Embracing Diversity: Space for Students of Color

Why does the integration of academic and social identities in college matter?
Advising a student of color at a selective, predominantly white college or university is complex and challenging. When administrators are not able to help students of color who feel disconnected from the college community, these students often drop out, take time off or do not return. This does not happen over a matter of days; feelings of isolation build up over months. Early detection and consistent advising of a student struggling both academically and socially is crucial. Since students of color often enter institutions of higher learning with set cultural values and strong ties to their home communities, college administrators must help these students become fully integrated into the academic and social fabric of their respective campuses. Beyond the academic advising required of them, such as approving course schedules and recommending classes, college administrators should serve as moral support for these students if and when their academics suffer. If they are not able to provide moral support immediately or over a longer period of time, faculty should know how to direct students to other resources on campus (e.g. the dean of students, other academic advisers, heads of academic departments, other faculty members, first-generation student life fellows, the counseling center, etc.).

Cultural Competency
Cultural competency, or the awareness of one’s own identity and of cultural differences, is a skill that every educator in the United States should have and learn to practice. As American classrooms are becoming increasingly diverse, educators must change their pedagogical practices to integrate students from many different ethnic backgrounds. For example, according to a report in Pact’s Point of View, a newsletter for adoptive families of children of color, over the last 10 years there has been a sharp increase in the number of students of color enrolling in private schools.There has been an increase in the number of middle class families of color coupled with the perception that attendance at a private high school assures easier access to private colleges. Research suggests that students of color are more likely to integrate their ethnic and academic identities than white students are because they are often underrepresented on college campuses. The intersectionality of academic and ethnic identities for students of color fosters feelings of belonging in academic and social settings. Affinity groups, such as black and Latin@ student unions, as well as international student associations and LGBTQ groups also provide these students with social support that may be more difficult to find in other campus organizations.
Cultural Identity and Academic Interests
Furthermore, academic and ethnic identities converge in the selection of a particular major as students of color become more aware of their ethnic backgrounds in collegiate settings. For example, during the first semester of my sophomore year at Amherst, I wanted to become an English major because of my love for reading and writing. However, while taking two English classes, one of which was centered on the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and several other writers from the Transcendentalist period in the United States, I was bothered by the lack of representation of people of color in these texts. I was not learning about my people in this course or in my other English course, Reading the Novel, making it less likely for me to relate to the texts we studied in these classes. Ultimately, I switched from the English department to the American Studies department, where I had the option of having an ethnic studies/race concentration. As numerous qualitative studies have suggested, experiences like mine are common as there has been an increasing number of Latin@ groups who immigrate to the United States and enroll at both two- and four-year institutions.

Institutional Culture
Yet, little attention has been given to understanding the ways in which institutional culture influences the experiences and outcomes of racial and ethnic minority college students. Students of color often form their own spaces where they can meet with students from similar cultural backgrounds, advocate for their cultural communities and feel that their cultures are validated. For example, according to a study in which researchers assessed the extent to which university comfort, social support and self-beliefs were interrelated and predictive of academic non-persistence decisions for 99 Latino/a undergraduates, many Latin@ students associate feeling “at home” in the campus community with maintaining interactions and contacts both outside (connections to family) and within (connections to peers) the context of the campus. The size of a campus community and where the college is located also play a role in how students do or do not feel accepted. A sense of community at Amherst College, for example, looks very different from that of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. According to a study in which the institutional climate for talented Latin@ students was examined, 68 percent of the Latin@ students in this study felt that students at their institution knew very little about Hispanic culture. This is a factor that is significantly associated with Latin@ student perceptions of ethnic tension and reports of discrimination on campus. Therefore, student participation in campus affinity groups is a medium through which students of color can collectively promote their own racial understanding. While some may perceive participation in ethnic student organizations as a contributing factor to separatism on campus, there are others who believe such organizations contribute culturally to a college campus and are a form of social support that allows students of color to feel integrated in campus social life.

Promoting Racial Understanding
This particular study also outlined that Chican@ and white students who increased their interest in helping to promote racial understanding while they were in college reported a variety of other behaviors, such as taking an ethnic studies class, participating in campus protests, discussing racial/ethnic issues and socializing with students of other ethnic group. While all of this is a step towards the positive direction, faculty involvement in the lives of students of color is also crucial to their academic success. According to a regression of dependent measures on student and institutional characteristics within the study of 859 sophomore and juniors attending 224 colleges (the sample included 386 Chican@s, 198 Puerto Ricans and 275 other Latin@s [students who categorized themselves as Cuban, Latin or Central American or other Hispanic]), 17.9 percent of the students heard faculty make inappropriate remarks regarding minorities at the college. Fewer experiences of discrimination are undeniably associated with campuses where Latin@s perceive campus administrators to be open and responsive to student concerns. Tokenism, another phenomenon that contributes to misunderstandings between groups of people with different backgrounds, is detrimental to the forming of campus culture. According to an article titled, “Enhancing Campus Climates for Racial/Ethnic Diversity: Educational Policy and Practice,” it was said that “in environments that lack diverse populations, underrepresented groups are viewed as tokens, where tokenism contributes to the heightened visibility of the underrepresented group, exaggeration of group differences and the distortion of images to fit existing stereotypes.” College administrators must work to make sure that an institution is both recruiting young students of color and paying close attention to how those students go about successfully navigating spaces from which they have been historically excluded.

Strategic Planning Meetings/Conclusion
For example, at Amherst, college administrators have been holding strategic planning meetings about how the college can more efficiently address issues of diversity and community. These meetings have been about how to better embrace diversity at Amherst and were held with different student groups on campus, from the Women’s and Gender Center and the Multicultural Resource Center to student athletes and residential counselors on campus. Students were formally invited to and encouraged to attend these meetings. I was one of the participants on the night that a meeting was held with the Multicultural Resource Center, and a commonality that I heard throughout student suggestions was the need for faculty and administrators of the college to change how students are socialized and educated. Whether it is through residential life, the curriculums of certain departments or how certain student groups organize events on campus, frank communication and transparency remains an issue. In order to effectively bridge the divide between students of color and administrators, considerable attention must be paid to what kinds of extracurricular commitments students are making and their relationship to academic studies. Both white and non-white administrators must be trained to be culturally competent so that they can foster more honest relationships with their students. This is not to say that Amherst is a place where students of color feel that their professors are always inaccessible out of class hours. I argue exactly the opposite. However, I have heard too many accounts from students of color who have experienced micro-aggressions — indirectly racist, sexist, classist and homophobic comments made by their professors both in and out of class. Bridging misunderstandings between these two groups is ultimately a collaborative effort that requires time and patience.

This report was commissioned in spring 2014 by Mariana Cruz, former director of the Multicultural Resource Center.