Crossing the Cultural Divide

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How higher education is working to make students culturally competent in an increasingly diverse world

As the population of the United States continues to increase, so does its diversity. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2044, more than half of all Americans will belong to a minority group, and by 2060, nearly one in five of the nation’s total population will be foreign born.

With these figures in mind, colleges and universities are reinforcing the importance of cultural competency and the ability of individuals from all backgrounds, races, and ethnicities to work together. Through trainings, revised policies, and programs, both students and faculty are moving toward a greater sense of awareness, understanding, and tolerance of different cultures.

Culture Shock
While the nation may be moving toward a more diverse future, it currently faces lingering segregation.

According to an evaluation of 2010 Census data by the Brookings Institution, the average white American lives in an area that is 77 percent white, while African Americans and Hispanics live in areas that are made up of 45 percent of people of their same race.

Carlos Medina, chief diversity officer of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, describes the current state of neighborhood diversity as stagnant, stating that not much has changed in the last 50 years. “We are just as segregated today as we were in 1960,” he says.

This division emphasizes the need for education around cultural competency. As people transition from high school into college and eventually into the workforce, their exposure to people of different cultures will likely increase, and they will be expected to work amicably with people from all backgrounds.

But with neighborhoods still divided, it can be difficult for young people to grow up with an understanding of different cultures, and as they enter college, these new students may experience culture shock.

“The great thing about college campuses is that there are lectures and workshops happening year-round for people to attend and build their knowledge of the world, learn different points of view, and enhance their critical thinking — all essential to cultural competency,” says Sumun Pendakur, associate dean for institutional diversity at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif.

Students in the Building Bridges seminar at Harvey Mudd College
Students in the Building Bridges seminar at Harvey Mudd College

In order to help students acclimate and learn in a more structured environment, many schools are going beyond regular campus activities to engage students in some form of cultural competency training.

“The idea of cultural competency training is that once you emerge, you’ve gained more of a critical consciousness of the world around you,” says Pendakur.

In 2014, Harvey Mudd launched a program called Building Bridges, a six-week seminar held once a week for two hours and open to any interested students. Participants begin by analyzing who they are as individuals, first understanding their own identities before learning about other cultures and systemic inequities on a deeper level.

“We can figure out from there where [students] have privilege and blind spots. Then we talk through these blind spots and figure out how to actually move forward,” Pendakur says. “We want students to be able to engage with one another in the most effective way without being afraid to ask questions or say the wrong thing.”

The seminar covers topics such as identity, privilege, and socialization, as well as how to work effectively in diverse teams and how to navigate through difficult conversations on topics like race, gender, and bias. Activities include group discussions, worksheets, drawing, films, YouTube videos, and role playing. Through these, Building Bridges aims to break down inherent biases, allowing students to gain a genuine understanding of the different cultures that surround them.

As their knowledge of diversity grows, students become more equipped to engage with people of different cultures, Pendakur says. Thus far, students who have participated in the program have found it to be more than educational.

“I can put myself into perspective with other life views,” says Jacob Rosenbloom, a recent graduate of Harvey Mudd. “It made me see myself less as an individual and more on a spectrum of people with [other] life experiences.”

For Lin Yang, a senior at Harvey Mudd, the seminar helped her better relate to her own culture. “After having gone through the program, I was proud to be Asian for the first time,” Yang says. “Having the space to think about these things has made me a better person in general.”

Pendakur says that the intention of cultural competency training is to educate students so they can carry what they learn with them throughout their lives.

“These trainings bring forward skilled people to navigate others through difficult conversations, ultimately teaching them how to be allies in their communities,” she says. “We want to teach kids how to continue this education even after the seminar ends.”

In fact, cultural competency beyond the classroom, and the campus, is the focus of this type of education, as most employers are seeking candidates who work well with and respect others.

“Employers look for individuals who have an open attitude toward cultural difference and who are willing to learn,” says Vicky Ayers, the senior director for executive recruitment at RPA Inc., an executive search and consulting firm. “No one is going to know everything about every culture or be able to interact at the most productive levels with everyone right out of the gate, but those who recognize the issues and enthusiastically seek ways to connect across cultural lines are the most desirable employees from this perspective.”

Improving Educational Policies
In New York, the SUNY system is taking a different approach. Through a new, all-encompassing diversity, equity, and inclusion policy, administrators and faculty at each one of its 64 campuses will be required to participate in cultural competency training.

SUNY students and faculty
SUNY students and faculty

“We strongly believe that having SUNY leadership participate first [in cultural competency training] underscores our system-wide commitment to this work,” says Alexander N. Cartwright, provost and executive vice chancellor of the SUNY system.

While SUNY already educates students on cultural competency, Cartwright believes training leadership and faculty is an equally important part of addressing the issue, as these people work closely with students of all cultures, races, and ethnicities on campus and in the classroom.

“All of the SUNY campuses offer cultural competency courses and programs for students. We view the [faculty] training as an enhancement to [SUNY’s] current efforts,” Cartwright says.

Currently, SUNY undergraduate students are required to complete a cultural competency course. In addition, each campus has a multicultural center with year-round programming, a multicultural student advisory council, and international exchange programs.

However, Medina says SUNY’s focus is much broader, allowing for more impact.

“A program can be short-lived, but a policy crosses the entire university. It’s really a cultural shift we’re trying to make,” he says. “It’s all about success. I firmly believe to have a student graduate and not be culturally competent, to not be aware of the world around them, is a failure.”

For Cartwright, having understanding and respect for people with different perspectives is an important component of a college degree.

“Much of success after school isn’t as much the education, but how you interact with people,” he says. “If you’re respectful of what others can bring to the table, that translates to others having greater respect for you, and that can help you move forward in your career.”

While many schools across the nation engage students, faculty, and staff in some type of cultural education or training, not all programs are mandatory. For example, Harvey Mudd’s Building Bridges program was designed as an optional learning experience for students. While the seminar is currently not for credit, Pendakur is working to change that; however, she isn’t convinced making it mandatory would be effective.

“My heart says yes, it should be, but there have to be resources afforded to make the curriculum the best it can be,” she says. “One could make the argument that social justice education is just as important as taking two math courses, but it’s a really complex set of arguments.”

From a student’s perspective, Yang says she believes mandatory training makes sense but might be met with hostility.

“There’s always backlash when things become mandatory,” she says. “People want to be complacent and not look at the issues and see how they’re responsible.”

Ayers explains that even in the workforce, addressing how cultural competency training should be implemented can be tricky. If employees view the training as a burden or an undesirable aspect of work, they’re less likely to become engaged, she says.

“If you take the model of ‘sensitivity training,’ administered as some kind of punishment for not being sensitive to cultural differences, we can see that lecturing on this kind of issue soon turns into a joke,” says Ayers.

As more colleges and universities begin to address the importance of cultural competency and provide optional or mandatory training, the diversity of our nation’s workforce is also on the rise.

According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the white working-age population is expected to decrease from 82 to 63 percent by 2020, while the minority working-age population is projected to double.

“Cultural competency is increasingly important to employers because our society has more cultural diversity than ever before in history,” Ayers says. “Not only that, but we have determined as a people that we should embrace and value diversity instead of suppressing it.”

According to Ayers, the increase in the diversity of our nation’s workforce reveals the practical purposes for becoming culturally competent, as well as the career and life advantages.

“If you can accomplish [cultural competence], it makes you a more desirable employee,” she says, “but more than that, it makes your life more interesting, more productive, and a lot more fun.”●

Madeline Szrom is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. Vicky Ayers is a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board.