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The Impact of Diversity Requirements and Ethnic Studies Courses

Many campuses now require students to take at least one diversity course in order to graduate. Many of the courses students take to fulfill these requirements are offered through ethnic studies or women's studies programs. One such program, the ALANA (African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American) Studies program at the University of Vermont (UVT) recently undertook a self-study in order to assess the impact of its courses on students.

The study examined the reasons students took ALANA Studies courses and the impact these courses had on increasing students' understanding of race and U.S. diversity issues. The UVT study revealed that students taking ALANA courses to fulfill a diversity requirement and those taking them out of their own interest seemed to be learning a great deal about U.S. diversity and were highly satisfied with their experiences.

Reasons for Taking Diversity Courses

Students surveyed by UVT's ALANA Studies program were almost evenly split between those who were enrolled to satisfy a college requirement and those who were not. However, the survey also found that those students taking the courses to satisfy the requirement were clustered in only a few lower-level courses. Fifty-eight percent of all students taking courses to satisfy a race and ethnicity requirement were in a freshman-level Sociology course, "U.S. Race Relations." In fact, about two-thirds of the students satisfying the requirement either took "U.S. Race Relations" or another freshman-level course. In ALANA Studies upper level courses, 75 percent or more of the students enrolled because of interest and not to fulfill a requirement. In addition, at all levels, ALANA courses that had a specific ethnic content (e.g. Introduction to Asian American Studies) had very few students taking them to fulfill a requirement while those that were theoretical, multi-ethnic and/or comparative tended to get far higher concentrations of these students. Most students took social science courses to satisfy the race and ethnicity requirement, but the majority of the students who were taking ALANA Studies courses for personal interest took humanities courses. Most importantly, the University of Vermont found little difference in the approval ratings for courses that were taken predominantly to fulfill the race and ethnicity requirement and those that were taken for personal student interest.

The ALANA Studies program also found that many students taking these courses intended to take other ALANA courses in subsequent semesters. In the courses where most of the students were attending to fulfill the requirement, 23 percent of the students intended to take other ALANA courses in subsequent semesters. In the remaining ALANA courses surveyed, 46 percent of the students indicated a desire to take more ALANA Studies courses.

Student Assessments of Diversity Courses and Faculty Members

UVT found that students highly approve of their ALANA Studies classes and the faculty who teach them. Fifty-three percent of the ALANA Studies courses in the sample were taught by faculty of color. Faculty of color and white faculty members' approval ratings were virtually the same. Students seemed to appreciate the varying viewpoints and the mix of white faculty members and faculty of color in ALANA Studies courses.

In addition to information about why they were taking these courses, the survey also asked students if they agreed with statements about whether their courses had "strengthened their understanding of issues of race" and "their understanding of and appreciation for cultural diversity in the United States." They were also asked to agree or disagree that the courses had "cultivated critical skills and provided valuable theoretical and/or historical frameworks to examine racial and cultural diversity in the United States." More than 85 percent of the student respondents "agreed" or "strongly agreed" with these statements. In addition to achieving these learning goals, students registered strong enthusiasm for their instructors. These positive approval ratings for instructors were uniform throughout the sample, regardless of level or discipline of the course. Ninety-two percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the instructor demonstrated significant knowledge and appreciation for the experiences, ideas, and achievements of U.S. peoples of color.

In addition to this quantitative data, the qualitative results of this study are also very revealing. In their written comments, students stated that they were given an excellent grounding in theories and cultural perceptions about race and diversity issues and that they were encouraged to apply this knowledge to the experiences of U.S. peoples of color. One student remarked that the courses had "given [her] a better understanding of racism and its origins." Another student suggested that the courses taught her "the necessity to look at all perspectives, not just mine. And not to be afraid to ask questions." Finally, a student made this remark about the course he took on African American history: "I was aware of surface issues, but this course went beyond what I had always thought. I feel that I have a better understanding and thus greater empathy for interracial tensions."

For a complete analysis of this survey as well as the survey instrument and complete results, see DiversityWeb. Click on "Leader's Guide" and then on "Research."

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