Experiencing Diversity: A Key to College Learning

When Shyanmei Wang (MS08) came to Northwestern from Taiwan, she found the American melting pot made her more reflective and open-minded. “It’s not until you see the differences that you step out of your comfort zone,” she says. “I believe diversity can broaden students’ world view.”

When Alison Santmyer (BS98) came to Northwestern from a suburban high school, she found that having an African American roommate and classmates from varied backgrounds enhanced her education. For intellectual vibrancy, one of the key factors at college is the mix of students, she discovered.

These experiences recounted by School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) alumni point to the value of diversity for college students. In this regard, SESP students, alumni and faculty are finding innovative ways to inject diversity into their college programs at the same time as they’re exploring the impact of diversity on learning.

College students value diversity on campus and seek interactions with people different from themselves, research by associate professor Lois Trautvetter confirms
College students value diversity on campus and seek interactions with people different from themselves, research by associate professor Lois Trautvetter confirms.
Photo by Andrew Campbell


Researching diversity
Although little hard data exist about the effect of diversity on learning, research does show that college students report learning gains from involvement in diversity experiences both in the classroom and in campus activities. Lois Trautvetter, the head of SESP’s Higher Education Administration and Policy master’s program, contributes to this research, mainly in the areas of civic, spiritual and religious diversity.

Reflecting the national trend, her recent study at Northwestern found that 80 percent of all undergraduates reported feeling very comfortable interacting with people of different religions and having an interest in different religious traditions. “It seems that many of today’s undergraduates are asking for help to prepare them to be future leaders by better understanding the world’s religions,” notes Trautvetter.

“College students want to develop themselves holistically, and so they want a pluralistic, developmental approach to how they learn,” Trautvetter adds, explaining the importance of intellectual, moral, psychological and spiritual development of college students. In Putting Students First: How Colleges Develop Students Purposefully, based on a study of 10 colleges, she and coauthors Lawrence Braskamp and Kelly Ward advocate developing the “whole student” in the college culture, curriculum, co-curriculum and community. “You need to challenge students with multiple world views and diverse perspectives, but you also need to provide support to have learning occur,” she explains.

Diversity makes a campus flourish and guides students into opportunities they might not have seen before coming to campus, she adds. “The importance of diversity is that it prepares students for future work and also for their civic roles in a diverse society.”

Other research that Trautvetter is conducting on the topic of college diversity focuses on how to attract a diverse student population to engineering. She and research associate professor Ann McKenna are conducting interviews at engineering schools that achieve key learning outcomes and also graduate significant numbers of females and minorities.

While achieving a diverse student body can be difficult, Trautvetter identifies ways that a university can capitalize on what it has, even with a fairly homogeneous student population. Examples include planning diversity courses and multicultural programming, reexamining courses in light of diversity and looking for structured opportunities for students to interact.

Nancy Tai describes her master’s project to other students in the Higher Education Administration and Policy program. Numerous students research diversity issues and eventually contribute to multicultural learning at colleges
Nancy Tai describes her master’s project to other students in the Higher Education Administration and Policy program. Numerous students research diversity issues and eventually contribute to multicultural learning at colleges.
Photo by Andrew Campbell


Millennials for multiculturalism
Today’s “millennial generation” of students born since 1982 is seeking interactions with people who are different from themselves. Susan Olson, associate dean of Student Affairs, sees this trend among SESP undergraduates, starting with participation in the Freshman Urban Program, which explores diverse communities in Chicago. “One thing students appreciate about our location is that they’re able to learn about different communities,” she says.

As they shape their college experience, many SESP students continue to promote diversity as a vital part of their education. Most prominently, the SESP organization Promote 360 was founded in 2006 to support and empower minority students. Current projects include mentoring younger students, planning advocacy events and encouraging minority recruitment. “It’s not something that only students of color are interested in,” Olson says of the organization. “The fact that we can all come together provides new perspectives,” notes president Tabitha Bentley.

