November 18, 2019

How Does Diversity Form the Foundation of Learning?

Diversity has long been a hallmark of Mason. We embrace diversity with such ferocity that we view it as a centerpiece of the educational experiences—maybe the most valuable experience—we offer students because we truly believe that our community’s mix of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, disability, military experience, socio-economic background, ideas, attitudes, beliefs, educational background, perspectives, and values create the perfect setting for learning and personal growth.

Cultivating and nurturing all dimensions of diversity is more important now than ever before. Severe political and societal polarization has affected humanity across the globe, which is stressing the fabric of our society and eroding the foundation of our democracy. Research shows that as it is easy to create echo chambers through technology, people are less patient with differing perspectives and are drawn to like thinkers. This has devastating consequences as exposure to people, religions, cultures, and ideas different than our own stimulates learning and shapes our capacity to empathize. This has particular relevance for a university as neuroscientists have learned that the pre-frontal cortex of the human brain—which is responsible for planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior—is not fully developed until age 25. The window for this brain development happens to overlap with the time a majority of our students are with us. It is our responsibility, as educators, to recognize that our students’ moral and social development can be significantly influenced by their college experiences—those who associate with a range of ideas and cultures while they are still developing are more likely to approach and interact with others who are different.

This topic caused me to reflect on my own experience when I came to the United States in my early 20’s as an international student. Before I could appreciate or understand the internal adjustments my mind was making, I faced a shock that went beyond sounds, smells, tastes, and climate. Every culture has unspoken rules which impact the way people treat each other—to correctly identify the norms of social interaction can be challenging. I still remember that cocktail receptions—which require a surprisingly demanding mastery of social cues—were completely foreign and absolutely terrifying to me. People depend on cues given by their familiar groups to define who they are and to support their self-identity. But when these cues are obscured or subject to new interpretations, I was forced to relearn social norms like a toddler. The process was both stimulating and frustrating, and it took time to learn what behavior was acceptable in order to “fit in” and to truly engage people around me. The challenge then shifted to being able to develop a deeper sense of my own identity and my natural instincts that allowed me to be my authentic self. Throughout this process, I adapted by continuing to put myself in situations where I was required to interact with people as different from me as possible. I initially gravitated toward playing sports so I could connect in a way beyond language but still forced me to step outside my comfort zone. I’m sure my experience is shared by many others.

In a reception with Mason’s international students at the beginning of the fall semester, I initiated a conversation with several students who shared their struggles with social interactions upon arrival at Mason. They often wonder what conversational topics were or were not off-limits. One noted that being on campus, surrounded by people from different cultures, helped her understand boundaries and how to talk to others about personal things. Another student said interactions with others from around the world made him more aware of his own culture while allowing him to be as objective as possible. In reflecting on my own struggles from years past, I know each of us will be placed in uncomfortable situations that test our understanding, patience, and self-worth as our campus grows more diverse. But before retreating to traditional behaviors and reactions, it’s important to remember that being challenged in this way is often a precondition for learning and personal growth.

While our student body represents the most diverse in Virginia, we still have ways to go in terms of the diversity of our faculty, staff, and administration. If you subscribe to the idea that diversity—in all dimensions—forms the foundation of learning, then it should be clear that we need to put in significant effort to expand our diversity as an institution of higher learning.

I have made the point in this blog that at the very core of our mission is to afford Access to Excellence, and that diversity and inclusion are fundamental to that mission. If we wish to ensure that our students receive a well-rounded education, a heightened sense of moral and social responsibilities, and are prepared to lead in an increasingly interconnected world, we must continue our journey to become the most diverse institution—not only in terms of our student population but in all dimensions we can imagine. I encourage you to share your ideas on how we can continue to be a thought leader in this important national dialogue.

3 thoughts on “How Does Diversity Form the Foundation of Learning?

  • President Holton told me GMU is the Most Diverse U in Va. The new IDIA project is an excellent opportunity to showcase venues (i.e. your cocktail party analogy) that spark diversity, propel new partnerships, and challenge the technical norm with new innovative.

  • Your blog piece regarding the relationship of diversity and learning appears to be based upon the axiom that there is a direct proportionality between diversity and learning. That axiom can be easily demonstrated to be false using an argumentum ad absurdum. Such an axiom would lead you to conclude that if you have no diversity at all; you will have no learning. I believe the absurdity of such a statement is self-evident. Even with zero diversity, you can still have learning and education. Such is the power of the written word. We don’t need to travel to distant places, whether here on Earth or elsewhere in the galaxy, to imagine and understand such distant locales. We have also had the technology to view remote locations for decades. Needless to say, there are many institutions of higher education which were built upon a lack of diversity, that is, a monolithic gathering of students bound by, as you call it, “race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, disability, military experience, socio-economic background, ideas, attitudes, beliefs, educational background, perspectives, and values.” Some were forced to be in such monolithic environments due to forced segregation based upon any one of those characteristics noted. Some choose to be in such environments due to their own preference and prejudice. Nonetheless, they can still learn any subject, from astronomy to zoology.

    Another weakness in your argument is the use of specific examples you provide of students noting how much they learned from the diverse population at George Mason University. A diversity which as you note “has long been a hallmark of Mason.” The main reason for this historic diversity at George Mason University, can be found in the simple edict of real estate agents, that is, “location, location, and location.” George Mason University is less than 20 miles from the White House in Washington, DC. With so many embassies in the DC metropolitan area, the children of the ambassadors and their staff have been a pool of students for the university almost since it began operations.

    With respect to those specific examples you cite, in support of your hypothesis, you can always find examples to support any hypothesis. You may have hundreds or thousands or examples in support of the hypothesis; but, it only takes one counter-example to prove that the hypothesis is invalid.

    Finally, when it comes to your endeavor to “journey to become the most diverse institution,” it should be noted, as I have been on campus for some 37 years, that George Mason University had at one point, prior to the Cabrera reign, been ranked in one of the ratings, the most diverse university among public institutions of higher education. What evidence is there that this made education at this public institution of higher education any better for it?

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