diversity digest
Student Experience
next story
previous story
previous issue
institution profiles
recommended resources
diversity web

What Happens Next? Examining the Long-Term Impact of Diversity Education
Carolyn Vasques Scalera, Ph.D. Graduate, Department of Sociology, University of Michigan

How do diversity courses and programs affect students' lives beyond college? How successful are diversity programs in providing students with the skills and inspiration they will need to build democratic, multicultural communities and workplaces? The Program on Intergroup Relations, Conflict and Community (IGRCC) at the University of Michigan (UM) is one program that has been seen as a national model. It offers strategies to provide students with opportunities to learn about issues of identity, difference, and justice, but also to experience diverse democratic community-building firsthand.

This program seeks to help students learn about diversity issues and empower them to take action as a result of their learning. A body of emerging research is beginning to document the positive impact of diversity programs on student attitudes, intellectual development and on intergroup relations on college campuses. In this article, I discuss a recently completed qualitative research project that examines what impact the IGRCC program at UM has had on students' lives after they graduate.

IGRCC brings together students from diverse social identities to dialogue across their differences, practice constructive intergroup relations and coalition building, and develop vision and skills for creating democratic multicultural communities. (For a description of the program, see www.umich.edu/~igrc/). IGRCC's program is built on a framework that foregrounds individual, intergroup, and social transformation. It aims to equip students with the intellectual, emotional, interpersonal, and social action skills necessary to critically understand issues of dominance and oppression and to take individual and group action to build just, multicultural communities.

As part of my research, I conducted a qualitative study of a group of former students who participated in IGRCC as peer facilitators. Through analysis of questionnaires, in-depth interviews, and student reflection papers, I examined how these students were affected by their experiences in the program. Data were gathered from 30 former facilitators one to four years after they left the program.

These students describe a deep and lasting impact that the program had on their personal and professional lives, their relationships with others, and their commitments to social justice. They describe developing awareness and more complex understandings of their own and others' multiple identities and their roles as individuals and group members in systems of oppression. They describe learning to value the role of conflict, critical compassion, and empathy in building communities within and across difference. Research also suggests that they are using the communication, conflict, and facilitation skills they learned in the program to translate their learning into action in a variety of settings.

In both surveys and interviews, these former students described the multiple and lasting ways in which they were affected by their program involvement:

"What I learned through IGRCC and the way it changed my thinking affects every choice and decision I make....From my conversations and interactions with people at the workplace, to occupation choice, to where I want to live. I try to be conscious of the way race, sex, sexual identity, etc. play out in situations and then take an active role in fighting 'isms,' not perpetuating discrimination and stereotypes."
"First in my personal life--IGRCC changed me, period. It changed the way I think and approach group situations. It gave me leadership skills in working with diversity....This then affects how I affect any organization I work for or with, and any community to which I feel a sense of belonging."

Drawing On Diversity Learning in the Real World

Former facilitators shared many examples of the ways in which they continue to draw on their IGRCC experiences in their personal and professional lives. They describe continuing efforts to "fight my own and others' stereotypes," "challenge co-workers and friends on a broad range of social justice issues;" and "choose 'appropriate channels of communication' when working with diverse communities."

These students have been changed by their educational experiences in ways that affect the decisions they now make. Some have chosen to work for community agencies, in social work, in non-violent mediation programs, in women's rights groups, and public interest law firms. In addition to their choices of careers, data suggest that the program affected the ways in which these former students actually function in their current careers--in the ways in which they conceptualize their roles and professional missions, how they understand key issues involved and constituencies served in their jobs, and how they choose appropriate actions to take professionally. They describe how they attempt to practice their professions in ways that not only provide better service for clients, but that attempt to create more multicultural democratic spaces and a more socially just world.

