Diversity is a representation of racial and ethnic identity, age, cultural identity, religious and spiritual identity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, physical and mental ability, nationality, social and economic status, and political and ideological perspectives.* Diversity in higher education is important in order for our institutions to reflect our changing demographics, to increase access to higher education for greater numbers of students, and to prepare all students to contribute to a global society. However, the highest purpose of diversity in our institutions is related to our civic mission.
The civic mission of higher education speaks to the content in the curricular and co-curricular experience that challenges students to think about their role and responsibilities in society. Historically, education was seen as the key to creating the informed citizenry required for active democracy. Institutions were founded in part with a civic focus to cultivate future leaders to be civically engaged citizens. Presently, diversity, namely interactions among different groups, is essential to fostering the academic and social growth necessary to promote civic engagement.
Research supports that diversity creates the best possible learning conditions for all students – majority and minority students. Diversity creates conditions critical to identity construction and cognitive growth which are essential to achieving educational and civic outcomes. The success of our communities and country depends on citizens who can engage in civic innovation, address issues of public concern, and promote the quality of life in our communities through political and nonpolitical processes.
The link between diversity and learning outcomes is well-established. Research shows that students who experienced the most racial and ethnic diversity in classroom settings and in informal interactions with peers showed the greatest engagement in active thinking processes, growth in intellectual engagement and motivation, and growth in intellectual and academic skills. Research also supports that students educated in diverse classrooms learn to think in deeper and more complex ways, and are better prepared to become active participants in a pluralistic, democratic society (Gurin, Day, Hurtado, and Gurin, 2001).
Diversity improves the learning experience and contributes to the central goals of the university. However, students must have meaningful intergroup interactions. An increase in diversity may improve the probability that these interactions will occur, but this is not enough to create a significant difference in a student’s learning experience. In order to see significant benefits from diversity, there must be an increased quality and quantity of intergroup interactions.
College is a time and place for students to explore their identities as well as their relationship to the sociopolitical world. When students enter into diverse environments, they can either attempt to retreat to the familiar or seek new information. By seeking new information, they enter a state of disequilibrium – a temporary state where one must either develop a new schema or modify an existing schema. Developmental theorists explain that creating disequilibrium is key to promoting cognitive growth. Situations that create disequilibrium can include encounters with people who are unfamiliar to them or people who challenge them to act or think in new ways. Navigating these situations increases one’s sense of identity and their understanding of the social world.
As an educator, I have witnessed the cognitive changes that occur when students experience interactions with people who have had different life experiences and when students are confronted with the limitation of their point of view. In these interactions, they must do difficult cognitive and emotional work to understand how other people think and feel. These experiences encouraged critical thinking, helped students learn to communicate effectively with people of varied backgrounds, and prepared students to become good citizens in an increasingly complex, pluralistic society.
In 2006, I founded the Alternative Breaks program at Cal Poly, which has taken students to New Orleans, New York, Jamaica, and United Arab Emirates. I witnessed these students transformed by their experiences doing service in communities different from their own. The differences in culture, language, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and more, created opportunities for reflection and cognitive growth that changed these students in short periods.
Now, more than ever, universities must prepare students to contribute to society. Students need an understanding of diversity and social responsibility to be knowledgeable and ethical leaders. For these reasons and more, it is important to cultivate a campus community that represents and celebrates diversity. We need reflective spaces, intentional interactions, and formal and informal opportunities for students to engage in frequent, high-quality intergroup interactions.
* adapted from Standards of Professional Practice for Chief Diversity Officers.
Gurin, P., Dey, E., Hurtado, S., & Gurin, G. (2002) Diversity and Higher Education: Theory and Impact on Educational Outcomes, Harvard Educational Review, 72 (3), 330-366.