What it takes to swim in a multicultural sea<br>

One of the greatest goals and biggest frustrations for college campuses is creating diversity. As a whole, higher education believes strongly in diversity, affirmative action and creating multicultural environments for students to learn and grow. But despite our best intentions, immense financial commitments, and the brightest minds devoted to this issue multiculturalism continues to fall short of our expectations. Why?

I teach an MBA course entitled “Effective Business Communication.” As a requirement of the course students must write a reflection paper on their first multicultural experience. The purpose is to get students thinking about how their experiences have shaped their perceptions and communication styles. Inevitably most students reflect on their experiences as college freshmen and the transitional issues they faced.

One student—reflecting on this time in his life—talked about going home every weekend just to get “some normalcy.” What he was referring too was being in an environment that was familiar to him. At home he could rely on predictable behaviors from others. They shared a similar schedule for eating, showering, and other daily tasks. His comment was not atypical and may explain the root of higher education’s struggle with multiculturalism.

Many colleges face the challenge of being a “suitcase campus.” Campuses are seen as a temporary stop, a place to take classes during the week, but on the weekend students pack up and go home. Trends show more college students are working to pay the bills and this has typically been our answer to the suitcase question.

But are we overlooking something? What if many of our students are like my MBA student? Is it possible the reason they are leaving each weekend is because they are struggling with “normalcy?”

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines culture as: “such ideas, customs, etc. of a particular people or group in a particular period”—When we add the prefix “multi” to this definition we can determine that multicultural is simply the process of bringing together multiple groups of people with different ideas, customs, etc…

What many of us fail to see is multiculturalism is not only an issue of color. On the contrary, many apparently homogeneous college campuses also struggle with freshman flight and attrition.

To many college administrators campuses appear homogeneous. What we desire is to see more diversity. But what we see and what students experience can be very different. College administrators typically see large groups of college students who appear to look and behave in similar ways. Most of these observations occur while students are attending classes, eating in the dining hall, or participating in athletic contests.

Students, on the other hand, see individuals they have to live and interact with 24 hours a day. Students see people with different academic abilities, moral values, religious beliefs, eating habits, and probably most notable—different spending powers. To the individual student diversity is everywhere. A new student trying to fit in “sees” all these differences before they see similarities.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us in order to experience self-actualization we must first establish safety and security. As humans we are constantly seeking safety and security. It is the basis for how we live our lives. Ask yourself about the primary reason you selected the community you live in. At its most basic level the community you chose probably felt familiar to you.

It was a community you believed shared the same values, beliefs and customs. It probably felt familiar to the community you grew up in, and familiar means safe. Families in your community probably have similar incomes, educational backgrounds, and values. The same is true when selecting a college.

When taking a college tour most students aren’t concerned about the number of books in the library or how many faculty members are published. They are looking to see if students dress like them, act like them. They want to know if they will fit in. Does it feel comfortable? When we think about multiculturalism we must think in terms of safety zones. Experiencing multiculturalism is like learning to swim.

We learn to swim by wading into shallow water near shore. As we become more comfortable with our new environment we explore the water further. But while we learn to swim we always keep an eye on the shore. The shore is our safety zone; it is the environment where we feel the most comfortable. For college students, home represents their shore, their safety zone. It is the place where they go to rest while learning to live with multiculturalism.

Each year we welcome millions of new students to our campuses. They come from multiple “shores” with varying abilities to swim. Asking them to embrace multiculturalism immediately is equivalent to asking them to stay in the water until they’ve completed the entire Red Cross swimming program.

Most humans want to swim. Conquering new environments is exhilarating. But it happens in a series of steps. Jacques Cousteau didn’t conquer the ocean in a day. We in higher education need to realize this. Our goals for diversity are enviable.

Multicultural experiences enrich everyone’s lives. But rather than knocking ourselves for not “seeing” a more diverse body of students we should focus on helping our body of students become more diverse. If we do then more students will stay in the water.

(Joe Bellavance is the Dean of Admissions & Financial Aid at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass. and editor of the Dean’s Desk, a free monthly newsletter for parents of college bound students. To subscribe to the newsletter send an email to: subscribe@thedeansdesk.com © The Dean’s Desk 2004.)

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