Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define diversity and explain the benefits of a diverse college campus for all students.
  • List ten or more ways in which different groups of people can have significant differences, experiences, and perspectives.
  • Explain why all college students are more successful academically in a diverse environment.
  • Explain what students can do to foster multiculturalism and celebrate diversity on campus.

Our society is very diverse. By 2020 an estimated one in three Americans(and half of all college students) will be a person of color, but the term 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, the ways 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.

What Diversity Really Means

A collection of fall leavesDifferences among people may involve where a person was born and raised, the person’s family and cultural group, factual differences in personal identity, and chosen differences in significant beliefs. Some diversity is primarily cultural (involving shared beliefs and behaviors) while other diversity may be biological (race, age, gender, ability), and some is personal (sexual orientation, religion, politics). Diversity generally involves things that may significantly affect some people’s perceptions of others, not the general ways people happen to be different.

We can all learn things from people whose ideas, beliefs, attitudes, values, backgrounds, experiences, and behaviors are different from our own.

The Benefits of Diversity

Exposure to diversity helps individuals overcome stereotypes and become more accepting of human differences, so the goal of many college admissions departments is to attract diverse students from a broad range of backgrounds. Diversity is important for many reasons:

  • Experiencing diversity at college 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. Success in one’s career and future social life also requires understanding people in new ways and interacting with new skills. Experiencing diversity in college 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, develop more intellectual and academic skills, and have higher grade point averages than students 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, so college teaching has expanded to include many new teaching techniques. All students gain when instructors make the effort to address diverse learning needs.
  • Experiencing diversity on campus is beneficial for both minority and majority students. Studies show all students on campus gain from diversity programs. Students have more fulfilling social relationships and report more satisfaction and involvement with their college experience.
  • Diversity experiences help break the patterns of segregation and prejudice that have characterized 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 different people 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.
  • College is ideal setting for forming healthy attitudes about diversity. Framed snowflakes in a collageThe college years are a time of intellectual, social, and emotional growth, and a sustained experience of diversity is an opportunity to heighten these processes.
  • Experiencing diversity makes us all better citizens in our democracy. Democratic government depends on shared values of equality and the public good. Studies have shown that college graduates with a good experience of diversity generally maintain patterns of openness and inclusivity in their future lives, making them better equipped to participate meaningfully in our society.
  • 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, some problems still remain. Society changes slowly, and sadly, many students in some areas, including gay and lesbian students, students with disabilities, and many minority students, still feel marginalized in the dominant culture of their campuses. Even in a country that elected an African American president, racism exists in many places. Women still earn less than men in the same jobs. Thus society as a whole, and colleges in particular, need to continue to work to destroy old stereotypes and achieve a full acceptance of our human differences.


Multiculturalism involves accepting and respecting the ideas, feelings, behaviors, and experiences of people different from oneself. America has always included a great diversity of ideas, attitudes, and behaviors. For example, the constitutional separation of church and state guarantees that people of all religions have the same freedoms and rights for worship and religious behavior. Other laws guarantee the equal rights of all people regardless of skin color, gender, age, and other differences.

Colleges similarly make commitments to ensure they respect and value differences among people and promote a wide understanding of such differences. The Diversity Council at Monroe Community College helps all students not only accept and understand differences among students of varied backgrounds but also celebrate the benefits diversity provides for all.

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:

  • Many Americans cross their legs when seated and thus may point the bottom of their shoe toward another person; many Japanese find this gesture offensive.
  • Many Americans 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.
  • In America, men and women shake hands with each other, but in some other cultures, handshakes across genders are not acceptable.
  • In America, eye contact is generally considered polite and a sign of interest, whereas in many Asian cultures, people show their respect for others by bowing their head slightly because they consider steady eye contact aggressive.

Activity: Challenge Your Thinking

Read each of the following scenarios quickly and respond immediately without stopping to think. There are no right or wrong answers.

Scenario 1. You are walking home down a dark sidewalk when ahead you see three people standing around. Something about the way they are hanging out makes you a little frightened to walk past them. Be honest with yourself: what did you just imagine these people looked like? Why do think you might have associated this particular mental picture with the emotion of feeling frightened?
Scenario 2. In a café on campus, you see a student from another country sitting alone. Since this is someone you know casually from a class, you walk over and are just about to ask if you can join him, when two other students also from his country appear and sit down with him. You hesitate. Would you have hesitated if this person had the same cultural background as you? What makes this situation different? As you hesitate, you overhear them conversing in a language other than English. Be honest with yourself: how does that make you feel now?
Scenario 3. A couple you know invites you to join them and one of their friends, whom you have not met, to go to the movies and dinner on a “double date.”  When you meet them outside the theater, you see that their friend, your date, is of a race different from your own. Are you surprised or shocked? What is your first reaction? Do you anticipate any more difficulty making conversation with your date than with anyone else whom you have just met? Should your friends have told you in advance? Why or why not? If they had told you, would that have made any difference? Explain.

