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CommonQuest Explores College Students' Experiences With Diversity
Lisa Bernstein, Program Associate, Office of Education and Diversity Initiatives, AAC&U


CommonQuest: The Magazine of Black-Jewish Relations has recently published a double issue focusing on campus diversity and its impact on student experience in college. Articles in the issue tease out subtle and complex issues of racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural identity and explore the complicated relations among students' identities, their campus experience, and their own attitudes.

A diverse group of writers, including several student authors, address heterogeneity within racial or ethnic groups as well as the connections and tensions among groups on campus.

Through such articles as "Jewish Women in Search of Themselves," "The Hip Hop Nation on Campus," "The Faces of Asian America," and "Renewing the Forest: Catholics in the Multicultural Mix," the issue examines the varied experiences of Jewish, African-American, Latino and Chicano, Asian, Catholic, and multi-racial students.

In some of these articles, students from various racial and ethnic backgrounds explain feeling trapped between a dominant campus culture that remains white and middle-class and their own group's expectations of "authentic" behavior. Discussing Chicano and Latino student organizations at California State University, Northridge, Victor Mejia identifies the "dual imperative of maintaining identity and belonging." Recounting his experiences teaching at Amherst College as a "Mexican Jew, an immigrant, a non-native speaker," Ilan Stavans criticizes campus and classroom "identity contests," arguing that "education is not about homogenization. It is about teaching others and oneself the irreducible complexity of human experience."

Mark Anthony Neal, an assistant professor at SUNY-Albany, describes how African-American students express their feelings of exile or alienation: "very often my office (and the offices of my far too few brown-skinned colleagues) become a sanctuary, where wounded students put the stares, whispers and slights into context." The pressure felt by these students to integrate themselves into the dominant white culture is often counter-balanced by pressure from other African-American students who "construct a strict code of blackness that aims to buffer them from these dangers, while building an even stricter code of community." On the other hand, in a short vignette about a white student who identified with hip hop and urban black culture, Salim Muwakill explains the difficulty of students who cross racial and cultural lines of division: "These boundary jumpers usually are mocked by both whites and blacks [...] they are blistered with vitriol from both sides of the racial divide."

In addition to illustrating the tensions within and between groups of students, these essays offer examples of campus environments that support multicultural identities and healthy dialogue about diversity. Harvard Graduate School of Education student Inge-Lise Ameer describes the nuances of student life on diverse campuses. She tries to uncover what lies behind media representations of campus racial division and heated debates about canons and curricula. The picture she draws suggests a much more complicated reality. Based on interviews with students of diverse backgrounds, her article, "The Daily Dance," examines commonly held beliefs through an unconventional lens. Confronting myths about minority students' self-segregation, Ameer writes that, "when I sit at 'the Latina table' or 'the black table' or 'the Asian table,' as I often do, and look out at the rest of the dining hall, it is the white students who seem to be sitting together."

Taken together, the articles in this issue of CommonQuest break down racial and ethnic stereotypes and challenge easy categorizations of student identity and experience on college campuses today. At the same time, the persistent tensions, conflicts, and miscommunications presented in the issue reveal the need for educators to continue to incorporate discussions of diversity into their classrooms and campus activities. In their classes or in campus-based programs, faculty members and student affairs administrators can use these stories to prompt more honest and probing discussions about how we can build healthy, multicultural campus environments in which all students can thrive.

To receive copies of the issue, call 202/806-6705, or send e-mail to: commonquest@worldnet.att.net. To get a flavor of the issue, visit DiversityWeb (www.diversityweb.org) where several articles from the issue are re-printed.


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