Dealing with Diversity

by Marilyn Spaventa and Doug Bowen

"We donít see things as they are, we see things as we are."
  - Anais Nin

Open Doors

Community colleges are unique in providing the opportunity to almost everyone in our society to pursue goals in higher education.  In most community colleges you will find students from:
  • Many different ethnic groups
  • Ages ranging from 18 to more than 80 - including re-entry students  
  • Various linguistic backgrounds 
  • Different economic levels 
  • Different genders and gender orientation
  • Married as well as single lifestyles, including many single parents
  • Different learning styles and disabilities.

Each student brings to your campus special talents and perspectives, as well as challenges and needs.  This diversity tremendously enriches the educational environment. If variety is truly the spice of life, our educational environment is quite hot!

multiethnic group of peopleThe Multicultural Community College

The population of the United States is increasingly multicultural, so naturally the student population of community colleges is also growing in diversity.  Most community colleges include international students as well as recent immigrants and multigenerational citizens. The variety of students is apparent; as Fredick Erickson put it in Multicultural Education, "Everybody is cultural . . . (and) everybody is multicultural." But what exactly do we mean when we say they have a different culture?  The most common use of the term refers to different ethnic or national backgrounds such as Italian, Japanese, or Canadian.  This is often referred to as a "macro" culture; however, this is only the tip of the iceberg of cultural diversity. 

If we define culture as a group of shared values, beliefs and attitudes, then we can see how important other factors become in defining our culture.  Anyone who has traveled extensively in the U.S. would agree that people are quite different in the various regions of the country even though they all identify themselves as Americans.  A blue-collar definition of culture might be "the way things are done around here."  Using that definition, it is easy to see why Midwesterners have their own culture, as do Southerners and those who grew up and live in New England or some other region.  James A. Banks defines culture as "not artifacts, tools, or other tangible cultural elements, but how members of a group interpret, use, and perceive them."(Multicultural Education, p8) 

Culture is a social construct, and as such, it is always changing and being changed by the social environment. Where you grew up, what religion or philosophy your family practiced, what types of schools you attended, what language you spoke at home, who your friends were, and whether your cultural group was a considered a minority or discriminated against, all have an impact in determining your personal/familial "micro"culture.  Also, many Americans change their situations or locations during their lives, which adds more layers to their own personal culture.  For example, an American (of European descent) who moves to Hawaii may significantly alter his/her attitudes and values based on Hawaii's Asian-influenced cultural atmosphere.  Since culture is a social phenomenon rather than physiological, we can see that race may not define your cultural identity any more than these other factors.

More than multicultural

Other important factors in determining a person's cultural identity are sex and economic status.  Women in every culture share the same general set of values as the men in that culture, but often their priorities for those values are different.  For example, women almost always rank the value of the family at a higher priority than men, who tend to place a higher value on work.  This is why Dr. Hsu, professor emeritus UC Berkeley says, "Every marriage is an intercultural experience!"

Economic status probably has the biggest effect on our perceptions of the world around us.  Such concepts as social emphasis, use of language, driving forces and world view are shaped by our economic background. Appreciation of education is another idea affected by economic status.  Those from higher socio-economic classes view education as an opportunity to making and maintaining connections; those from the middle class see education as crucial for climbing the ladder of success; while those from the lower classes value and revere education abstractly, but often think of it as unobtainable due to the necessity to work as soon and as long as possible (Hidden Rules Among Classes).  Many community college students come from the lower economic classes and are often the very first in their families to attend college.

In this module you will have the opportunity to learn more about different kinds of students and the services available to you and your students.  I also hope that you will have the opportunity to examine your teaching style and reflect upon how you may or may not be teaching effectively to your diverse student body. 

I hope you will pay special attention to:

  1. support services and resources available for re-entry students, disabled students and second language students
  2. learn about the special requirements for international students 
  3. identify several linguistic and cultural challenges for second language speakers  
  4. examine your teaching style and reflect on how effective it is for a diverse student population

Most community college students have at least one thing in common: they are very busy and, like us, must balance the demands of life and study. Yet each is an individual with her or his unique background, individual reasons for being on campus, and goals for the future. As we try to support our students to overcome obstacles and make the most of this educational opportunity, it may help to understand the diversity on your campus.

  • Ethnic Diversity
    Students who come from diverse ethnic backgrounds bring different perspectives to classroom discussions. Not only does this diversity provide the opportunity to learn about different ways of viewing the world, but it also provides the opportunity for students to examine their own beliefs, which may not be explored in a more homogenous environment.

  • International Students

    To be admitted to most community colleges, international students must be high school graduates with above average demonstrated achievement and adequate financial resources to study and live in the United States without working. These students are required to maintain standards set by the INS as well as their host college.  

