Colleges and universities across the United States work hard to create welcoming environments for all students, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, ability, age, economic status, or sexual orientation. While this work is ongoing, the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion inform just about every decision made by a university. But what is diversity? What is the meaning of equity? And how do we define an inclusive education?
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: What Do They Mean?
Depending on where they call home, international students coming to the United States for the first time may not be used to seeing so many different types of people, customs, and beliefs, especially in a classroom. Others come to university and feel isolated, unable to find a comfortable community so far away from familiar faces and activities. These are normal reactions and are often lumped together under the term culture shock.
Universities uphold the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion to help students find community, feel represented, and see the value of different perspectives and vantage points. These values also help international students conquer their culture shock, find their place on campus, and respect others trying to do the same.
Let’s define each value and take a look at why they are important.
Diversity: the practice of recognizing individual differences and involving people from a wide range of backgrounds by creating a safe, positive, and respectful community.
Equity: the act of treating people from different backgrounds fairly and impartially. Equity recognizes that there is inequality in the world and that adjustments need to be made to foster balance.
Inclusion: the action of involving and empowering people with diverse identities, and promoting and sustaining a sense of belonging, with respect for different talents, backgrounds, and ways of living.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are not just good ideas, and they are not just charitable acts or feel-good concepts that go away once a student graduates. Committing to these values, in both personal and professional settings, can have a positive impact on a student’s overall well-being and on the greater community and society.
For example, diverse workplaces are more productive, make better decisions, and even show higher profits. According to a Cloverpop 2017 study, diverse companies that embrace inclusive decision-making enjoy better outcomes 87% of the time, twice as fast, and with half the meetings. Harvard Business Review found that diverse organizations are 70% more likely to capture new markets, and a 2019 Gartner study shows that diversity and inclusivity are the most important talent management priority for CEOs.
The United States workforce is expected to be made up of more than 75% millennials by 2025 — a generation that is 16% more diverse than its parents. As the marketplace grows more eclectic, university educators must teach students to promote, include, and — most importantly — be receptive to different voices and perspectives.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion on Campus
International students studying in the United States at Shorelight universities take a prerequisite course on diversity, equity, and inclusion, which helps them feel more comfortable with students from different backgrounds. The course is also a great way to make new friends and learn how to find clubs, activities, and other social opportunities that create community on campus.
At Auburn Global, a first-year program that helps international students acclimate at Auburn University, students take Shorelight’s signature Live, Learn, and Grow global citizenship course to help them find success at the university and learn more about living with and interacting with people from different backgrounds.
“We aim to imbue a greater understanding of cultural differences and learning how to not think of those things as strange, and not to be afraid of them,” said Beth Gonzalez, assistant academic director, ESL, at Auburn Global.
At Auburn Global, the Live, Learn, and Grow course is divided into three parts and broken up over three semesters. In addition to learning how to become better global citizens, students also learn more about the US education system — what it’s like to participate in an experiential learning environment and how to develop better study skills. As students learn to read, write, and speak English more proficiently, they often focus on topics that help them embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion.
We want to teach students to be global citizens, to value other perspectives, so they can learn to become ambassadors of peace.” — Beth Gonzalez, assistant academic director, ESL, Auburn Global
Auburn has a growing international community, “so we take the opportunity to educate them on how to be more open to this new culture, because they do often have culture shock,” said Gonzalez. “It also helps them deal with students in their classes who may be from a different country, have a different background from them — it makes them better ambassadors so that when they meet American students, they can be themselves.”
International students are encouraged to join diversity clubs on the Auburn University campus. They can also participate in the international buddy program, which partners an international student with an American student for one or two semesters. International students at Auburn and many other universities in the United States also celebrate heritage holidays throughout the year that bring more awareness to different cultures and customs.
“We had a student from China who had really low-level English skills when he got here, but he was very outgoing,” said Gonzalez. “He went to the student center every day to try to meet girls, to improve his English, and he joined the buddy program and the two buddies just took over. They just did all kinds of fun things together, they went fishing, and had a lot of fun.”
Students also learn specific ways of learning in the US education system. Many international students come to the US with no experience working on group projects with different students or participating in class. They learn how to find success in a classroom that may be overwhelming otherwise.
“It is a hard transition for many students because they’re used to just being the vessels for the words that the professor spouts — they’re not used to experiential group learning or asking questions or questioning the validity of arguments. Thinking critically can be really hard,” said Gonzalez. “Meanwhile, we’re also training them to not be shy about their English. They’re so afraid of making mistakes, but we help show them they don’t get better unless they keep practicing.”
Gonzalez says one of the most effective ways of promoting an understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion is to get international students involved with the clubs on Auburn’s campus. Meeting other students with similar interests and different cultural backgrounds helps international students build bridges and become better global citizens. In addition, many diversity clubs on university campuses across the US are dedicated to a wide range of cultural groups and ethnicities.
“We have more than 500 clubs and organizations on campus and we talk about this from day one. We give them the tools to go in and just join a club. We tell them, ‘Just join a club, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your English skills grow,’” said Gonzalez. “If you like gaming, join the gaming club. If you like sewing, join the sewing club. You want to hike, join the hiking club. And a lot of students do.”
International Students Make American Campuses More Diverse
Learning, growth, tolerance, and friendship come from the exchange of ideas on a university campus. These feelings and points of view carry through students’ lives and impact their professional, social, and societal decision-making.
To promote these exchanges, universities in the US celebrate diversity with a wide range of students represented on campus — but they also recognize that diversity is not enough. All students must also have the same chance to participate, no matter their identity or background. For international students, being surrounded by different cultures and customs may feel a little scary at first, but take heart — just by coming to campus, you are making your university a better, more diverse place.
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