2.2 Embracing Diversity

Learning Objectives

  1. Define diversity and explain the benefits of a diverse university campus for all students.
  2. Explain why all university students are more successful academically in a diverse environment and list several additional benefits of diversity for all students.
  3. Describe the valuable characteristics of “non-traditional,” mature university students.
  4. Explain what students can do to take a stand against hate and discrimination, foster multiculturalism, engage in anti-oppressive practices, and celebrate diversity.

In 2011, 19.1% of Canadians identified themselves as visible minorities, with the three largest visible minority groups being South-Asians, Chinese and African Americans[1]. Canada’s diverse society also includes Aboriginal Peoples, made up of First Nations’, Metis, and Inuit, comprising 4.1% of the total Canadian population[2]. But “diversity” means much more than a variety of racial and ethnic differences.

As we’ll use the term here, diversity refers to the great variety of human characteristics—ways that we are different even as we are all human and share more similarities than differences. These differences are an essential part of what enriches humanity, and moving beyond “us” versus “them,” and beyond fear, is crucial to civil society.  Think about where these groups might intersect, and what groups of people might experience more advantages or disadvantages in Canadian society: women, men, LBGTQ people, cisgender people, senior citizens, people with disabilities, teenagers, people who are considered “overweight,” straight people, middle-class people, high-income people, working class, people living in poverty, people with mental health issues, people of colour, Christians, English Language Learners, Indigenous people, or immigrants.

We’ll look first at some of the ways that people differ and explore the benefits of diversity for our society generally and for the university experience. While we should all celebrate diversity, at the same time we need to acknowledge past issues that grew from misunderstandings of such differences and work together to bring change where needed.

The Benefits of Diversity

The goal of many university admissions departments is to attract diverse students from a broad range of backgrounds involving different cultural, socioeconomic, age, and other factors. But why is diversity so important? There are many reasons:

  • Experiencing diversity at university prepares students for the diversity they will encounter the rest of their lives. Learning to understand and accept people different from ourselves is very important in our world. While many high school students may not have met or gotten to know well many people with different backgrounds, this often changes in university. Success in one’s career and future social life also requires understanding people in new ways and interacting with new skills. Experiencing diversity in university assists in this process.
  • Students learn better in a diverse educational setting. Encountering new concepts, values, and behaviors leads to thinking in deeper, more complex, and more creative ways, rather than furthering past ideas and attitudes. Students who experience the most racial and ethnic diversity in their classes are more engaged in active thinking processes and develop more intellectual and academic skills (and have higher grade point averages) than others with limited experience of diversity.
  • Attention to diversity leads to a broader range of teaching methods, which benefits the learning process for all students. Just as people are different in diverse ways, people from different backgrounds and experiences learn in different ways. University teaching has expanded to include many new teaching techniques. All students gain when instructors make the effort to address the diverse learning needs of all students.
  • Experiencing diversity on campus is beneficial for both minority and majority students. Students have more fulfilling social relationships and report more satisfaction and involvement with their university experience. Studies show all students on campus gain from diversity programs. All the social and intellectual benefits of diversity cited in this list hold true for all students.
  • Diversity experiences help break the patterns of racism, segregation, cultural suppression, exploitation, and prejudice that have characterized North American history. Discrimination against others—whether by race, gender, age, sexual orientation, or anything else—is rooted in ignorance and sometimes fear of people who are different. Getting to know people who are different is the first step in accepting those differences, furthering the goal of a society free of all forms of prejudice and the unfair treatment of people.
  • Students of a traditional university age are in an ideal stage of development for forming healthy attitudes about diversity. Younger students may not yet have reached a point at which they can fully understand and accept very different ideas and behaviors in others. The university years are a time of growth and maturation intellectually, socially, and emotionally, and a sustained experience of diversity is an opportunity to heighten this process.
  • Experiencing diversity makes us all better citizens in our democracy. When people can better understand and consider the ideas and perspectives of others, they are better equipped to participate meaningfully in our society. Democracy depends on shared values of equality and the public good. An attitude of “us versus them,” in contrast, does not further the public good or advance democratic government. Studies have shown that university graduates with a good experience of diversity generally maintain patterns of openness and inclusivity in their future lives.
  • Diversity enhances self-awareness. We gain insights into our own thought processes, life experiences, and values as we learn from people whose backgrounds and experiences are different from our own.

