How to bridge the multiple intersections of culture on college campuses

A university's chief diversity officer offers 6 practical steps higher ed institutions can take to embrace the many complex identities on campus.
By: | November 10, 2020
Southern Nazarene University

College teaches students more than just math, literature, and the skills to build a resume. Institutions of higher education expose students to new worlds and new people, preparing them to succeed in their relationships and careers. For many students, college provides an introduction to new cultures and value systems. Colleges must seize this opportunity, helping learners of all cultures embrace and bridge their many intersecting identities.

Rev. Lena Crouso, Southern Nazarene University

Rev. Lena Crouso, Southern Nazarene University

Diversity is more than just a buzzword. Diverse campuses foster empathy, prepare students for a complex world, and challenge us all to think more critically and creatively.

Diverse campuses begin with an environment that embraces complex identities, the challenges that differences present, and the myriad benefits of allowing students to bring their full personhood to class. Here are some practical steps institutions can begin taking to bridge the multiple intersections of identity on campus.

1. Define what an intercultural community is.

A truly intercultural community does not identify people at just one axis of difference, such as race or ethnicity. Disability status, religion, socioeconomic status, gender identity, and other characteristics also matter and define each individual.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2019 TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” warns that defining people with a “single story” leads to stereotypes. These stereotypes tell an incorrect and incomplete story of who a person really is. By telling a more complete story and considering all aspects of each person’s background, people in a large community, such as on a college campus, can find more similarities with each other than differences.

Building a campus community that finds and nurtures those multiple intersecting identities is crucial for creating an atmosphere that is accepting and gives its students a sense of belonging. That sense of belonging will make students’ academic experiences more meaningful and successful. Here are some ways to build such a community:

2. Work to ensure faculty reflect the student body.

The U.S. population is rapidly diversifying. College campuses must reflect the world in which students live in order to fully prepare them for the future. In 2016, students of color comprised 45.2 percent of the undergraduate population. Yet, institutions of higher education have consistently failed to reflect this diversity in their faculty: That same year, 73.2 percent of full-time faculty were white. Just 5.7 percent were Black, even though about a third of college students in 2018 were Black.

Intercultural communities require intercultural educators. Take stock of what you’re doing to attract diverse instructors, then consider the role these instructors can play in fostering a warm and welcoming environment for all students.

Administrators must consider their own histories and biases as they work to grow their campus community.

Everyone has an identity and a culture. Yet too often, when trying to build an intercultural community, administrators focus on “other” cultures. Begin by considering the dominant culture at your institution and in your administration:

  • What values and norms do you take for granted?
  • What things do you believe without question? How might others’ beliefs differ or challenge those beliefs?
  • What about your belief system or cultural norms might make others feel unwelcome? What holidays, leaders, and heroes do you celebrate?
  • Who decides what is normal on your campus?

Identifying your dominant culture and its norms and values helps you better understand what’s missing. The goal should not be to simply recruit people who are different to fill a quota or check a box. To foster an intercultural community, your institution must value difference—even when it’s challenging, even when it makes you rethink the ways you do things, even when difference is a source of conflict.

3. Audit your current systems and structures/

Diversity doesn’t just happen because you want it to. Whatever your enrollment and staffing diversity goals are, there is a reason you have not yet met them. Expanding your intercultural community requires taking a fearless look at your current systems and structures.

Few administrators would knowingly allow exclusionary policies to persist. We become blind to what feels normal to us. This is why hiring an outside auditor can be helpful. They may be able to identify the biases, systemic structures, and subtle exclusionary practices you do not see.

Through the audit process, answer the following questions:

  • What measures do you currently have in place to foster an intercultural community? How do you know if those measures are working? Are they working?
  • Why are you focusing on diversity now? Has something changed at your school or in your administration?
  • What is the makeup of your faculty? What are you doing to make your institution an attractive place for diverse educators?
  • Are there hidden assumptions baked into your processes? For example, do you assume that all applicants have consistent internet access, the ability to take the SAT, or parents who speak English?
  • What feedback have you received from students and faculty about your campus culture? Have you been receptive to that feedback? What have you done to implement it?
  • How can you help students feel safe to give feedback?
  • How have you managed the conflicts that inevitably come with an intercultural community? What specific, concrete steps can you take to make students from marginalized cultures feel safe despite this conflict?
  • What data will you use to measure diversity success?

4. Weigh administrative buy-in and make changes as necessary.

A diverse campus culture requires sustained, broad institutional buy-in. When students push for change, change does not last unless those students get support they need from the top-down. Moreover, institutions cannot rely on marginalized students to change a problematic campus culture. It’s an unfair burden and a mission that’s doomed to failure.

Because institutional change begins from the top, a key aspect of auditing your current system is weighing the extent of administrative buy-in. If you have reluctant administrators or hostile faculty, making sustained change begins with selling them on the promise of diversity—or replacing them with people who already value intercultural communities.

Some discussion points to highlight include:

  • The real-world value of diversity, including preparing students for diverse workplaces
  • How an intercultural community can help students get a better, broader education
  • Diversity as a recruitment tool; how a wider base of potential students can help a college grow and thrive

5. Identify intercultural learning opportunities in the curriculum.

A college that values intercultural learning opportunities must look closely at its curriculum and continually ask “why.” Why is this book included instead of that one? Why is this historical figure important? Why must this lesson be taught in this specific way? Why must class be structured in a specific way? Why are certain historical figures, writers, or leaders not included?

Students at campuses across the country are urging administrators to look harder at what they include in the curriculum and justify it. Some key areas of focus include:

  • Historical myths: Many history textbooks still repeat demonstrably untrue stories or half-truths. Consider which textbooks you use and whether there are options for adding more context and deeper meaning to your curriculum.
  • Inclusive history: Don’t stop with looking at the historical stories your campus tells. Consider also the lens through which you tell them. Include historical figures from all backgrounds and experiences. When exploring the evils of history, such as slavery and genocide, center the views around those who were harmed by these events.
  • The literary canon: In literature, philosophy, poetry, and other subjects, white and male voices continue to dominate. Consider whether these are the best voices to include, and widen your curriculum wherever possible. Women, people of color, and other marginalized groups should not be segregated into women’s studies or ethnic studies electives. They are integral to the curriculum, and you must treat them as such.

6. Assess where you are and where you want to go

To truly succeed at fostering an intercultural community, diversity cannot just be the concern of a special committee or administrator. You must integrate it into everything you do. Valuing diverse voices must become a key value. Consider how this goal might change your mission statement, hiring priorities, and budget.

The budget is critical. Without resources, you cannot change your campus culture or properly support your students. Your administration’s willingness to fund your goals is a key test of how important they really are. As your administration compares options, talk about hard financial figures. Consider how financing can help you get to where you hope to be, and then set clear funding benchmarks.

Intercultural communities are microcosms of the larger world. They challenge students, better serve us all, and help institutions work toward the ultimate shared goal of a more educated, thoughtful, and better world.

Rev. Lena Crouso serves as the chief diversity officer in the Office of Intercultural Learning and Engagement at Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma. She is also an ordained Elder in the Church of the Nazarene. Crouso is the daughter of Asian-Indian immigrants. Her journey from Hinduism to Christ, along with her diverse life path, has given her a heart and mind for the empowerment of all people through intercultural understanding, as well as a desire to lead people in spiritual and emotional ways, empowering students to move toward social transformation and freedom.