Working with Promote 360, senior Maddie Orenstein has taken the goal of diversity experiences one step further. Supported by a grant from Campus Compact, she is starting a project to foster interaction between Northwestern undergraduates and Chicago high school students. “Often times, the world of university academia we live in does not allow us to meet others outside of it, or to have the experiential learning and sharing that is so relevant to everything we are doing in the classroom. There should be many more opportunities to use diversity as a tool for learning,” she says.

Another leader in the arena of diversity dialogue, junior Halle Bauer, founded an organization called Race Alliance at Northwestern to foster cross-race interaction on campus. “I wanted to create a forum where mixing could occur in a comfortable setting, where friendships could begin and difficult discussions could happen so that race isn’t such a taboo topic of conversation,” she says. “Hearing, appreciating and respecting alternative perspectives is a crucial lesson that teaches students to have an open mind.”

As Associated Student Government president, SESP senior Neal Sales-Griffin has led efforts to increase minority enrollment, and earlier he started an organization called Minorities in Business. “I think diversity is one of the strong tools for innovation in any group,” he says. Among his goals is to move beyond diversity to inclusiveness: “We want to develop a common experience at Northwestern.”

After graduation, SESP students continue to seek opportunities to “expand their horizons,” Olson notes. Often they opt for experiences such as Teach For America, the Peace Corps and the Northwestern Public Interest Program.

As a student in SESP’s Higher Education Administration and Policy program, Nika Hasegawa studies the holistic approach to student development that encompasses all areas including intellectual, psychological and moral development
As a student in SESP’s Higher Education Administration and Policy program, Nika Hasegawa studies the holistic approach to student development that encompasses all areas including intellectual, psychological and moral development.
Photo by Andrew Campbell


Diversity in the curriculum
Both undergraduate and graduate students at SESP benefit from diversity experiences in the classroom. For example, a new curricular offering is a class called Race in Education, taught by professor Carol Lee, which resulted from student dialogue with the dean. Research associate professor John Kretzmann, who heads the Asset-Based Community Development Institute, also teaches a course related to diversity. Undergraduates in his Community Development class learn about diverse Chicago communities as they pursue projects such as making maps or getting involved as volunteers.

At the graduate level, the Higher Education Administration and Policy program incorporates diversity experiences to prepare students for careers at colleges. An internship exposes students to new situations, and many classes focus on cultural differences. Judith Remington (MS06), a Hispanic woman born in Ecuador and raised in the United States, says these classes clarified the value of her cultural background. “From there I started to appreciate the differences of others and understand the importance of creating a whole that is greater than its individual parts,” she says.

A master’s project allows students in the Higher Education program to further explore diversity on campus. For example, as a student in the Higher Education program, Shyanmei Wang (MS08) researched international teaching and cross-cultural academic differences. Evelyn Caliendo (MS06) examined multiracial students’ experiences, specifically their development of ethnic identity. She says the Higher Education program gave her good insight into student development that she draws on in her current job as assistant director of planning and special programs at Northwestern.

Alumni of the Higher Education program often contribute to multicultural learning in their careers. For example, Tedd Vanadilok (MS04), Northwestern’s director of Asian American Student Affairs, generates cultural experiences for exploring identity and learning about others through events, speakers and shows. In a different way, Sarah Baer (MS04), the program manager in University of Notre Dame’s Office of International Studies, introduces students to diverse cultures. As associate director of multicultural affairs at Cornell University, Aisha Davis (MS05) developed programs to expose students to different multicultural activities. She says the most effective multicultural learning experiences are “ones that students feel they have initiated.”

College students become more well-rounded through experiences with different populations, Davis says. Her view underscores the reasons for making diversity a priority in SESP research and programs. Trautvetter asserts, “As a higher education community, we need to provide diversity to students. Anything less would be a disservice.”
By Marilyn Sherman