Now think for a minute about how you responded in these scenarios. Did your mental image in the first scenario involve a negative stereotype? What images in the media or society might have contributed to that response? The second and third scenarios involve simple situations in which you couldn’t help but note some difference between you and another person. What might you feel in such situations in real life? Again, there is no right answer, and an awareness of differences is normal and natural even if it may cause some discomfort at first. On the other hand, if you have had significant experiences with diverse others, you might have read these scenarios and simply wondered, “So what? What’s the big deal?” It’s worthwhile thinking about what that means.

Steps we can take to further value diversity include the following:

Honor 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. We should accept that truth if we are to experience the benefits of diversity.

Avoid generalizations about 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. Be open minded and treat everyone with respect as an individual with his or her own ideas, attitudes, and preferences.

Develop cultural sensitivity for communication. Realize that your words may not mean quite the same thing in different cultural contexts or to individuals from different backgrounds. You should generally avoid slang words until you are sure the other person will know what you mean, and never try to use expressions you think are common in the cultural group of the person you are speaking with. Similarly, since body language often varies among different cultures, avoid strong gestures until the responses of the other person signify he or she will not misinterpret the messages sent by your body language.

Take advantage of campus opportunities to increase your cultural awareness. Your college 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.

Take the initiative in social interactions. 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 efforts to meet others, however, we miss a great opportunity to learn and broaden our horizons. Next time you’re looking around 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 college students.

Take a Stand against Prejudice and Hate

Unfortunately prejudice and hate still exist in America, even on college campuses. All campuses have policies against all forms of prejudice and discriminatory behaviors, but fighting prejudice and hate is the responsibility of all citizens who take seriously the American value of equality for all people.

The following are some things you as a college student can do to take a stand:

  • Group of young adults laying on a lawnDecide 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. 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 you may witness. The more everyone openly condemns such behavior, the less likely it is to reappear in the future. 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.
  • 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 a Public Safety officer.
  • Support student groups working for change. Show your support for groups and activities that celebrate diversity and condemn prejudice. Even if you’re shy, your attendance at a parade or gathering lends support. You could write a letter to the editor in the student newspaper, help hand out leaflets for an upcoming rally, or put up posters on campus. America has a great tradition of college students banding together to help solve social problems, and you can be part of the solution.
  • Celebrate diversity. In many ways, you can learn more about diversity through campus programs and activities. The more all students participate, the closer the campus will come to being free of prejudice and hate. Be a role model in how you act and what you say in relation to diversity, and you may have more effect on others than you realize.

Dealing with Prejudice

If you yourself experience prejudice or discrimination related to your race or ethnicity, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, religion, or any other aspect of diversity, don’t just try to ignore it or accept it as something that cannot be changed. As discussed earlier, college students can do much to minimize intolerance on campus. Many overt forms of discrimination are  illegal and against college policies. You owe it to yourself to report it to the appropriate college authority.

You can also attack prejudice in other ways. Join a campus organization that works to reduce prejudice or start a new group and discuss ways you can confront the problem and work for a solution. Seek solidarity with other groups. Organize positive celebrations and events to promote understanding. Write an article for a campus publication explaining the values of diversity and condemning intolerance.

What if you are directly confronted by an individual or group making racist or other discriminatory remarks? In an emotionally charged situation, rational dialogue may be difficult or impossible, and a shouting match or name-calling seldom is productive. If the person may have made an offensive remark inadvertently or because of a misunderstanding, then you may be able to calmly explain the problem with what they said or did. Hopefully the person will apologize and learn from the experience, but if the person made the remark or acted that way intentionally, confronting this negative person directly may be difficult and not have a positive outcome. Most important, take care that the situation does not escalate in the direction of violence. Reporting the incident instead to college authorities may better serve the larger purpose of working toward harmony and tolerance.

Key Takeaways

  • Diversity refers to a great variety of human characteristics and ways in which people differ.
  • Diversity in the college environment has benefits for all students, faculty, and others. Students learn more in a diverse setting, are better prepared for the future, and contribute more fully in positive ways to society.
  • Multiculturalism involves respecting the ideas, feelings, behaviors, and experiences of those who are different from oneself in any way. Colleges promote both diversity in the student body and multiculturalism among all students.
  • As an individual, each of us can gain the benefits of diversity as we challenge our own stereotypes, understand and celebrate differences in others, and learn to interact well with those different from ourselves. Take advantage of campus opportunities to increase your cultural awareness and to form social relationships with diverse others.
  • Although we would hope that all college campuses would be free of hate and discrimination, it can become necessary to take a stand against prejudice.