In honor of the National Multicultural Conference and Summit, which takes place in Houston this month, I would like to talk about the importance of maintaining a culturally diverse campus. I will focus here on a less discussed aspect of having a diverse student population: how it allows for personal growth for all students on campus. Two common arguments for increased cultural diversity on campus are that exposure to a variety of cultures better prepares students to work in an increasingly global economy and that increased diversity helps undo generations of prior discrimination. While both arguments are valid, there is also an overlooked argument –that exposure to a wide range of cultural experiences and views helps students better understand themselves and their own values, beliefs and assumptions.
Let me illustrate this idea with a concrete, somewhat simplified example. Suppose you’d like a snack but the only snack available is an apple. Suppose also that in your house everyone has apple for snacks and you’ve never seen anyone have anything other than apples. In a very real sense then, even though you can choose whether or not to snack, you’re not really able to choose whether or not to have an apple, since you’re not aware that any other options exist. Now once someone introduces the idea of possibly having an orange, a banana, or even a muffin, you may still choose to have an apple, but you are more clear that you are making a choice, and you may even be able to recognize why you are making your choice.
This aspect of self-awareness has greater meaning when we are talking about issues that often arise in diverse settings, issues such as free speech vs. respect for others, individualism vs. community, openness vs. privacy, genuine curiosity vs. defaulting to long-held assumptions.
Having a culturally diverse university environment challenges us at both the individual and institutional level to examine our values and choices, and through that process our values are strengthened or changed. Introducing diversity into any human system increases the complexity of the interactions, and this can occasionally lead to discomfort as previously held beliefs are challenged. Naturally, it is the responsibility of each of us to try to make these interactions a growth opportunity, despite occasional friction, conflict and discomfort.
The Counseling and Testing Center, as well as the Division of Student Life, is committed to helping students navigate these complex interactions so that they can lead lives of greater integrity, self-awareness and purpose.
Ron Miyaguchi, Ph.D.