  • Re-entry Students (22 - more than 80)
    There are many older students who return to college to restart or complete their education. Some may enter with confidence and smoothly navigate through their courses. Others may feel insecure and need assistance from Career Development Center or Re-entry Program. Some of these students may also be eligible for support from financial aid programs such as EOPS and CARE. These students bring experience and a world-view that can be extremely enriching to recent high school graduates who have never had the opportunity to work side by side in an academic setting with people from different generations.

  • Students with Disabilties
    The Disabled Student Programs and Services (DSPS) Department provides educational and vocational support services for students with disabilities who are enrolled in college classes. Disabled students and disabled student programs are discussed in depth in the next Read Section.

  • Students enrolled in English as a Second Language

    As a faculty member, you may notice some or many of the students in your classes do not speak, read or write English as their first language. While we often refer to these students as English as a Second Language Students (ESL students), this may not be accurate. In fact, for many students, English is a third or fourth language.

    The ESL faculty offers instruction for students of ESL. Students can enroll in a full-time course of study (12 units) by enrolling in a grammar, reading and writing at the appropriate levels, as determined by an assessment test.  

    • Resident ESL Students: Resident ESL students have permanent resident status and are generally older than the majority of community college students. Preparation in L1 (first language) varies widely from students who have only studied in elementary school to students who already hold undergraduate or graduate degrees from their countries. Most resident ESL students work at least part-time. Many work full-time and are parents.

      In many communities, non-credit ESL programs offered through adult education are available in addition to, or in place of, community college services.
    • Non Resident ESL Students: Community colleges admit international students who come to the United States on a student visa (F1 visa). In community colleges, international student enrollment is limited by policy set by the Board of Trustees. Some colleges actively recruit FI visa students because their states allow higher fees for these students; others do not offer special services. These students often use a different application process and pay international student fees. Most are placed into the intermediate and advanced levels of ESL courses and have the intention of continuing their studies as transfering graduates. Because they may pay higher tuition and have limitations on the length of time they can stay in this country, many of these students feel a great deal of pressure to complete the programs and enroll in classes in their major as quickly as possible.

What does this mean for our students?

Coming to a community college is experiencing a new culture for many of our students.  Here they will interface with many different types of people who will have different backgrounds and values.  This exposure to different ideas and values causes an adjustment reaction, which is often called "culture shock." 

There are three stages of culture shock:

  1. First, the differences seem interesting or charming.  This is often referred to as the "honeymoon"stage.  It is the reason why we all like to go to some new place on vacation - but if we stay too long, things change. 
  2. Since it is more work to deal with people who are different from you, eventually a feeling of "Is this really worth it?"sets in and can develop into rejection of all that seemed so charming and interesting before.  It is at this point that some students will give up and drop out.  Teachers may think, "I've done enough for that student.  I can/will do no more."
  3. Finally, some measure of comfort and understanding will be developed.  This doesn’t mean that the student or teacher feels full adjustment has been achieved.  There will still be times when things are frustrating and overwhelming.  Understanding this adjustment cycle or culture shock will help us to understand reactions and interactions in the multicultural classroom.

What does this mean for the community college faculty member?

It means you must be very sensitive to cultural cues and not assume anything about your students based on their appearance. In addition, just because a student "looks American" and speaks without an accent does not mean that they have spent their lives in the country. One community college faculty member was shocked to learn that a very "Americanized" student had spent five of his 19 years (age 12 - 17) in a Cambodian prison where they shared a cell with a US educated medical doctor.

You will be faced with students who might not share your understanding of education, proper behavior in and out of class, priorities, or their vision of the future.  New faculty will face an adjustment to the system of the college as well, so they may experience double culture shock.

It is of vital importance that we be sensitive to these cultural differences and try to bridge the gap between the two points of view.  Even professionals in the fields of intercultural communication and multicultural education cannot learn all the enormous volume of knowledge about various cultures.  Just being aware and sensitive to this vital factor and learning as we go are the best we can do.  This is what education is all about, sharing new information and viewpoints with others and synthesizing that with our own experiences.  As experienced teachers know, we learn as much from our students as we give them.  If the 'gap' between differing approaches and understanding cannot be overcome, no real learning takes place on either side. 

It is often the student with a unique viewpoint who can help us as teachers expand and deepen our own understanding of our subject.  Of course we need to uphold standards and introduce our students to the expectations of academic work, but too often we use that as an excuse to be less than open and receptive to what our diverse students are bringing to our classrooms.  Being culturally sensitive is not easy, but it is now required in modern American society.  Remember, we teach best when we model the behaviors that we want to instill in our students.  Good Luck!