The data suggest that these former facilitators are more likely to engage in social justice actions in general (rather than merely recognizing oppression), and to engage in actions that are initiating and preventive in nature (rather than merely responsive or reactive). Facilitators describe themselves as being more likely "to involve myself," "to engage in conflict," "to raise issues openly," "to counter discriminatory comments," "to seek out information," "to articulate social injustices," "to lobby for more diverse leadership groups," and "to challenge corporate authority." In addition, they recognize and demand action at multiple levels--individual, institutional, cultural, social--and on multiple issues.

These former students' accounts also reveal the transformed ways in which they are taking action. Rather than yelling, lecturing, or simply walking away, they describe being able to engage in productive and supportive ways. They are more willing and able to "hang in there" when people are emotional or defensive and to attempt to construct environments where true dialogue is possible.

Challenges in the Real World

While many former facilitators make daily attempts in their personal and professional lives to live and work in socially just ways, it is not easy. They articulate many challenges that mediate and often subvert both their willingness and ability to take action in their everyday lives. They note the general lack of opportunities and support to continue their social justice work in the "real world." Many describe feeling "much more on my own," like "a lone voice" or "an aberration" in their current social and occupational environments. They note ways in which college in general, and IGRCC in particular, were unlike "the real world" in which people lack the experience, knowledge, and commitment to do this kind of work. While the supportive learning environment facilitators encountered in IGRCC was instrumental in their individual transformation, the sharp contrast between that environment and the social and institutional worlds they now face is in some ways disempowering.

One former student describes "others' disinterest, ignorance of, or intentional unwillingness to discuss and/or understand situations in terms of identity dynamics." Another suggests that "many of my co-workers feel they know everything about racial and other diversity issues and are not open to reflecting on their biases." In general, these facilitators are facing the reality that, "after you leave the University of Michigan you realize that many people don't give a damn about multicultural issues." "Outside of the university environment, it often doesn't seem appropriate to raise questions with people about attitudes involving race, class, gender, etc. People seem to think there is something naive or hopeless about trying to confront these issues in their lives and the greater world around them."

While the majority of former facilitators describe their work/school environments as "moderately" diverse, more than half describe those environments as being "not at all" or only "a little" conducive to working on issues of diversity and indicate that working on diversity issues was "extra work" they had to do on their own. The majority said they wanted to see more done in their current work environments around issues of diversity and social justice.

Despite the lack of opportunities and support to work on these issues, however, most former facilitators felt they were having an impact. And while most of these students were frustrated over the lack of opportunities and support, many shared examples of successes they have experienced. They cite: "having better, deeper, and more meaningful relationships" within and across difference, "seeing friends and family challenge themselves to re-think previous views about people different from themselves," and "creating diversity programs for fellow staff and for community groups."

Thus, despite the challenges and frustrations they face, these former facilitators remain committed to working for social justice now and in the future. Their perseverance and continued commitment in the face of these challenges and disappointments is further testament to the personal investment these former facilitators feel. In fact, in explaining why they remain committed to working on these issues, most described that their very senses of self worth and purpose are at stake.

Despite some skepticism about the likelihood of large-scale structural change happening any time soon, these former students remain committed to fighting for change and to the possibility that change can happen. The data I collected provide strong evidence for the lasting impact of programs like IGRCC. This research suggests that education that is truly diverse and democratic can have a deep and lasting impact on students' willingness and ability to participate meaningfully in diverse, democratic living beyond college.

Carolyn Vasques Scalera recently completed her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Michigan. The research described in this article draws from her dissertation.

back to top

University of Michigan

Intergroup Relations, Conflict
and Community, The University of Michigan

Communication Tips

Students or recent graduates with experience in diversity education can be powerful messengers about its long-term, positive impact. If you are in touch with recent graduates of diversity programs, encourage them to communicate about the impact of their diversity education.

This can be done through op/ed pieces placed in mainstream or ethnic newspapers. Op/eds and letters to the editor can be particularly effective in providing perspective when the media is carrying accounts of diversity-related conflict. Also encourage these spokespeople to make themselves available as guests on radio talk shows. And remember that alumni publications and local business journals can provide important opportunities to communicate about the impact of diversity education.