Diversity in a global setting
The world is flat.
In terms of communication, geographical boundaries and physical distances have been made irrelevant by technology. Nations and companies conduct business on an international scale in a complex global market, but Fortune 500 CEO’s and politicians are not the only ones benefiting from this technological renaissance.
Anyone can find out anything at any given time with nothing more than a basic Internet connection and a bit of curiosity.
So if the average person has a veritable treasure trove of information at his or her fingertips and humanity has become hyper-connected, has society transcended to a utopia-like state where equality and understanding abound? Not quite.
Things like the apartheid regime and the Berlin Wall are relics from a dark chapter of humanity’s history, but has a resource like the Internet fostered openness and acceptance, or have people just been spending their time up voting pictures of cute animals?
No two human beings are alike. Upon entering the workforce an individual will be in contact with people who have different values and ideas, and there are those who believe that preparation for those experiences should begin in an academic setting.
The University of Wisconsin Whitewater is one such institution. The aim of this piece was to assess the current state of the campus in terms of diversity. More so qualitatively than quantitatively.
The intent was to examine the programs and classes offered by the university, the environment created by the university and some students’ opinions on the matter.
The goal was no to compare the number of Caucasian students to other minority groups on campus, but to determine if the institution has created an atmosphere that encourages diversity.
Diversity is a nebulous concept and as author Henry Louis Gates once said, “diversity doesn’t mean black and white only.”
Diversity: Public relations buzzword or worthwhile pursuit
Merriam-Webster’s definition of diversity is, “an instance of being composed of differing elements or qualities.” That is a very scientific way of describing diversity, but UW-Whitewater chose to define it by making a list.
Diversity at UW-Whitewater includes (but is not limited to):
- Sexual orientation
- Sexual identity
- Socioeconomic status
- Religious belief
For UW-Whitewater, diversity is as much a part of its image as having a world-class business college and national championship caliber athletic programs. The university’s website has an entire section devoted to diversity, and its goal as an institution is to, “create a campus climate that is truly welcoming for everyone.”
Pros and Cons
Pro: A diversity plan outlined by UW-Whitewater on its website from 2007 assumes that diversity has an inherently positive affect.
- Diversity implies equal opportunity for all students, faculty and staff
- Diversity enhances the educational experience for all students, faculty and staff on campus
- Diversity on the UW-Whitewater campus will be beneficial to the local community, southeastern Wisconsin and the state as a whole.
Diversity itself is an incredibly complex idea so, to start, it might be best to examine a few of the diversity subgroups on campus.
Students with physical disabilities
An annual disability report, published by the UW System, determined there were almost 5,000 students across all of the state schools who were eligible for services to assist with their disabilities. The top three universities in that category were UW-Madison (798), UW-Milwaukee (625) and UW-Whitewater (534).
According to the enrollment statistics found on the UW-Whitewater Registrar’s website, the total student population was around 11,000 for the 2012-13 school year. Meaning UW-Whitewater had the highest percentage, about five percent, of students with physical disabilities in the state of Wisconsin relative to the number of students attending.
The campus itself was built with handicap accessibility in mind. There are ramps, elevators and automated doors in nearly every building, but what is it that makes disabled students feel that UW-Whitewater is as friendly as it is accessible?
The answer is that there are plenty of programs in place to help students with disabilities assimilate.
It begins with the CSD’s summer transition program, where incoming freshmen with disabilities can spend four weeks taking two, three-credit courses. During the actual school year, qualified students can have assistance with note taking and can even have an aide attend classes with them.
There is also a shuttle service provided by the CSD to students with impaired mobility, which is an attractive feature in a state where there is the potential for snow and ice on the ground five to six months each year.
Computer labs on campus also provide “adaptive software.” For example, screen reading programs and braille printers can assist visually-impaired students, and should a student feel improvements must be made they are able to reach out and encourage change.
One area on campus potentially in need of some changes is Heide Hall. Aside from a single elevator and braille signs for classrooms, it offers little else for students with disabilities.
