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Communications tipsThe Real Value of Diversity: A Student Perspective
Jennifer Walper, Class of '98, University of Maryland

I am a third generation, politically liberal, but conservative Jewish, American, heterosexual Caucasian woman of far back Middle Eastern, and more recently Eastern European, descent. I came to the University of Maryland seeking its diversity. I wanted to attend a university where I could achieve academically without losing touch with reality. I also liked the idea of being cosmopolitan. At Maryland, I thought I could eat the foods and dance the dances of many different people.

I have discovered, however, that curiosity is not diversity. Dancing the dances and eating the foods is not diversity. A university is not a World's Fair or a cultural show.

My freshman year, I took a seminar on world religions. Preparing for an exam, I was reading a book on Eastern religions in my dorm one night with my new friend, Neal, a fifth generation Japanese American Buddhist. The few hours I had planned on reading turned into an all-night discussion comparing the text's dry outline of rituals with Neal's very personal and spiritual experiences. The night was educational and personally enriching, but it was still not reflective of the real value of diversity.

Moving From Encounter to Engagement

What was missing was a true exchange of ideas. I was better educated and culturally enriched, but I had not related my own experiences to Neal's. I had not gained an understanding of how his experience as a Japanese Buddhist in America affects my experience as a Jewish woman in America.

When I began to take on campus leadership positions, I began to interact more with the members and leaders of the campus' many cultural organizations. While my conversations with them were enlightening, they were still limited because I was unable to realize the impact their causes had on me, the rest of the campus, and the world. I was unable to bring my own identity to the table to create true multicultural understanding. It was then when I decided, in fact, to step back inside my own cultural "box."

The Importance of Understanding Myself and My Own Community

Over the past two years, I have rekindled connections within the Jewish community. I have become a more active learner of women's and immigrant history. I know many people view affiliations with ethnic or community groups as separatist, "self-segregating," or even elitist, but I disagree. My knowledge of myself and my position within the Jewish and women's communities has made me a better leader, has enriched my personal relationships, and has made me a better student.

Recently, the creation of an Asian American Studies program became an issue at the University of Maryland. I realized during the many student protests, when leaders of the Black, Jewish, and Latino student communities marched with Asian American students in favor of the Asian American Studies program, that this was not only an Asian issue. A lack of access to knowledge about one's own people's role in building the United States is an incredibly disempowering experience. As a Jew, I know that the darkest times in our history were when we were denied our books--central to our history and our religion.

I believe that the true value of diversity began to be felt when student groups realized that the issue was not an Asian issue. The creation of an Asian American Studies program would mean that the University was taking another step toward realizing that diversity is not only about the numbers of multi-ethnic students on campus.

Working as a campus leader on a number of multicultural issues, including the proposals for an Asian American Studies program, I have come to see the importance of intergroup dialogue and coalition building. I created a board called the Advocacy Board that unites campus leaders from 18 different campus communities. The board identifies key issues and provides a vehicle for coalition building. It focuses on attempting to understand the issues that affect each individual campus community and how issues also affect the entire campus. Through this work, I have come to realize that an issue that affects one group will inevitably affect the Jewish community and society as a whole.

What Engagement with Campus Diversity Has Taught Me

Through this work and in several other classes I have taken--including one on conflict mediation co-taught by an Israeli and a Palestinian--I have also come to realize that learning about diversity is a life-long endeavor. Through diversity--in the classroom and on campus--I learned how to learn. I learned that no area of learning is limited to only one perspective. True learning occurs when problems are approached from many perspectives.

The value of diversity in my education and in my life finally became clear to me only after having many of these sorts of experiences. Because I have experiences unique to the groups with whom I am affiliated, and because I recognize that no problem is ever isolated within one group of people, I am personally invested in matters of concern to groups other than my own. And, for the same reasons, members of these groups have become invested in addressing the needs of my community. Diversity is a multi-part citizenship: of smaller communities that define identity, of the university, of the nation, and of the world.

I realize that this is a peculiar strength of education in America. In America, I don't need to give up who I am to be American. I don't have to choose between being Jewish and being American, between being secular or religious. Affiliation does not mean separation. Distinctions among peoples ensure that we can approach life with a full palate of perspectives. This is the value of diversity for me.

back to top Communication tips

Student-authored pieces like this are in demand, and are likely to receive serious consideration for op/ed (or guest editorial) placement at newspapers. If a student, student leader or recent graduate you know can offer comment on the value of diversity in higher education, consider working with her/him on an op/ed piece. Keep the piece around 700 words, and submit it to the editorial or op/ed page editor at a local newspaper. If one paper turns you down, submit it elsewhere.

Also consider asking your public information office to alert local radio talk shows and television public affairs shows to the student's availability to discuss the issue.

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