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Tag Archives: diversity

Equal (Higher Education) Opportunity

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Higher education is the launching pad for the American dream. No matter where you come from or what you’re parents have done, college holds the promise of the pathway to success. We take enormous pride in being a classless society in which anyone from any means can grab their piece of the pie. We love nothing more than stories that prove our beliefs right. Every year or two a new “homeless to Harvard” story populates lifestyle media. Colleges/universities love profiling their hard-knock life graduates come May. And why not? Who doesn’t want to be inspired by people who have Horatio Alger-ed their way to commencement? But beyond the headlines or sentimental stories is a less than cheery reality.

Higher education is much more democratic than it’s ever been in many real and meaningful ways. But institutions are rather limited in what they can do. They can throw their metaphorical doors open for any and all (who have academic potential) but they can’t make them come. There are many many truly academically gifted students who are accepted and never attend outstanding universities. These students come from homes in which they may be the first to attend college. The family may be very reluctant for a child to leave home or simply not have the resources to support the travel costs. The student often attends a local college and lives at home. There is nothing wrong with either of these two phenomenons, but when performed in concert they are seriously limiting. The point of higher education is to expand the knowledge base and worldview of students. College is most meaningful when it makes a student’s world bigger. Attending classes with people who are just like you and living with people just like you can render the higher education experience more vocational or technical than intellectual. Yes, great ideas can be explored in the classroom, but only to an extent. Lack of diversity limits the value on the exchange of ideas. Colleges and universities know this and work (to varying degrees) to rectify it. But by the time kids are filling out college applications it’s too late to impact a family’s will.

Kindergarten is the time to start exposing families to the idea of what higher education can mean to their child and how to embrace the most expansive experience possible. There is little point in preparing and urging children to soar if their parents are not on board. Over the course of 13 years (K-12) parent-teacher meetings, PTA, homework, and extra-curricular activities can have a higher-education component. School administrators, teachers and staff will no longer assume that all families are educated higher education consumers. Clinics can be held to help families navigate the (often opaque) terrain of colleges/universities. Topics such as financial aid, return on investment, defining degrees, career placement, and areas of study could be offered from middle school on. The more families are included in the conversations, from the earliest possible point, the more likely they will support the best choice possible for their child.

There are enough impediments to a truly equal opportunity for college students without this major hurdle. Some students, regardless of academic talent often have a first-class college experience while other students, of equal or greater talent, are stuck in coach. Some students are just go-getters, they will seek out and uncover any and all opportunities and not rest until they’ve squeezed every last drop out of the experience. Some students’ parents do that for them, and arrange (through personal contacts or friends of friends) network and resume building internships. Many students either need to work during the summer and/or don’t have their parents doing their work for them and graduate with a lesser experience. The same is said for many academic experiences as well. Studying anywhere off-campus cost money that is rarely covered by financial aid. Summer classes, remote campuses or study abroad programs are often not an option for students who must make every dollar count. Even on-campus these financial decisions must often be made. Most campus events and some courses of study cost additional monies. There are areas of study that necessitate equipment or fees that might not be covered in financial aid packages.

Creating a college student body that reflects the greater society is an admirable goal. However to do so in any meaningful way will take more than opening up the doors. Resources and attention are needed so that we don’t just democratizing education we also equalize it.

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Posted by on June 12, 2013 in Education

 

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Everyday People*

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The New York City Police Department has a melting pot guide for its officers. This guide offers tips for understanding the ingredients that make up our multicultural stew. At first blush it would seem a little quaint in the 21st century to need such a guide (in New York City). Unless the police recruits are coming from a small town (in the 1950s!) it’s a pretty sure bet that they’ve met or seen people of other backgrounds. But more than a cursory familiarity is needed on the front lines.

What is striking about this 21st century guide is the assumptions it makes. The reports of its content would suggest that it is written for the white, Christian, heterosexual police officer. Unfortunately there’s nothing unique about this approach. “Diversity” manuals are almost always written from that perspective (and without irony!) Social worker guidelines, medical manuals, public and private sector human resource documents are almost always written from the perspective of the white Christian heterosexual. Anyone doubting this need only flip through the tomes in pursuit of the chapter: Understanding White Christian Heterosexuals. Good luck with that.

Beside the obvious bias that this perspective has, there is a larger efficacy issue at hand. Police officers, social workers, et al. who are not white, Christian and heterosexual experience a gap in their training. A social worker, let’s say from an observant Jewish urban background, working in a rural white Christian area is not well served by this type of training. It is assumed that she will know the customs and culture of white rural Christians. The assumption that NYPD officers are white, Christian and heterosexual is (mercifully) outdated. A first-generation Chinese-American police officer may be well versed in the customs of Chinese-Americans but not know the customs and culture of white Christians. It is true that people who are outside of the power-base of a society know some of the ways of that power group. It is an integral key to survival to know of the holidays and some customs of Christians, whites and heterosexuals if you are not of that background. But the more subtle cultural cues (the type which are always addressed in these manuals and training) need to be spelled out clearly for all people of all backgrounds. Creating diversity manuals, which only have the potential of being 100% effective for white Christian heterosexuals transcends irony.

