The Importance of Identity: How the University of Maryland Uses Self-Discovery to Explore Diversity

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It can be difficult to fully understand and appreciate people from different cultures or backgrounds without first comprehending how one’s own background and beliefs can affect those individuals. Acknowledging this important fact, the University of Maryland (UMD), College Park focuses on helping students self-identify, leading to better understanding of others as they become part of a multicultural community.

[Above: Frederick Douglass Square at the University of Maryland, College Park, which the university dedicated last fall]

Students at UMD begin the road to self-discovery the moment they set foot on campus — something Kumea Shorter-Gooden, PhD, chief diversity officer and associate vice president of the Office of Diversity & Inclusion, says is integral to their growth.

“Students often first find their niche and engage with others who have similar identities while exploring, learning about, and deepening their own identity,” she says. “This can give them the confidence to go out and engage with those quite different from themselves.”

Once students become comfortable with who they are, Shorter-Gooden says they often recognize their personal biases and are able to improve their connections with more diverse groups.

“What’s sometimes called ‘self-segregating’ can be healthy, especially for students from marginalized groups. It can even be imperative in the context of a large university that is predominantly white and historically male,” she says. “Majority-group students have a different challenge: how to see beyond their privilege and engage with diverse classmates on more than a superficial level.

“We want all of our students to take full advantage of the richness of the campus and learn from one another.”

UMD has an array of organizations, courses, programs, and student-led groups to guide students through the self-identification process, as well as help them learn about different cultures and identities. For instance, the new Maryland Dialogues on Diversity and Community, launched this year, is a compilation of lectures, symposia, discussions, and listening sessions that stimulate honest discussions of difficult issues. Its goal is to increase inclusion on campus by educating students, staff, and faculty on issues of identity, difference, power, and privilege.

Students participate in UMD’s Maryland Dialogues on Diversity and Community event.
Students participate in UMD’s Maryland Dialogues on Diversity and Community event.

“The Maryland Dialogues are about changing culture,” Shorter-Gooden says. “We have to create a culture where we can communicate and learn from those who are different — even if we disagree. That needs to become the cultural norm.”

The dialogues, which tackle different topics each year, are an ongoing effort. This year’s focus is race and racism, with attention paid to how race intersects with gender, sexuality, class, religion, language, ethnicity, and disability. As the program continues, more topics will be added.

Another dialogue-centered initiative at UMD, Words of Engagement, provides a more raw experience. First offered in 2000, this optional course creates a space for students to come together and openly talk about historic issues of conflict; in the past, students have tackled tough topics such as race and social biases.

“It provides students the ability to talk and build resiliency [around] uncomfortable conversations and increases their ability to not simply debate issues, but instead start a dialogue around them grounded in lived experience,” says Beth Douthirt Cohen, director of education and training in UMD’s Office of Diversity & Inclusion.

According to Douthirt Cohen, Words of Engagement has had the greatest impact in terms of engaging students in conversations across differences, and she says that much of this can be credited to the class’s complex nature.

“It’s not necessarily ‘feel-good,’ and that’s not the purpose of it,” she says. “It’s about increasing comfort around conflict — naming it, talking about it. The dialogue is about coming as you are and pushing yourself.”

While race and gender are important areas to examine, they represent only a small but sizable part of UMD’s diversity and inclusion focus. The university is also working to make the campus more inclusive of people with disabilities.

Thanks to many on-campus groups, UMD has made progress in terms of increasing understanding and acceptance of these individuals in the last several years; these groups have included the President’s Commission on Disability Issues (PCDI), which advises UMD’s president on how to address issues affecting students with disabilities; TerpAccess Disability Network, which works to create an environment that’s accepting and inclusive of the disability community; and Delta Alpha Pi (DAP), an honors society that recognizes high-achieving students with disabilities.

“[During my time at UMD], I had to deal with a lot of different challenges, such as professors not understanding [my] needs or accommodations and transportation issues around campus,” says Christopher Gaines, a UMD alumnus, former member of the PDCI, and former DAP president. “Now, there’s more organization with disability awareness and advocacy training.”

Efforts in this area include UMD’s Rise Above Week, which, in 2015, focused on how to combat “able-ism”.— the assumption that those who are able-bodied are more capable than those with disabilities. UMD also uses National Disability Employment Awareness Month as an effective way to build advocacy. Held every October, UMD hosts on-campus workshops, lectures, and guest panels to help build better understanding and acceptance of people with disabilities.

Mollie Greenberg, a PhD sociology student at UMD who has helped plan Disability Awareness Month activities at the university for the past two years, says she believes individuals with disabilities are still greatly underrepresented in higher education. However, she thinks that UMD has the ability to become one of the first institutions to break the barriers students with disabilities face.

“A lot of the focus on inclusion [at UMD] comes from a dedication to [hosting] a wide range of diversity-related talks, trainings, and events,” Greenberg says. “This is especially true in terms of disability.”

From identity to race to disability awareness, UMD is focused on ensuring students have the opportunity to grow — not only on a personal level, but also as a community that’s knowledgeable and understanding of diversity.

“We want students to have information and to develop, learn, and become culturally competent,” Shorter-Gooden says. “[Then] they’ll have the capacity to live and work effectively, as well as the ability to make a genuine difference when they go out into the world.”●

Madeline Szrom is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. The University of Maryland, College Park is a 2015 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.