Aaron William California
When Americans hear the word “diversity,” the common response is to think of racial and ethnic differences. At the University of Idaho, the overwhelming majority of students are European-Americans—9,974, to be exact—followed by 868 students who identify as Hispanic, 126 who identify as African-American, and 191 students who identify as Asian. Phyllis Wise, an Asian-American woman and a Chancellor at the University of Illinois makes an important point about what a more accurate definition of diversity is. Wise states that diversity also includes culture, religion, geography, sexuality, age, gender, beliefs, values, and experience. Ethnically and racially, the University of Idaho may not be as diverse as other parts of the U.S. However, when taking into account Wise’s definition of diversity, the University of Idaho is much more varied than one might think.
Jeff Guillory, Director of Diversity Education at Washington State University, an African-American male and one of the keynote speakers for the recent U of I Cultural Literacy and Competence Symposium, asked the question, “Who are you?” Guillory’s question is intended to solicit more than just your name. Among other things, the question is asking where you are from, where are your ancestors from., and what are your core beliefs? When Guillory was asked this question for the first time by his father-in-law, a Native American man, he did not pick up on what the question was really asking him about. After Guillory understood that his father-in-law was really asking him to share a deeper, personal response, he gave him details about his family, ethnic heritage, and personal identities.
Later in his presentation, Guillory commented on the fact that modern American corporations, such as Boeing and others like it are now requiring prospective employees to be culturally literate. Guillory mentioned that some of the questions employers ask may not up-front sound like they are asking you about you cultural literacy, but on a subtle level, they are. The fact that corporations are requiring cultural literacy from job candidates is a clear indication to the importance of familiarity with a diversity of different cultures. In summary, Guillory told the story of an employee with little cultural knowledge about Middle Eastern culture, whose lack of awareness caused him to be expelled from the country and fired by the corporation that sent him there to finalize an important deal. Stories like this should be a wake-up call to college students looking for employment after graduation. How many of us place our right ankle on our left knee when sitting? Sounds innocent enough, and it is in American culture. However, in many Middle Eastern cultures, placing your foot on your ankle, thereby exposing the bottom of your shoe to people, is culturally insensitive. The critical necessity of becoming culturally literate is more important in American culture than ever before.
I asked Amy Ross, Associate Director for the Office of Human Rights, Access & Inclusion at the U of I, how one goes about learning more about another culture. She responded, “We all live in a multicultural society, so the truth is, unless you seal yourself off from the world, you are learning about culture all the time. Perhaps the most important thing is to open your eyes, ears, and mind to things that are unfamiliar. Take a chance and eat something you normally wouldn’t, go see a foreign film, participate in one of the countless cultural activities here on campus, take a language class, or maybe even participate in a study abroad program. The important thing is to be curious and open minded about the world around you.” I followed up with the question, “Where and what can U of I students do to become familiar with diversity?” According to Ross, “A good place to start is our Diversity Calendar, which lists upcoming diversity-related events all over campus. Click on any event to learn more about it, and get involved!” For U of I students, and non-students, the information Ross provided is clearly a good way for anyone wanting to know more about other cultures to get started.
When it comes to diversity, the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” is important to avoid racial profiling and discrimination. Wise makes an important point; after talking to someone from an unfamiliar background, whether it be race, religion, or other dimensions of identity, you walk away with a different perspective of this person. Wise sums up what we gain from talking to people of different demographics in just one word: knowledge. The type of knowledge Wise is referring to is learning and experiencing what other cultures are really like—replacing false assumptions people often make about those demographics they are unfamiliar with. Although I grew up around Latinos in Southern California for 22 years of my life, I only came to better understand the culture after learning Spanish and living amongst Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia. Only after you have interacted with people of different identities can you truly hope to gain a different perspective.
When moving to college, one of the things students do first is make friends. To make friends quickly, some students join clubs, fraternities, or sororities, and participate in college activities. One of the biggest obstacles to making friends is a lack of understanding and knowledge about people with different identities. The U.S. is one of the most diverse nations on Earth; you can just about meet someone from every other nation in the world here. According to an article in the Education section of US NEWS, an advantage to becoming culturally literate is that it widens your social circle. What would your social life be like if you only had friends who had everything in common with you?
Whatever your personal background is, the University of Idaho offers students a variety of clubs, organizations, and other involvement opportunities to help them become more culturally aware. If students want to learn more about Native American culture, the U of I Native American Student Center, NASC, is a great place to start. The U of I NASC has regular events that students of all backgrounds can attend to learn more about Native American culture and heritage. Similarly, U of I students interested in becoming involved with women’s issues and topics can visit the Women’s Center on campus. The Office of Multicultural Affairs provides many opportunities to engage in on-campus experiences and events that showcase other cultures. Diversity is a cornerstone of the University of Idaho’s mission and strategic plan. The institution’s goal, among others, is to graduate students who are competent global citizens, fully prepared to compete effectively in a diverse world. The opportunities are right here, right now, and they are abundant.