The building contains staircases, with no ramps, narrow doorways and cramped hallways and classrooms. Unfortunate, considering it is less than 50 yards away from the wheelchair athletic and rehabilitation facilities in the Roseman building.
Students of different sexual orientations and identities
For decades people who did not identify themselves as straight or heterosexual faced persecution on par with the suffering endured by African-Americans, Latinos, etc.
Life has become somewhat easier for members of the LGBT community. In September 2011 the U.S. military officially repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, and more recently two prominent American athletes came out to the public.
The group leading the charge for gay rights at UW-Whitewater is impact. Support for the group has grown so strong that the university has even allowed impact to schedule a “Coming Out Day” for the Fall 2013 semester.
Of course all U.S. citizens have the right to assemble or peacefully protest, but what makes this event so intriguing is that professors and administrators will be some of the keynote speakers.
More importantly, the university is allowing those people to be identified as such and not as private citizens. Students at UW-Whitewater are outspoken about their beliefs and, in this case, the university has not tried to silence or distance itself from those students.
It’s clear that the atmosphere of the campus is an accepting one. While students likely feel strongly about both sides of the issue, the university as a whole seems to believe that acceptance is the correct choice.
If the university truly wanted to be an innovator, it could even go a step further and classes associated with the history of gay rights. Classes focusing on racial, ethnic and gender equality already exist, but when it comes to the gay population their history and struggle is conspicuously absent in classrooms.
UW-Whitewater has grown from a tiny state college for teachers in the 1800’s, to an international institution in the new millennium.
According to the Center of Global Education’s website, there were 238 students from 41 countries enrolled at UW-Whitewater on some type of visa. The countries that sent the most students were Saudi Arabia (83), China (23) and Germany (12).
Learning the customs and language of a foreign country can be a difficult task, but a student-driven support group, the Global Cafe, was established to introduce international students to people in similar situations.
Students facilitate several meetings over the course of a semester where presenters share their culture with those in attendance. This provides a first-hand experience for American students to learn about other countries, particularly if they are hoping to study abroad in the future, and brings international students together in a setting where they are all in the minority.
Last year’s student coordinator of the Global Cafe, Jin-Jin, hails from Tianjin, China. She has lived in the U.S. for almost a decade while pursuing a degree in engineering.
Jin-Jin said Tianjin as a city has around 11 million people living there, while the latest U.S. Census found that Wisconsin as a state has less than 6 million. She said the amount of space in America was something she never really got used to.
“I used to live in Janesville and when I walked out my door there would be no one, but in China the street would have been filled with people talking or performing and kids playing,” Jin-Jin said.
When asked why she left China for the U.S., Jin-Jin said the opportunity for a better job brought her here. She views the U.S. as a land of equality where everyone can make something of themselves if they work hard enough. UW-Whitewater was no different.
She helped organize the Global Cafe because she felt lonely during her assimilation into American culture. Swapping stories with fellow international students let her form relationships to take the place of the people she left behind in China.
“Because of how I look and talk people know I’m a foreigner, but when you are surrounded by other people going through the same thing you don’t feel so isolated,” Jin-Jin said.
Of course the international diversity at UW-Whitewater is apparent in the faculty as well as the student body.
The Center for Global Education’s website said 42 faculty members from 12 different countries taught at UW-Whitewater from 2011-12. Almost half of them were from Mexico.
Kannan Amr has been a faculty member at UW-Whitewater for 18 months and has been teaching in the U.S. on a visa for the past decade. Previously he was a journalist in Qatar and India.
For Kannan, diversity does not necessarily equate to race or skin color, but more so to people with different viewpoints or different problems.
Growing up in another part of the world, Kannan said he has very different viewpoints compared to some of the faculty who were born and raised in Whitewater and the U.S. He said he tries to communicate his experiences to his students through stories and introduce them to new ideas and new places.
“Some students want to stay in a certain area their whole lives, like Whitewater or Wisconsin, but then they are never exposed to different ways of thinking,” Kannan said. “If people do not want to go out and experience those things, then you must bring the experience to them.”
When Kannan is in the community he knows people see him differently because of the color of his skin, especially when he attends a Catholic church with a mostly white congregation. The only time he said he ever felt alienated was following 9/11.
