Diversity without interaction is like a language course without immersion. The learning can only go so far.
In a previous column I discussed the academic values of diversity and how the benefits of diversity and its effects on learning, teamwork and communication are well-grounded and widespread. But intergroup dialogue is equally important for this learning to take place and is also well-researched.
Studies conducted over the past two decades, including a large-scale research study at UCLA, have consistently shown that intergroup contact has a mitigating effect on prejudice and that people exposed to intergroup contact are more open to other diverse groups. Social categories become less salient when people experience different social groups.
But incorporating academic diversity must also rely upon skill-based learning. Although the kind of information we receive is important for education, how we receive it and how we practice it is as, if not more, critical for student dialogue and understanding.
Which makes the recent diversity requirement is a step in the right direction, but it is still only a small part of an incomplete initiative.
An effective and sustainable diversity initiative needs to better market or expand upon programs that encourage this contact that are already available across campus. Primarily, they need to address two important questions: How can these programs bring in more students, and how can they be more physically accessible? And these efforts need to be unified under a larger cohesive body, such as the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. This cohesion will both simplify student searches and better address future improvements.
Fortunately, UCLA has a fantastic model with which to work already: the Center for Community Learning.
The center is one remarkable research-based program that successfully incorporates diversity in education and credited academic opportunities for social and civic engagement. It includes internship courses in off-campus career settings, the civic engagement minor, senior research projects with community partners and academic courses that highlight service learning, including courses that fulfill the diversity requirement.
In other words, it is a place designed to get students out of the classroom and into diverse learning environments – along with the incentive for academic credit.
“Face-to-face interaction is part of what a 21st century university education must look like, and we talk continuously about perspective transformation,” said Kathy O’Byrne, the director of the center. “We’re getting students from different backgrounds to travel together and meet different people and go to places unlike anywhere they grew up.”
A major problem, though, is expanding the crowd of people who want to participate. The students that do find it are likely the ones that already knew they wanted to actively seek out these types of environments. The obvious answer would be to standardize the center’s services.
But expanding these services in a wider academic setting has proved difficult. O’Byrne said around 50 faculty members are involved in the center’s service learning courses. Others are reluctant to make adjustments to coursework or class structure and the university’s academic administration does not make it easy for students to explore interdisciplinary approaches to one’s major.
However, there is a solution: restructuring or compiling programs that foster academic diversity under a unifying body. This will validate the central importance of interdisciplinary work and diversity in education – rather than treating it as an isolated aspect. And if a university cannot cohesively organize its programs, implying they are not given the same attention, then it can’t be surprised when students don’t reach for them.
It’s not just arbitrary bureaucracy that’s the issue, though. It’s the physical location as well.
Take the Intergroup Relations Program at UCLA as an example.
The program includes workshops in intergroup and interpersonal dialogue training, a peer leadership program, seminar opportunities, social justice focuses and community events. By the end of training and reinforcement through practice, students can acquire the communication skills to navigate divisive, prejudicial and confrontational topics.
“We’ve been trained to argue a point and to listen to the weaknesses in an opponent’s argument,” said Anna Yeakley, the program’s coordinator and dialogue trainer. “But dialogue is about learning to agree to disagree – to suspend judgment and frame the language of a conversation differently.”
This is another program that can address or practice diversity in working environments, campus climate and student-student interaction. But they are far too hidden from most of the student body.
The Intergroup Relations program is even more difficult to find – it is buried in the Bruin Resource Center.
A student that is interested in taking advantage of which programs will currently have to go through different offices, buildings and websites, giving the impression they are unrelated and isolated. And while critics of diversity may question the extent to which students will participate, participation will certainly not increase when the search process is so difficult.
“I’ve heard students come to UCLA wanting to encounter diversity and don’t know how,” said Yeakley. “But I think the desire is there.”
This highlights the need for an overarching body that can resonate with the themes of all of these programs. The Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion fills that need. The office can screen the programs available to see which align with its message and ideals of academic diversity. The programs that fit can partner with the office and/or be referred through their website – so that students that come looking know where to go. And programs that can partner with them can be marketed so as to offer students involvement in a variety of settings – whether they be interpersonal, addressing campus climate or combined with courses.
And vice chancellor Jerry Kang’s recent efforts seem to be looking for similar student opportunities. Last week Kang announced the launching of the new Bruin excellence and student transformation grant program, also known as BEST, an initiative that will reward students that develop projects which can building a more inclusive campus environment.
These experiential learning programs are fundamental to building skills that can navigate today’s workforce, regardless of major, where innovation, communication and open-mindedness are of far greater value to employers. These skills may be highlighted within the classroom but they are certainly not practically reinforced there.
The diversity requirement passed last year highlights the necessities of a larger and cohesive diversity initiative that will better foster student learning. Academic diversity is more than the lessons we can learn in books or lectures – it is skill that needs the space to be practiced.