Every day it seems that the world becomes more tribalized. People define themselves and their “group” more and more narrowly. The British will soon define themselves out of Europe. In Myanmar, the government has defined its Muslim minority as non-citizens. Narrow nationalist parties of various sorts are on the rise around the world, and here in the United States religion, ethnicity, geography and politics increasingly define us.
At American colleges and universities, we all face this issue in particularly compelling ways. More than one million international students came to the U.S. for higher education during the 2016-17 academic year, marking the 11th consecutive year that the number of international students in the U.S. grew. Additionally, students of color now make up about 40 percent of our student bodies, and we seek greater geographic and economic diversity as well.
While we say we seek and welcome diversity, most institutions have not created truly inclusive campuses — campuses that embrace and understand the students we work so hard to attract. While our classrooms may look different than they did 20 years ago, we paper over difference in order to avoid discomfort. It doesn’t work.
Throwing such diverse students into the same classes and residence halls and hoping for the best does not suffice. Greater contact in the absence of intercultural skills unfortunately can lead to greater misunderstanding and conflict.
Critics of higher education call for more emphasis on career preparation, skill development and job placement. In such an environment, I have been told, greater intercultural competence might be nice to have, but it is just an elitist frill.
I couldn’t disagree more.
Today’s students will be competing in a global marketplace, living in diverse communities and working on diverse teams.
An essential part of any career preparation must involve teaching students the skills to understand issues and view situations from different perspectives. They must learn to recognize their own often-unconscious assumptions.
Students need to learn to communicate about cultural differences in the broadest possible sense, including those usually grouped together as “diversity” issues like gender, race and power relationships. They must be prepared to have challenging conversations with people different from themselves in order to achieve cooperation. Intercultural competence, in its widest sense, is a vital key for success in the future.
At Dickinson, we have undertaken a somewhat unusual approach. We are building a campus-wide institutional structure that incorporates diversity and inclusion work with intercultural competence and ethical reasoning.
Our goal is to prepare every member of our community to communicate in diverse teams, and to live and work together in respectful and ethical ways. We are hoping that others will see what we are doing at Dickinson and know that it is possible. Perhaps even our leaders in Washington, D.C. will take note.
Our inclusivity initiative does not just target our students, but also our faculty, our staff, our senior administrators and even our Board of Trustees. Our approach will be systemic, aimed at examining assumptions, structures and policies, and developing complex and challenging skills. Instead of silos focused on global education — diversity initiatives and community engagement each working separately — we will connect these areas so they can work together, as they should.
This is not a feel-good initiative replete with affirmations and group hugs. There is nothing easy or comfortable about this sort of skill development. It demands a level of introspection and honesty — of discomfort, trust and candor — that cannot fail to challenge everyone.
Our approach is an institutional one. It combines intentional educational experiences with practical applications and experience on campus, in the greater community and abroad. It is decidedly not just about making international and traditionally underrepresented individuals feel more welcome. It is about enabling every member of our community to be far better equipped for success in a rapidly changing and very complex world.
Faced with a divided country and a fractured global community, higher education needs to do its part to ensure the next generation of leaders is able to find common ground, hammer out solutions to our many challenges, and show respect in the process. Our society desperately needs all of us to make this a priority.
This story about campus diversity was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our higher-education newsletter.
Margee Ensign is president of Dickinson College, where she is leading an initiative on intercultural competence. In her previous post as president of the American University of Nigeria, in Yola, Ensign created the Adamawa Peace Initiative.