Making College a Lesson in Diversity

Blending race at Boston University and beyond

Raul Fernandez
Raul Fernandez

Making College a Lesson in Diversity

Boston University lecturer Raul Fernandez believes that one of higher education's greatest strengths is its diversity. For most students, he suggests, college will be the least homogeneous environment that they will ever live in. Colleges actively recruit across the nation, across borders, and with an eye toward balancing race, gender, and socioeconomic status. "They try to do that," he said, "because they believe that there's some benefit to having access to all those diverse communities."

But those are the headline numbers. The reality that Fernandez sees is that students accrete into groups as homogeneous as those communities from whence they came – and that's a wasted opportunity. "We're separated," he said. "And that has implications in terms of how we view and how we talk about race in America."

Take fraternity and sorority systems. Greek life provides support systems, albeit ones built on similarities. If a student joins an organization that is 90%, or even 100% white, Fernandez said, "You by default end up segregating yourself from all this diversity." It's not exactly a new problem in education, with echoes in the writings of James Baldwin: "Even when he was going to school, as a black boy among white boys, they didn't understand what life was like after he left there."

As part of his SXSWedu panel, "Why We Need to Talk With Students About Race," Fernandez will explain what BU is doing to help university students get exposed to viewpoints and backgrounds they didn't even know they didn't know about. "I keep telling students, this is probably the most diverse environment you will ever live in," he said. "And this is an opportunity to work with people from a lot of different perspectives."

BU is proactive about encouraging students to reach beyond their own background. In its First-Year Experience program, "We ask, 'Hey, have you talked about race and religion and issues?'" said Fernandez. "And for race it was often for friends, but when you talk, you talk in homogeneous groups." As they start talking about diversity of all forms outside of their own circle, "Students are eyes wide open, saying, 'Tell me more about this.'"

When students are given the tools to become informed and engaged, universities will respond, Fernandez suggested. That translates to real-world progress. In response to student activism, both Georgetown University and Montreal's Concordia University have used truth and reconciliation studies to assess their historical connection to slavery and suppression of First Nations people, respectively. Yale has changed a college name, and UT-Austin removed statues of Jefferson Davis and others because of their links to the Confederacy and slavery.

Said Fernandez: "When students become active, they may not get everything they're asking for, but change will happen."

Why We Need to Talk With Students About Race

Mon., March 6, 5pm, Hilton Downtown, Salon A

More on Race and Education

Talking the Talk: Anti-Bias & Other Hard Topics, Mon., March 6, 3:30pm, Hilton, Salon J
Black Lives Matter: Does Black Curriculum?, Tue., March 7, 5pm, Hilton, Salon A
Facing Ferguson: A News Literacy Case Study, Wed., March 8, 11am, ACC Room 16AB

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