanity). Diversity appreciation  includes appreciating both the unique perspectives of different cultural groups as well as universal aspects of the human experience that are common to all groups—whatever their particular cultural background happens to be. Members of all racial and ethnic groups live in communities, develop personal relationships, and have similar emotional needs and needs for self-esteem and personal identity. Members of diverse ethnic groups also share common group memberships, such as being citizens of the same country, persons of the same gender, or members of the same generation. When we frame and appreciate diversity in the context of our shared humanity, we capitalize on the variety and versatility of human differences while preserving the collective unity and synergy generated by our similarities.

To appreciate human diversity is not to depreciate individuality. It’s important to keep in mind that individual differences among members of any racial or ethnic group are greater than the average difference between groups. Said in another way, there’s more variability (individuality) within groups than between groups. While it’s valuable to learn about differences between different human groups, there are substantial individual differences among people within the same racial or ethnic group that should neither be ignored nor overlooked. We cannot assume that individuals with the same racial or ethnic characteristics share the same personal characteristics.

We advise first-year students to keep the following key distinctions in mind as they proceed through their college experience:

  • Humanity. All humans are members of the same group—the human species.
  • Diversity. All humans are members of different groups—e.g., different racial and ethnic groups.
  • Individuality. Each human is a unique individual who differs from all other members of any group to which she or she may belong.

As the famous anthropologist, Clyde Kluckholn, put it: “Every human is, at the same time, like all other humans, like some humans, and like no other human.”

Culture is a powerful force that can bind us and blind us. We point out that culture serves to bind people into a supportive, tight-knit community. However, culture can also lead its members to view the world solely through their own cultural lens (ethnocentrism), which can blind them to other cultural perspectives. Ethnocentrism can contribute to stereotyping—viewing individual members of another cultural group in the same (fixed) way—seeing them all as having the same personal characteristics. Stereotyping, in turn, can result in prejudice—a biased prejudgment about another person or group of people that’s formed before the facts are known. Discrimination takes prejudice one step further by converting the negative prejudgment into behavior that results in unfair treatment of others. Thus, discrimination is prejudice put into action.

We supply students with strategies for becoming aware of and overcoming stereotyping and prejudice, such as:

- Placing yourself in situations and locations on campus where you will come in regular contact

  with individuals from diverse groups.

- Taking advantage of social media to “chat” virtually with students from diverse groups on your   

   own campus, or students on other campuses.

- Engaging in co-curricular experiences involving diversity.

- Participating in a study-abroad or travel-study program that gives you the opportunity to live in

  another country and interact directly with its native citizens.

- Incorporating diversity courses into your planned schedule of courses.

- Being mindful of diversity implications associated with topics you’re reading about or

  discussing in class.

- Seeking out the views and opinions of classmates from diverse backgrounds.

- Forming discussion groups and collaborative group-project teams composed of students from

  diverse backgrounds.

Once the stumbling blocks to diversity are removed, students are then positioned to experience diversity and reap its multiple benefits—which are summarized below.

Diversity increases self-awareness and self-knowledge. Interacting with people from diverse backgrounds increases self-insight and self-understanding by enabling us to compare your life experiences with others whose experiences may differ sharply from our own.

Diversity Deepens Learning and Elevates Critical & Creative Thinking. Research consistently shows that we learn more from people who are different than us than we do from people similar to us. Exposure to perspectives different than our own creates “cognitive dissonance”—a state of cognitive (mental) disequilibrium or imbalance that “forces” our mind to consider multiple perspectives simultaneously; this makes our thinking less simplistic, more complex, and more comprehensive. In contrast, when different perspectives are neither sought nor valued, the variety of lenses available to us for viewing problems is reduced, which, in turn, reduces our capacity to think critically and creatively.

Diversity Enhances Career Preparation & Career Success. National surveys reveal that policymakers, business leaders, and employers seek college graduates who are more than just “aware” of or “tolerant” of diversity. They want graduates who have actual experience with diversity and are able to collaborate with diverse co-workers, clients, and customers. Over 90 percent of employees agree that intercultural competence is an essential skill for success in the twenty-first century.

We conclude our chapter on diversity by pointing out that the growing increasing diversity of students on campus, combined with the wealth of diversity-related educational experiences found in the college curriculum and co-curriculum, presents students with an unprecedented opportunity to infuse diversity into their college experience. We strongly encourage students to seize this opportunity, and we supply them with specific strategies for capitalizing on the power of diversity to enhance the quality of their college education and their prospects for personal and professional success in the 21st century.