Helping Students Build Bridges Across
By Eleanor Lee Yates
ANN ARBOR, Mich.
A University of Michigan-based research project is looking at the link between diversity and learning on campus, examining how associating with different ethnic peers affects students’ social skills, cognitive thinking and attitudes on democracy. The project also will highlight college programs and activities that are successful in helping students of different ethnic backgrounds get to know each other.
In the near future, one of three Americans will be a member of an ethnic minority, says Sylvia Hurtado, associate professor of education at the University of Michigan and the principal investigator of the project, Preparing College Students for a Diverse Democracy. Hurtado says that colleges need to prepare all of their students for workplaces and communities that reflect the population.
“Our ultimate goal is to discover how diversity is part of our learning process. This will also help institutions learn how to build bridges across racial divisions, and will help students to become more effective leaders,” Hurtado says. “Instead of replicating social divides, we’ll learn how to link groups.”
The 10 public universities participating in the project will administer baseline surveys to incoming freshmen this fall about issues on race and diversity. Over the next three years, students will respond to additional surveys, and researchers will monitor changes in their attitudes. Hurtado says the project will provide information about the kind of education that will be necessary for citizenship in a diverse society.
Before the national elections, students will be queried about their feelings on self-interest compared to public interest, their conceptions of democracy and their involvement in the formal democratic process.
The surveys also will reveal if students have positive or negatives views of conflict and whether students understand diversity issues.
“We want them be more astute, more skilled in negotiating differences,” says
Project officials also will study how undergraduates develop ties to communities through volunteer programs that offer opportunities to interact with people of various ethnicities. The project will survey students who tutor, help build houses and participate in other volunteer programs.
“Service learning gives students an opportunity to reflect on diversity issues, to develop values and maybe a different strategy,” says Hurtado. “Students come to understand that all members of an ethnic group don’t think and act alike.”
Alleviating Racial Tension
Jesus Trevino, director of the Intergroup Relations Center at Arizona State University in Tempe, is working closely with Hurtado. Trevino estimates that about 10 percent of the campus population is Latino; 5 percent African American; 5 percent Asian; 3 percent American Indian and the remainder are White.
Arizona State, which has an enrollment of 48,000, has had some racial tension in the past. The center came into being following a campus incident four years ago when a teacher’s assistant wanting to explore the topic of racism with students introduced some material that many found offensive, Trevino recalls. Though the teacher meant well, the class was a catalyst on a campus that was already experiencing racial tension.
“We’re in the business of bringing students together,” Trevino says. Research shows that interaction between diverse groups does not take place on its own, he says.
At Arizona State, six-week intergroup discussions have been extremely successful. The groups are conducted within “safe space” guidelines with facilitators present. The sessions are eye-opening for most participants, Trevino says.
“White students wonder if Blacks are angry at them because of history. White students wonder if all African Americans think alike. African Americans want to know if Whites really care about them,” he says.
By the end of the six weeks, most come away feeling they have learned a lot about each other and themselves, Trevino says. Students receive some course credit for participating.
Another program already in place at Arizona State is story circles. These may include students as well as faculty and staff. Various ethnic groups meet to talk about differences, address the subject of racism and share relevant personal stories. Arizona State also has a four-week music program that is composed of students from all over the world, from African to Irish to American Indian.
Trevino says he thinks there have been improvements on campus. When someone from one ethnic group gradually becomes an ally or advocate for another group, it’s an indicator that race relations are improving, Trevino says. And although Trevino has seen this happen, he says that everyone is not out there together singing “Kum Ba Ya, My Lord” just yet.
Most are still in their separate ethnic groups,” Trevino says. “Now, it’s important to have friends who are like you are. That’s a support network for your identity, someone with whom to share your culture.” Trevino says the research project will indicate to administrators how the school is doing in its efforts to decrease prejudice and promote understanding among ethnic groups.
What we’re doing is preparing people to live and work in a diverse democracy,” he says.
Stepping Out of Comfort Zones
Arizona State student Joel Lyons took part in an intergroup discussion.
“It is good to step out of comfort zones,” Lyons says, noting that the experience opens up participants to new people and new ways of thinking about them.
Lyons, who is half African American and half White, recalled one Black participant’s animosity in the group discussions.
“But when you heard about his experience, you understood why he felt the way he did,” Lyons says.
He said another benefit of the group was learning more about each other’s cultures.
“We also learned that a whole race certainly doesn’t think alike,” he says.
The coordinator of the project at the University of Maryland is Dr. Jeffrey Milem, assistant professor in the college of education. The university is approximately 14 percent African American; 14 percent Asian; 3 to 4 percent Latino with the remainder of the student body White. Milem hails the project as an excellent opportunity to learn more about the issues of diversity both inside and outside of the classroom.
“Thirty-three percent of our enrollment are students of color. We have done a good job with structurally representing [different races],” Milem says. “But there is still much to understand about how learning ties in with diversity and what the benefits are of that knowledge.”
The University of Maryland, like other project participants, will be surveying about 95 percent of its incoming freshman class. This will give the school baseline data. School officials will learn about students’ attitudes on other races and views on diversity before they start college. Eighteen months later, a follow-up survey will measure changes in attitudes and views.
While at the University of Maryland, students may participate in discussions through the Intergroup Learning Center or volunteer through Civicus, an organization that matches students up with opportunities to help out in various communities. The program is designed to allow students the opportunity to interact with other ethnic groups.
“Our country is increasingly diverse, and we may not fully understand what that means,” Milem says. “I hope students find that their college years are a laboratory, a place to think about issues of diversity,” adding that he hopes the results of the project and what is learned from it may help prepare students for leadership in companies and in their communities.
“We live in very segregated societies. College is one opportunity students have to interact with other ethnic groups. We want to learn how we can maximize that opportunity,” he says.
The project, which has been endorsed by the American Association for Higher Education, the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the American Council on Education is funded by a three-year grant of $872,000 from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
Currently, the University of Michigan, which has a minority breakdown of 9 percent African American, 11 percent Asian, 4 percent Latino and 1 percent American Indian, is fighting two lawsuits regarding its affirmative action practices. One suit is filed by the Center for Individual Rights on behalf of two White students not admitted as undergraduates. The suit charges that the university uses different standards to admit students of different races. This suit is scheduled to be heard in federal district court in September or October. The other suit, which is filed against the law school, is scheduled to be heard in federal Eastern district court in January.
In addition to the University of Michigan, Arizona State University and the University of Maryland, other schools participating in the project include: the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the University of Minnesota, the University of New Mexico, the University of Washington, Norfolk State University and the University of Vermont.
Hurtado says that of the 10 public universities participating in the research project, some were chosen because they were successful in attracting minorities, while others were selected because of their small minority student population.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com