Learning About Diversity: A Comprehensive Approach at Hope College
How can a mostly white Midwestern liberal arts college provide an opportunity for students from different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds to become part of a welcoming community that explores diversity issues in a stimulating manner and that makes the best educational use of the diversity we have in our midst? A new program at Hope College in Holland, Michigan tries to do just that with a comprehensive living/learning approach.
The Phelps Scholars Program (PSP) is one part of a comprehensive plan at Hope to increase minority participation in all aspects of the institution. PSP is "an ethnically diverse community of students, supported by members of the faculty and staff, who are preparing themselves for productive and rewarding lives of leadership and service in a culturally diverse society." The students are a diverse group by Hope standards: twenty-four white American students, twelve American students of color (African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans), and four international students. The students receive no scholarship funds; we consider them to be "scholars" because of their commitment to learning about racial and cultural diversity in a rigorous and systematic way. The program involves a variety of curricular and co-curricular activities.
Students all live in one co-ed residence hall on campus. In the Fall term, Phelps Scholars enroll in one of three specially-designated sections of the college's First-Year Seminar course. The course topics this year included "Snake Handlers, Shamans, and Spiritualists: A Study of Alternative Spiritualities;" "Exploring the Other Side: An Examination of Insiders and Outsiders in Communities;" and "Liberating Science: How Science is Shaped by Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Culture" In addition, each section has a designated liaison with the Student Development Office, someone who attends selected class meetings and leads five different out-of-class sessions on "student success" topics. In the spring term, the Phelps Scholars all take "Encounter with Cultures." This interdisciplinary course examines selected racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural groups in the U. S.
Twice a month, the Phelps Scholars, faculty, and staff members meet to discuss diversity-related topics. In these sessions, we conduct role-playing exercises, discuss such topics as white privilege and diversity in the workplace, and host alumni speakers. Students also bring their own diversity experiences into our discussions. One student, Nora Staal, for instance, presented a photo-essay she created on housing issues in Hebron while she was in high school in Tel Aviv.
Students also participate in and sponsor social events and field trips including trips to a nearby Hispanic Festival and to Detroit's Museum of African-American History.
What Students Gain
A liberal arts college of nearly 3,000 students, Hope was founded in 1851 by immigrants from The Netherlands, and continues to draw nearly one-third of its students from the Dutch Reformed tradition. Because 93% of our students are white, being a Phelps Scholar is one way that students can take advantage of the many benefits of studying at Hope College while experiencing greater cultural diversity than otherwise would be possible on our campus.
We have completed only one semester of the program, but we've been very pleased by the results thus far. In both their mid-term and end-of-semester evaluations, students gave the program high marks, especially for their increased awareness of diversity issues and for the strong sense of community they feel. When students describe the impact of being a Phelps Scholar on their first semester of college, they say things like, "The Phelps Scholars Program is a great opportunity to get to know people who are different from you;" "This is the way to really get to know others and the stories that have shaped them;" and "[The program] provides an open environment to discover more about yourself and about people of different ethnic backgrounds."
We have learned several things in this first semester. First, students interested in a program like this come from lots of different backgrounds and have many different interests. But they all come to college eager to make the most of their education. Second, one should never underestimate students' willingness and ability to put enormous effort into building a program. We added several events last semester due to student demand for more activities and social gatherings. Third, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Most of our individual events received mildly positive or even mixed reviews from students, but the program as a whole was rated very highly.
It is also crucially important to have institutional support. At Hope, the Phelps Scholars Program is one part of a 39-point Comprehensive Plan to Improve Minority Participation. The plan, under the care of our Assistant Dean for Multicultural Life, D. Wesley Poythress, addresses faculty and staff hiring, student recruiting, curricular and co-curricular development, and other aspects of campus life. The Phelps Scholars Program is strengthened by the connections we've made with other programs on campus that are part of the plan.
It is our hope that the Phelps Scholars Program will have a significant effect on the campus as a whole as participating students assume positions of leadership and influence in the coming years. One of our students summarized her experience in a way that captures the spirit of the program: "The Phelps Scholars Program is a genuine opportunity for people from all different backgrounds and cultures to put forth a collaborative effort toward understanding and accepting each others' differences."
For information about the Phelps Scholars Program, visit www.hope.edu/phelps.
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Hope College Phelps Scholars