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Involving Students in Research on Diversity at the University of Massachusetts, Boston

The University of Massachusetts, Boston (UMB) involved students in an innovative research project to evaluate various aspects of diversity at the school. In 1997, with support from the Ford Foundation, a diverse cohort of faculty and students from three of UMB's five colleges created a university-wide, student/faculty research community that made the university itself a site of inquiry about diversity.

The goals of the project included providing students the opportunity to acquire research skills through involvement in a significant research project and to explore together diversity issues affecting the institution. This type of research activity was seen as a new kind of vehicle for student participation in the affairs of the university, and as one of the directors of the project, Tim Sieber, put it "served as a way to struggle against the 'disidentification with school' that social psychologist Claude M. Steele has documented among underrepresented student populations in higher education." The initiative was designed to have a concrete application--to contribute to the improvement of the institution by enhancing the effectiveness with which the university acted to include its diverse student population fully in its educational mission.

Over a two year period, 13 student/faculty teams carried out diversity research projects. Each semester, the initiative cohort included at least three teams of 4 to 7 students (each with a faculty coordinator), in addition to the project director and the assistant director. The teams met at least once a week to design their research projects, develop plans for implementing them together, and contribute to writing a final report on their findings. Faculty team leaders met on a bi-weekly basis to discuss emerging issues and questions and to set agendas for a cohort-wide seminar that met six times during each semester.

Students admitted to the project were usually recruited by faculty team leaders and, for the most part, were juniors and seniors with an interest in diversity, but without prior research skills or experience. For many of them, the experience of working with people from racial backgrounds different from their own was a new one. In addition, few were accustomed to collaborative work with students or with faculty.

Five of the projects studied issues of inclusion for different student groups: gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students; Latino students; students with disabilities; Asian American nursing students; and diverse students in the College of Public and Community Service (CPCS). Four other projects concerned evaluation of the educational impacts of the existing diversity curriculum in the areas of Asian American Studies, Africana Studies, the overall nursing curriculum, and the CPCS Cultural Awareness Competency. The four remaining projects examined diversity in the university's public relations and admissions marketing, cross-cultural conflict among students, campus musical programs as an expression of cultural diversity, and students' family beliefs about diversity.

While the ultimate research objectives of each project were important, throughout the initiative, major consideration was given to what students were learning in each phase of the project. Tending to student learning and group process as integral parts of the initiative may have slowed the pace of the projects, but project leaders believe that this attention contributed significantly to enhancing the student learning outcomes of the initiative.

In addition to providing the university with new data with which it could improve its diversity programs, according to the initiative's final report, it gave students "a new vision of how they fit into the university, how their own education was shaped by its structures and traditions, and a new sense of collaboration, concern, and partnership with the institution."

To order a copy of the project report, contact: The Center for the Improvement of Teaching, University of Massachusetts, Boston, 100 Morrissey Boulevard, Boston, Mass. 02125-3393; 617/287-6767; e-mail: cit@umb.edu.

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