While all the benefits described have been demonstrated repeatedly on campuses all across the country in study after study, and while admissions and retention programs on many campuses try to promote and celebrate diversity, some problems still remain. Society changes only slowly, and sadly, many students in some areas—including students with disabilities, and many minority students—still feel marginalized in the dominant culture of their campuses. Even in a country that prides itself on tolerance and acceptance, racism still exists. Thus society as a whole, and universities in particular, need to continue to work to destroy old stereotypes and achieve a full acceptance of our human differences.

Multiculturalism is not political correctness. We’ve all heard jokes about “political correctness,” which suggests that we do or say certain things not because they are right but because we’re expected to pay lip service to them. Unfortunately, some people think of universities’ diversity programs as just the politically correct thing to do. Use your critical thinking skills if you hear such statements. In the world of higher education, truth is discovered through investigation and research—and research has shown the value of diversity for all university participants[3].

“Nontraditional” Mature Students and Diversity

Sometimes overlooked among the types of diversity on most university campuses are mature students, often called by administrators and admissions officers as “nontraditional” students, who are returning to education, often after working a number of years. While many university students are younger and enroll in university immediately after high school, these mature students help bring a wider range of diversity to campuses and deserve special attention for the benefits they bring for all students. As a group, mature students often share certain characteristics that bring unique value to the university experience overall. They often

  • have well-established identities and broader roles and responsibilities on which to base their thinking;
  • more fully represent the local community and its values;
  • have greater emotional independence and self-reliance;
  • have well-developed problem-solving, self-directing, and decision-making skills;
  • can share important life lessons and insights not found in textbooks;
  • have relationships and experience with a greater variety of people; and
  • can be positive role models for younger students with less experience and maturity.

In many ways, these “nontraditional” students benefit the campus as a whole and contribute in meaningful ways to the educational process. Both instructors and “traditional” students gain when older students share their ideas and feelings in class discussions, study groups, and all forms of social interaction.

 What Students Can Do

While diversity exists in most places, not everyone automatically understands differences among people and celebrates the value of those differences. Students who never think about diversity and who make no conscious effort to experience and understand others gain less than others who do. There are many ways you can experience the benefits of diversity on your university campus, however, beginning with your own attitudes and by taking steps to increase your experiences with diverse individuals.

Acknowledge your own uniqueness, for you are diverse, too. Diversity doesn’t involve just other people. Consider that you may be just as different to other people as they are to you. Don’t think of the other person as being the one who is different, that you are somehow the “norm.” Your religion may seem just as odd to them as theirs does to you, and your clothing may seem just as strange looking to them as theirs is to you—until you accept there is no one “normal” or right way to be. Look at yourself in a mirror and consider why you look as you do. Why do you use the slang you do with your friends? Why did you just have that type of food for breakfast? How is it that you prefer certain types of music? Read certain books? Talk about certain things? Much of this has to do with your cultural background—so it makes sense that someone from another cultural or ethnic background is different in some ways. But both of you are also individuals with your own tastes, preferences, ideas, and attitudes—making you unique.

Consider your own (possibly unconscious) stereotypes. A stereotype is a fixed, simplistic view of what people in a certain group are like. It is often the basis for prejudice and discrimination: behaving differently toward someone because you stereotype them in some way. Stereotypes are generally learned and emerge in the dominant culture’s attitudes toward those from outside that dominant group. A stereotype may be explicitly racist and destructive, and it may also be a simplistic generalization applied to any group of people, even if intended to be flattering rather than negative. As you have read this chapter so far, did you find yourself thinking about any group of people, based on any kind of difference, and perhaps thinking in terms of stereotypes? If you walked into a party and saw many different kinds of people standing about, would you naturally avoid some and move toward others? Remember, we learn stereotypes from our cultural background—so it’s not a terrible thing to admit you have inherited some stereotypes. Thinking about them is a first step in breaking out of these irrational thought patterns.

Examples of Cultural Differences in Body Language

While we should be careful not to stereotype individuals or whole cultures, it is important to be aware of potential differences among cultures when interacting with other people. For example, body language often has different meanings in different cultures. Understanding such differences can help you better understand your interaction with others. Here are a few examples:

  • Some Canadians clap their hands together to emphasize a point, while some French clap to end a conversation.
  • Many Canadians cross their legs when seated and thus may point the bottom of their shoe toward another person; many Japanese find this gesture offensive.
  • Many Canadians may wave their index fingers at someone else to make a point, but this gesture is often offensive to Mexicans and Somali, who may use that gesture only for dogs.
  • For many Canadians, direct eye contact is generally considered polite and a sign of interest, although many Indigenous people see direct eye contact as impolite.

Do not try to ignore differences among people. Some people try so hard to avoid stereotyping that they go to the other extreme and try to avoid seeing any differences at all among people. But as we have seen throughout this chapter, people are different in many ways, and we should accept that if we are to experience the benefits of diversity.