“People notice I’m different, that’s why when I go to the airport I walk up to the security checkpoint and tell them search me because I know they will pull me out of line anyway,” Kannan said.
“There aren’t any problems like that in Whitewater though no one really cares that I’m different; it’s a nice environment and most of the students are very respectful.”
Senior Andy McGlashen, another international student, came to UW-Whitewater three years ago from Southampton, England. He said he left home because he loves to travel, but said he stayed longer than anticipated because of the university’s tennis team.
“The team is like a family to me and really made me feel at home here,” McGlashen said. “I like the feel of the campus too it’s great here.”
Like Jin-Jin and Kannan, McGlashen said he feels “safe” at UW-Whitewater, but also that the diversity classes he had to take failed to effectively communicate what it means to be diverse. He said the material often focused on race and ethnicity, but that people are different in many other ways.
Diversity in ‘The Dub,’ what’s the story?
McGlashen is not the only student to voice his disappointment with the diversity curriculum on campus. Senior and advertising major Christopher Gotti also said the university misses the mark sometimes.
Gotti said diversity is not limited to race or gender, and that those are the most common metrics by which diversity is measured. He believes the school has created an environment where students can freely express themselves, but that the students have facilitated it all, while the university simply laid the groundwork.
“We’re a very open, accommodating school and I think they have the right intentions, but I don’t think we necessarily have the results,” Gotti said.
Gotti said that certain diversity courses, like world of the arts, are hated by students because they are forced to take it and don’t try to learn anything but simply show up to get a good grade. He thinks students should broaden their horizons and have the opportunity to do so, but should not be forced.
“I accept everyone that’s just the way I am and this is a safe place, but I’m a white male, probably the safest demographic,” Gotti said. “People have a greater appreciation for things, I think, when they just experience them for themselves.”
Gotti said growing up his best friend of seven years came out to him and that, that experience did more for shaping his views about different people then anything he learned at UW-Whitewater.
Why does being different matter?
A pair of sophomore accounting majors, Dalton Books and Ryan Clementz, expressed similar opinions when asked about their college experience. The two agreed that diversity hinges on the physical aspects of a person, such as facial features or skin color.
“The university makes us take diversity classes, but it’s pretty obvious that there are lot of white, middle class students and they mostly cluster together,” Books said.
Clementz agreed and said his group of friends was even more segmented from the general student population because they were all student athletes. He was on the university’s track and field team last year and said he stayed within that circle.
“Once I found a group I was comfortable with I felt no need to branch out,” Clementz said. “If I’m content with my group why would I leave?”
While some students appreciate the international diversity on campus, Books said that is not what college is about. He said it’s about, “$60,000 worth of debt and a piece of paper.”
“I’ve had teachers with accents before and I just find it irritating,” Books said. “It feels like I’m taking two subjects, the class itself and a foreign language.”
Books and Clementz said the only instance where they thought deeply about diversity at college was when they were forced to attend a performance for the new student seminar class.
It was a presentation by NWC, whose letters stand for racial slurs, that travels around the country debunking the myths surrounding different minority groups.
“At first I was mad we were being forced to go, but near the end I kind of enjoyed it,” Clementz said. “It showed me how much racism hurts people, but I didn’t think about it too much.”
If you build it, will they come?
So UW-Whitewater has dozens of programs that encourage diversity and even offers a grant of up to $10,000 for studies that focuses on diversity.
According to some students and faculty, the university administration has successfully created an environment where people can freely express themselves and work towards their goals in safety.
Some feel a diversity agenda detracts from the college experience, while others feel it enhances it. While forcing particular views on a large audience can have disastrous repercussions, per Nazi Germany, there are cases where being exposed to other methods of thinking can be beneficial.
UW-Whitewater might not be pushing its diversity agenda as hard as its students have, but there is obviously a system in place that allows individuals and groups to express themselves as the Constitution intended.
People might be resistant to change and might feel no desire to migrate from their comfort zones, but if they deem the time is not in college, at a four-year university, then when and where will they ever stray from what is comfortable?