By not viewing whites, Christians and heterosexual people as a “group” we are asserting that these people are the norm and everyone else is a minority or special interest. This perspective is not helpful and is on the verge of being utterly false. If nothing else it is woefully old-fashioned. When it comes to the topic of cultural awareness we must be ahead of the curve not behind it.

*I am no better and neither are you
We are the same whatever we do – Sly Stone (1968)

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Seeing Differences

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I’m a profiler. Why pretend otherwise? Without any effort whatsoever; the appearance, and speech of a stranger is rapidly calculated and a (metaphorical) card pops out that reads; “tourist” “nanny” “poser”. We all do this to one extent or another. People who can not assess people by visual and verbal cues are often taken to a specialist. There is an actual biological origin and motivation for this ability. Our senses exist to take in information and to assess danger. We may not know everything about the tiger say, its hobbies or dreams, but we know it’s a tiger and it’s headed straight toward us.

Most everyone can make certain generalizations about people very quickly. This comes in handy when looking for directions; would you ask a tourist how to get somewhere or would you ask a local? Of course you’d have to be able to identify a tourist and a local. And, this is where people may get themselves into trouble. “Appearance” is not a question of skin tone or pant waist. The way in which someone carries him or herself is an integral part of their appearance and often speaks volumes about who they are. What a person says and not just how they say it is also key. Grammar, syntax and accent are fascinating but may tell you less about someone’s intentions than what it is they’re actually saying. What people say (and don’t say) is probably the best (and perhaps only) reliable indicator of who a person is.

A 20-something in a stuck elevator wailing how ‘this is the single worst thing that’s ever happened to me in my entire life’ has led a charmed life, no? The same could be said about a supervisor who without a word, routinely hands you his empty coffee cups. The stranger, who worlessly pushes you to the ground at the sound of an explosion, knows a thing or two about survival. Our past and our sense of our place in the world are continuously communicated. We tell our stories (laced with varying degrees of fiction) literally and figuratively. For those who engage in the literal, it’s always fascinating to see what they include and choose to omit. In their editing, they often tell us more about themselves than they ever intended. Case in point: a woman wrote the story of her small child’s dog attack (just to be clear; the dog attacked the child.) It’s a traumatizing and bloody story that quite frankly is entirely her doing. She has remorse for the trauma and the facial scar but seems to have zero understanding of her role in the mauling. She knowingly created an extremely dangerous situation, not just for her own child but for anyone in proximity. That her children were not removed from the home, she was not imprisoned and was paid to write about her sorrow can only lead me to come to this conclusion; she is privileged. Had she lived in public housing the authorities would be aware of her behavior. If she had been to a public hospital the authorities would know. If she had looked a certain way or talked a certain way, the authorities would know.

It causes me no pleasure that I have engaged in the same act of profiling that perpetuates such inequity. But how do we ever fight for justice if we cannot detect the injustices? The only way to see that people are treated differently is to see the differences. There is nothing immoral or politically incorrect about acknowledging that people are diverse. What is morally reprehensible is to engage in separate and unequal justice.

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Hand-Picked For College

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According to today’s paper better colleges fail to lure talented poor students. If it’s true the reason is simple; it’s complicated. While it is not complicated to identify and recruit academically gifted poor students, it is more involved to ensure that they succeed.

Many if not most financial aid packages do not include monies for housing and/or dining. There are rarely stipends for books, computers or travel. There are several periods during the academic year in which dormitories close and dining plans evaporate. Students who come from great distances and/or do not have the funds to travel are left utterly unmoored, often during a holiday. Colleges and universities now invite not just parents, but entire families to weekend events on campus. Families with limited means could not attend and students might be affected. Student activities occur throughout the years that cost money (not supplied by aid). Joining the Greek system (aka fraternities & sororities) is not free. Attending sporting events, senior class events, or arts events are rarely free. Without a meaningful stipend a university would ensure a second-class status to poorer students.

The more complex issue is that of social and/or emotional support. Attending classes and getting good grades is only one part of the college experience. If the idea of luring talented poor students to ‘better’ colleges is for them to get more out of the college experience (than they would’ve attending their local college) then more has to be done for them. Academic advising would need to be aggressive and include tutorials on research opportunities, graduate schools, and career opportunities. Student services would need to help foster networking opportunities to ensure the students reap the benefit of the stellar student body. Adjusting to college life is never all that easy. The environment always feels just a bit foreign, and the expectations daunting. For poorer students the culture itself could be off-putting and/or foreign. If a student has left an economically struggling family behind, it can feel disorienting to be among people with plenty. There can be issues of guilt if a family could use the student at home.

Finding talented students who are poor is not difficult. Every high school in the nation can identify their top 10% and SATs do a fine job of categorizing people. Many universities already recruit students from big cities (which no doubt offer a pool of talented, poor and ethnically or racially underrepresented students.)  Many schools have institutionalized support programs for students from ethnically/racially-underrepresented groups. If the ‘better’ schools are to recruit poor students from more remote locations they will need to create a similar model of institutional support programs. Recruitment and admission are only the very very beginning of the higher education journey. If colleges and universities take an aggressive role in recruiting students they must take seriously their obligation to ensure success.

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2013 in Education

 

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