Don’t apply any group generalizations to individuals. As an extension of not stereotyping any group, also don’t think of any individual person in terms of group characteristics. People are individuals first, members of a group second, and any given generalization simply may not apply to an individual. Be open minded and treat everyone with respect as an individual with his or her own ideas, attitudes, and preferences.

Take advantage of campus opportunities to increase your cultural awareness. Your university likely has multiculturalism courses or workshops you can sign up for. Special events, cultural fairs and celebrations, concerts, and other programs are held frequently on most campuses. There may also be opportunities to participate in group travel to other countries or regions of cultural diversity. Think about signing up to take the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) to more deeply understand and develop your intercultural competence; ask your international students’ centre whether they offer it or know who does.

Take the initiative in social interactions. Many students just naturally hang out with other students they are most like—that almost seems to be part of human nature. Even when we’re open-minded and want to learn about others different from ourselves, it often seems easier and more comfortable to interact with others of the same age, cultural group, and so on. If we don’t make a small effort to meet others, however, we miss a great opportunity to learn and broaden our horizons. Next time you’re looking around the classroom or dorm for someone to ask about a class you missed or to study together for a test or group project, choose someone different from you in some way. Making friends with others of different backgrounds is often one of the most fulfilling experiences of university students.

Work through conflicts as in any other interaction. Conflicts simply occur among people, whether of the same or different background. If you are afraid of making a mistake when interacting with someone from a different background, you might avoid interaction altogether—and thus miss the benefits of diversity. Nothing risked, nothing gained. If you are sincere and respect the other, there is less risk of a misunderstanding occurring. If a conflict does occur, work to resolve it as you would any other tension with another person, as described earlier.

Take a Stand against Prejudice and Hate

Unfortunately, prejudice and hate still exist in Canada, even on university campuses. In addition to racial prejudice, some people are also prejudiced against women, people with disabilities, older adults, LGBTQ individuals—virtually all groups that can be characterized as “different.” All campuses have policies against all forms of prejudice and discriminatory behaviors. But it is not enough for only university administrators to fight prejudice and hate—this is a responsibility for all good citizens who take seriously the shared value of equality for all people. So what can you as a university student do?

  • Decide that it does matter. Prejudice threatens us all, not just the particular group being discriminated against in a specific incident. Don’t stand on the sidelines or think it’s up to the people who may be victimized by prejudice or hate to do something about it. We can all do something.
  • Talk with others. Communication has great value on campuses. Let others know how you feel about any acts of prejudice or hatred that you witness. The more everyone openly condemns such behavior, the less likely it is to reappear in the future. This applies even if you hear another student telling a racist joke or putting down the opposite sex—speak up and tell the person you find such statements offensive, or question where they heard that or why they think that’s true. You don’t want that person to think you agree with them. Speaking up can be difficult to do, but it can be done tactfully. People can and do learn what is acceptable in a diverse environment.
  • Report incidents you observe. If you happen to see someone spray-painting a hateful slogan, for example, be a good citizen and report it to the appropriate campus office or the police.
  • Support student groups working for change. There is a great tradition of university students banding together to help solve social problems. Show your support for groups and activities that celebrate diversity and condemn prejudice. Even if you are a shy, quiet person, your attendance at a parade or gathering lends support. Or you can write a letter to the editor in a student newspaper, help hand out leaflets for an upcoming rally, or put up posters on campus. Once you become aware of such student activities on campus, you’ll find many ways you can help take a stand and become an ally if you have privilege (e.g., racial, socio-economic, or gender privilege).
  • Engage in anti-oppressive actions. Consider what powers you have to avoid marginalizing, silencing, or taking away the power of others. For example, speak out against bigotry when you witness it; give opportunities to others where you can; don’t generalize actions or thoughts to a whole group; and don’t dominate conversations — listen and learn as well.

  1. Statistics Canada. (2015). Immigration and Ethnocultural Diversity in Canada. Retrieved from: https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/as-sa/99-010-x/99-010-x2011001-eng.cfm
  2. Statistics Canada. (2015). Aboriginal Peoples in Canada: First Nations People, Metis and Inuit. Retrieved from: https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/as-sa/99-011-x/99-011-x2011001-eng.cfm
  3. Maruyama, G. & Moreno, J.F. (1999). University Faculty Views About the Value of Diversity on Campus and in the Classroom. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved from: http://web.mit.edu/cortiz/www/Diversity/PDFs/MaruyamaandMoreno2000.pdf

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