Diversity and Difference in the Traditional Culture of Higher Education

Diversity and Difference in the Traditional Culture of Higher Education

Some pundits have interpreted recent campus eruptions at Yale and the University of Missouri as “microaggressions” that push political correctness into hyperdrive through the social media. “Grow up!” seems to be a phrase mentioned again and again. But there is another chapter to this story. It is the growing impact of diversity and difference on the traditional culture of higher education.

There are more students than ever from diverse backgrounds arriving at American college campuses. These students, primarily Hispanic and African American, are often the first in their families to attend college. Their experience of higher education is not the promised oasis of intellectual discovery but rather a series of stressful and alienating encounters. They interpret what legacies might call longstanding traditions as insensitive and exclusionary. They don’t see people like themselves among professors, administrators and staff. They often feel that they do not belong.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor writes about her experiences at Princeton University in her autobiography, My Beloved World. Sotomayor was “completely unprepared” for the Princeton college experience: “As social as I am, I was quiet in those early days, trying to make sense of the conversations flowing around me.” She felt “different: not only from the generations of Princetonians who had walked through Nassau Gate before us, but, increasingly, from the friends and classmates we had left behind.”

Sotomayor found it difficult to imagine herself as an accepted member of the Princeton University community as “there was not one Hispanic on the faculty or administrative staff.” The recipe for a robust college community, she concluded, “depends not only on the diversity itself but on promoting a sense of belonging among those who formerly would have been considered and felt themselves outsiders.” She envisioned diverse students not only as statistical proof of diversity itself, but also as playing the crucial role of fostering “connection between the old Princeton and the new, a mutual acceptance without which the body as a whole could not thrive or evolve.” Justice Sotomayor outlined these thoughts before her graduation from Princeton in 1976.

A robust college community “depends not only on the diversity itself but on promoting a sense of belonging among those who formerly would have been considered and felt themselves outsiders.” — Sonia Sotomayor

The same issues, expressed by Sonia Sotomayor nearly 40 years ago, are the genesis of the student strife of 2015. Diverse students are exposing the “gap between what colleges promise and what they actually deliver.”  Universities and colleges may package themselves as learning laboratories that are welcoming and inclusive. But that promise is not always reflected in the real life experiences of students from diverse ethnic, racial and socio-economic backgrounds who increasingly inhabit our institutions of higher education. Administrators and academics are often unprepared to “feel the pain” of outsiders who are expected to become instant insiders by osmosis.

Diverse students do need to feel that their stories are legitimate and worth hearing. A senior at Yale, Aaron Z. Lewis, struck at the heart of the matter: “What matters is that we all need to have empathy for the experiences that people of color have even if we don’t have those experiences for ourselves.” Lewis is right. Colleges and universities need to carve space into the student experience that allows young people, administrators and academics from all backgrounds to tell their stories.

Empathy is the foundation upon which authentic solutions to problems can emerge. But it must be woven into university and college infrastructures. It cannot be only a mantra during a time of troubles that is quickly forgotten once chaos recedes. Calls for inclusion through administrative changes, mentorship and mental health support cannot remain in the realm of good intentions. We have the tools to make changes but we have to take the time to listen to each other, truly listen to each other, before good intentions and innovative programs have any chance of becoming the new reality.

If we want universities and colleges to be “welcoming places for people of all backgrounds,” it is time to take Justice Sotomayor’s advice and promote a “sense of belonging among those who formerly would have been considered and felt themselves outsiders.” Diverse students have a role to play as cultural midwives who will connect the best in the traditional and new cultures of higher education.






Karen Collias

My name is Karen Collias and I founded Knowledge Without Borders™ to infuse creativity and innovation into the most salient educational issues affecting contemporary society. I attribute my enthusiasm to cross the borders of traditional knowledge domains to the multi-disciplinary nature of my education and professional experience. The first in my family to go to college, I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University in political science with a specialization in comparative educational systems. My professional experience includes teaching at Princeton University, serving as deputy director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Science Education Center, policy analyst at the U.S. Department of State, and an editor at USA TODAY. Current research interests are first generation college students and innovations in STEM education.



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