Last December, some colleagues and I held focus groups for 66 undergraduates at the University of Maryland. I thought their views of campus diversity were interesting and would generalize to other institutions.
By way of background: our incoming students are 11.5% African American, 11.1% Asian, 6.9% Hispanic, and 6.1% foreign. Students are also diverse in terms of religion, culture, and ideology, although we don’t keep statistics on those factors. Participants in our focus groups were proud of this diversity. Some said that they chose to enroll here instead of at more competitive institutions because Maryland is more racially and ethnically diverse. One said that he would want his children to come here for that reason.
With a few exceptions (often students from Prince George?s County, MD), they see the University as much more diverse than their high schools and communities were. They feel that they have learned to appreciate diversity much better than their peers at other institutions. One White woman said that her friends from high school ?make racial comments and slurs and things like that, and I?m sitting there like, ?No, you?re wrong?; and I had never told any of my friends that they were wrong before.? Another student expressed a typical experience, although in an extreme form:
Before I came here, I was in a box. ? I came from a community?we don?t even have a post office, that?s how small we are. Everybody who lives there, we?re all White, we?re all Christian. ? I?m related to about half of those people. I came from a high school where there were two Black people in the senior class?. We were all at the same economic level, essentially. And then I came here, and it was, like, culture shock. I almost failed out my first semester, because I couldn?t understand what it was like to be somewhere so different. And obviously I?m very glad that I came here, but it was just insane. ? And I was thankful for Lutheran Campus Ministries, because that was my one little teeny tiny connection to things back home.
Students cite diversity in their residences, in campus entertainment events and culture, and in public spaces. However, they see their own classes and student groups are more homogeneous. ?There are times when I can walk down the Mall and be shocked by [the diversity] I see, but then again, I go into class and everybody looks the same.?
Some students feel that there?s too much complacency about the relatively large percentages of racial/ethnic, cultural, linguistic, religious, and sexual minorities, but not enough emphasis on actually understanding differences. One student who had organized a large discussion of racial issues said, ?While the University brings a lot of people together, it does a poor job of?not forcing interaction, but fostering interaction.? Another student said that in the absence of mandatory programs for dialogue, ?It?s up to each individual person to decide whether they?re going to get out of their box.? A third participant noted that her roommate had never spoken to a Black person.
An African American participant said, ?Minority students are automatically forced into diverse situations and I feel like everybody else should. ? This University takes credit for the fact that they?re one of the top 20 public universities with the most African Americans, so I feel that they should make sure that everybody?s exposed to those African Americans.?
On the other hand, students have originated highly creative ways to foster interaction. For instance, they recently organized an event at which a Jewish student read the Jim Crow laws aloud and then an African American student recited the Nuremburg Laws.