Winners All: When Diversity Begets Diversity

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

We all want to be winners.  That trait is truly universal.  But as higher education in the United States increasingly “goes global,” —recruiting students across international lines—how do we overcome challenges of language, culture, and academic preparedness to ensure that, while some win, others do not lose?

This question reflects one of the themes of the British Council’s sixth annual Going Global conference, which I attended in London in March.   The purpose of the conference—attended by 1500 people from 80 countries—was to explore how education can change the future of the world by shaping and connecting the lives of its citizens.

Keynote speaker Homi Bhabha, director of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University, spoke eloquently about the “aspirational spirit” of becoming a world civilization while, at the same time, maintaining individual cultures so as to maximize diversity.  He argued that education will become more about how to processor interpretinformation rather than factual mastery.  And that, as a way of maintaining cultural values while gaining a world outlook, we must not undervalue the role of the humanities in medicine, the law, business, and other disciplines. 

Technology alone will not create the global society we seek; rather, it will develop through collaborative dialogue and a convergence of ideas, values, and innovations. 

At the University of California, Riverside, we are a microcosm for exactly these issues.  We are only now assuming international diversity, but we long ago achieved ethnic and racial diversity.  Our success in that arena, and the lessons learned, will guide us as we expand our international diversity from its current 1.5 percent at the undergraduate level, to 8 to 10 percent by 2015.

 The challenge lies in overcoming those issues of geography, culture, language, and academic preparedness that go hand-in-hand with internationalization, while at the same time retaining the unique cultural identities that make up our student population.  And in that sphere, we have some experience.

The University of California, Riverside has ranked in the top handful of public universities for its diversity by U.S. News and World Report. Diversity in this context means ethnic and racial diversity.  Underrepresented groups make up 38 percent of our student body, up from 13 percent in 1990. Another 40 percent of our student body is Asian American. Nearly 50 percent of our undergraduates are the first in their families to attend college.

In the ‘90s, our rapid growth, combined with rapid diversification, led to challenges.  While these new students were technically eligible for a University of California education, their high school experience left them less academically prepared than their peers.  Others came from homes where another language was spoken, so they struggled with English in the classroom.  Many first generation students had no role models so they felt bewildered, isolated and unsure where to turn for help.

Initially, some faculty members resented teaching students who were less academically prepared than their coursework required, and were reluctant to change their methods.  But the tidal wave of growth and diversity changed the shape of our landscape.  And so the UC Riverside student success initiative was born:

  • We expanded tutoring, mentoring, and other academic support programs.
  • We celebrate diversity throughout the university, from our flavors in the dining hall to promotions in athletics to arts programs that include Taiko drums, a Javanese Gamelan and Peruvian panpipes.
  • We revamped student advising—creating a professional track for advising staff and engaging more faculty in the process of knowing exactly where are students were culturally.
  • We created special interest housing to bring together students of similar interests and majors—for example, our students can choose if they want to practice their Spanish on “Mundo Hall” or place themselves among the most studious on the “Honors Hall.”   This, too, enhanced learning while providing social support. 

Because our domestic students succeeded, stayed in school and graduated, we can say that we succeeded.

International students face similar problems – language, culture, the transition to college, feelings of isolation, and gaps in their academic background relative to the University of California curriculum.  I am myself an immigrant from Argentina and I will be forever shaped by the way people accepted me and guided me and understood when I was confused.

I was 10 when my family moved to the Bay Area, by way of Canada.  All I wanted to do was blend in with the other kids on our blockto play football and speak without an accent.  I worked hard to learn to do both.  But, in retrospect, somewhere along the way I shook off more of my native culture than I would have liked.  Yes, I remember my father’s tales of life in Argentina, but I don’t “own” the traditions and ethos.  I don’t want that to be the experience of our students.  If they come here to learn, they should also retain their own unique backgrounds and identities. They should not feel that they must assimilate to be accepted.

As we craft programs to support our international students, we will apply lessons we learned from growing our domestic diversity in Riverside to the special challenges that international students face.

Give them a bridge

Summer bridge programs give entering students a head start academically but, even more importantly, help them make the transition to the university environment.  As a result, as many as 20 percent more students in summer bridge programs pass gateway science courses than students who do not participate.  This model has enormous potential to assist international students who must adjust not only to higher education, but to a new country. 

Support in the first year

One of our most successful efforts has been to create first-year learning communities.  Clusters of 20 to 30 students are grouped by theme, academic major, or discipline.  They take two to three core courses together, forming study groups, fostering peer interactions, and connecting with faculty.  This, in turn, helps students to develop good study habits, form friendships, explore majors, and discover potential career choices.  Learning communities provide a nurturing and supportive experience within a large and sometimes bewildering new environment, resulting in marked student success—an ideal model for international students.  Recent literature indicates that students who participate in first-year learning communities maintain higher grade-point averages, finish their degrees sooner, and are more satisfied with their overall university experience.  Combining international and domestic students in learning communities will benefit both, by providing the opportunity for collaborative dialogue that Dr. Bhabhi so clearly articulated.

A chance to give back

There is no better way to feel at home than to be of real useOur University-Eastside Initiative, for example, creates a safe environment for youngsters in an economically depressed area.  Students participate in community service, offer academic tutoring, and assist in after-school programs. The campus also engages the community through research aimed at such real-world problems as solar energy, transportation, water and environmental quality.

Peer to Peer Support

Our students do best when they learn from one another.  A psychology professor, for example, realized that a number of Chinese students were struggling with terminology in his large lecture class.  He paired them with Chinese-American students to help them with language challenges and, in the process, make new friends.  Our international population will not be isolated.

In the end, our student success initiative created a culture shift—not so much for individual students, but for the campus community. Our vision shifted as we reinterpreted our place in the world.  The campus went from being perplexed and somewhat overwhelmed by its rapid growth and diversification to embracing these changes and, indeed, using them to the advantage of students, faculty, the institution, and the community. 

A recent report from the American Council on Education (PDF download) maps the internationalization of higher education and calls for universities to make sure they are pursuing the goal for the right reasons. 

Students with the right support experience higher retention rates, greater academic success, and shorter time to degree.  Equally important are the intangibles.  They feel part of a community, a rich blend of cultures, perspectives, and experiences with international students providing more strands in the tapestry.

These benefits spill over into the classroom, where diversity has enriched the learning experience.  Professors, by necessity, developed new ways of teaching, but now speak boldly about how the diversity of our campus has influenced their research and scholarship. 

The institution has benefited from our diversity.  It has enhanced our reputation, enabling us to recruit and retain top faculty and students.  It has created a welcoming environment.  With comparable graduation rates across all racial and ethnic groups—something not seen at other U.S. universities—the University of California, Riverside, has become an exemplar for student success.  Going forward, we will be a beacon for international students, a place where they too feel welcome and supported.

In the end, society is the beneficiary.  Our communityour global communitybenefits when a highly educated workforce is prepared to succeed in an increasingly multicultural, interconnected world, while still holding onto their own cultural values and origins.  From the time international students arrive at Los Angeles International Airport and we give them a calling card to phone their parents, to the time they graduate at rates equal to or higher than those of domestic students, our international students will feel supported.  They will succeed.

At the University of California, Riverside, we believe diversity will beget diversity.  As our institution becomes more international, and as higher education in the United States becomes more international, we will be winners, all. 

—Timothy P. White is the chancellor of the University of California, Riverside. He was an invited panelist at the British Council’s “Going Global” conference in London.

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