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Winners All

When diversity begets diversity
University Business, September 2012

We all want to be winners. That trait is truly universal. But as U.S. higher education increasingly recruits students across international lines, how do we overcome challenges of language, culture, and academic preparedness to ensure that, while some win, others do not lose?

This question reflects one theme of the British Council’s sixth annual Going Global conference, which I attended in London in March. With 1,500 people from 80 countries, it explored how education can change the world’s future by shaping and connecting its citizens’ lives.

Keynote speaker Homi Bhabha, director of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard, spoke eloquently about the “aspirational spirit” of becoming a world civilization while, at the same time, maintaining individual cultures so as to maximize diversity. Education will become more about how to process—or interpret—information rather than factual mastery, he argued. As a way of maintaining cultural values while gaining a world outlook, we must not undervalue the role of the humanities in medicine, the law, business, and other disciplines.

Technology alone won’t create the global society we seek; it will develop through collaborative dialogue and a convergence of ideas, values, and innovations.
At the University of California, Riverside, we are a microcosm for these issues. We’re only now assuming international diversity, but we long ago achieved ethnic and racial diversity. Our success and lessons learned in that arena will guide us as we expand our international diversity from its current 1.5 percent at the undergraduate level, to 8 to 10 percent by 2015.

The challenge lies in overcoming those issues of geography, culture, language, and academic preparedness that go hand-in-hand with internationalization, while at the same time retaining the unique cultural identities that make up our student population. And in that sphere, we have some experience.

Diversification and Student Success

UCR has ranked in the top handful of public universities for its diversity by U.S. News and World Report. In this context, diversity means ethnic and racial diversity. Underrepresented groups make up 38 percent of our student body, up from 13 percent in 1990. Another 40 percent of our students are Asian American. Nearly 50 percent of our undergraduates are the first in their families to attend college.

In the ’90s, our rapid growth, combined with rapid diversification, led to challenges. While these new students were technically eligible for a University of California education, their high school experience left them less academically prepared than their peers. Others came from homes where another language was spoken, so they struggled with English in the classroom. Many first-generation students had no role models so they felt bewildered, isolated, and unsure where to turn for help.

Technology alone will not create the global society we seek.

Initially, some faculty resented teaching students who were less academically prepared for the coursework and reluctant to change their methods. But the tidal wave of growth and diversity changed the shape of our landscape, and the UCR student success initiative was born:

  • We expanded tutoring, mentoring, and other academic support programs.
  • We celebrated diversity throughout the university, from our flavors in the dining hall to promotions in athletics to arts programs that include Taiko drums, a Javanese Gamelan, and Peruvian panpipes.
  • We revamped student advising—creating a professional track for advising staff and engaging more faculty in the process of knowing exactly where our students were culturally.
  • We created special-interest housing to bring together students of similar interests and majors. For example, students can choose if they want to practice their Spanish on Mundo Hall or place themselves among the most studious on the Honors Hall. This enhanced learning while providing social support.

Our domestic students succeeded, stayed in school, and graduated, so we can say that we succeeded.

Supporting Internationals

International students face similar problems—language, culture, the transition to college, feelings of isolation, and gaps in their academic background relative to the curriculum. As an immigrant from Argentina, I will be forever shaped by the way people accepted and guided me and understood when I was confused.
I was 10 when my family moved to the Bay Area, by way of Canada. All I wanted was to blend in with the others on our block—to play football and speak without an accent. I worked hard to learn to do both. In retrospect, somewhere along the way I shook off more of my native culture than I would have liked. I remember my father’s tales of life in Argentina, but I don’t “own” the traditions and ethos. I don’t want that to be our students’ experience. If they come here to learn, they should retain their unique backgrounds and identities. They shouldn’t feel they must assimilate entirely to be accepted.

As we craft programs to support our international students, we will apply lessons learned from growing our domestic diversity in Riverside to the special challenges that international students face. Those lessons include:

  • Giving them a bridge. Summer bridge programs give entering students a head start academically but, even more importantly, help them make the transition to the campus environment. As many as 20 percent more students in summer bridge programs pass gateway science courses than students who don’t participate. This model has enormous potential to assist international students who must adjust to both higher ed and a new country.
  • Offering support in the first year. One of our most successful efforts has been creating first-year learning communities. Clusters of 20 to 30 students are grouped by theme, academic major, or discipline. They take some courses together, forming study groups, fostering peer interactions, and connecting with faculty. This, in turn, helps students to develop good study habits, form friendships, explore majors, and discover potential career choices. Learning communities provide a nurturing and supportive experience within a large and sometimes bewildering new environment, resulting in marked student success—an ideal model for international students. Recent literature indicates that students who participate in first-year learning communities maintain higher grade-point averages, finish their degrees sooner, and are more satisfied with their overall university experience. 

Diversity has enhanced our reputation, enabling us to recruit and retain top faculty and students.

  • Providing a chance to give back. There is no better way to feel at home than to be of real use. Our University-Eastside Initiative, for example, creates a safe environment for youngsters in an economically depressed area. Participating UCR students offer academic tutoring and assist in after-school programs. The campus also engages the community through research aimed at such real-world problems as solar energy and transportation.
  • Arranging peer-to-peer support. Students do best when they learn from one another. A psychology professor, for example, realized that a number of Chinese students were struggling with terminology in a large lecture class. He paired them with Chinese-American students to help them with language challenges and, in the process, make new friends. Our international population will not be isolated.

Our student success initiative created a culture shift—not so much for individual students, but for the campus community. Our vision shifted as we reinterpreted our place in the world. The campus went from being perplexed and somewhat overwhelmed by its rapid diversification to embracing these changes and using them to the advantage of students, faculty, the institution, and the community.

Benefits to All

A recent report from the American Council on Education, “Mapping the Internationalization on U.S. Campuses,” calls for universities to make sure they are pursuing the goal for the right reasons. Students with the right support experience higher retention rates, greater academic success, and shorter time to degree. Equally important are the intangibles. They feel part of a community, a rich blend of cultures, perspectives, and experiences with international students providing more strands in the tapestry.

These benefits spill over into the classroom, where diversity has enriched the learning experience. Professors, by necessity, developed new ways of teaching, but now speak boldly about how the diversity of our campus has influenced their research and scholarship.

The institution has benefited from our diversity. It has enhanced our reputation, enabling us to recruit and retain top faculty and students. With comparable graduation rates across all racial and ethnic groups—something not seen at other U.S. universities—UCR has become an exemplar for student success. Going forward, we will be a beacon for international students, a place where they too feel welcome and supported.

In the end, society is the beneficiary. Our community—our global community—benefits when a highly educated workforce is prepared to succeed in an increasingly multicultural, interconnected world, while still holding on to their own cultural values and origins. From the time international students arrive at Los Angeles International Airport and we give them a calling card to phone their parents, to the time they graduate at rates equal to or higher than those of domestic students, our international students will feel supported. They will succeed.

We believe diversity will beget diversity. As our institution becomes more international, and as higher education in the United States becomes more international, we will be winners, all.