Diversity is the most frequent term used to describe efforts in higher education to serve different kinds of students (and for that matter, have different kinds of faculty, administrators, and leaders providing the instruction and service to students), but there are often many questions around the term and its value. What exactly do we mean by diversity? What differences matter? How many different kinds of people are required to have a proper diversity ratio? What should happen among and between these different people to actually get the work of diversity done? How do we know it’s working? Who does it benefit? Is diversity alone enough?
These are big questions. Much of my research, writing, and daily interactions revolve around addressing them. Numerous challenges develop along the way, for students, scholars, administrators, and entire campus communities. Tackling systemic issues such as gender inequities, homophobia, undocumented student support, increasing access to students and families with modest financial resources, #BlackLivesMatter, and many more is not a simple task. The work involved serves as a reminder to all that effective diversity efforts move far beyond numerical totals.
One point covered in Higher Learning that I want to touch on a bit more here is stereotype threat. Briefly, this idea means that a student may alter their behavior, or carry additional baggage, because they are concerned about confirming a particular stereotype somehow associated with them. If people within your racial group, or students from your high school, don’t typically achieve the best SAT scores, you may find yourself hesitating to ask questions in class because if you do, in your mind everyone will say to themselves, “I knew it. That kid doesn’t know anything.” Studies have shown that stereotype threat can be an issue in all sorts of areas, from women in the STEM fields to white men in sports.
Ultimately, stereotype threat connects to a bigger theme - belonging. As scholar Terrell Strayhorn shares, students will perform their best when they feel that they can positively contribute to a group, and the group performs its best when everyone is sharing their unique gifts. When you’re on campus, you need to feel connected, wanted, and appreciated - in the classroom, in study groups, in your residence hall, and among friends and student organizations. The beauty of college is that it presents many opportunities for you to make meaningful connections and establish a solid base. Unfortunately, there will be challenging moments and points of conflict where your presence will be questioned, or where you will ask yourself if you’re in the right place. I will share much more on this in the future, but for now - and for always - know that you belong. College is about seeking knowledge and creating new experiences. If we all already had the answers, none of us would need to be here. So trust in your journey, challenge yourself to grow, and don’t listen to the haters. Do you, and be about something bigger.