The real value of diversity

The real value of diversity

Dec. 2, 2013, Written by Annemarie Russell

How Trinity’s diverse culture is deeply impacting students

I am startled again and again by the diversity of this place.

Startled by the goodness of it, by its rich tapestry and its authenticity. And startled at the way that the diversity I see at Trinity impacts our students personally and academically in powerful ways that change their lives and their future careers.

In this year’s admissions materials, we proudly report that 45% of our students identify as students of color. You may not know it, but that is an astounding figure in higher education, especially for a small Christian college in the Pacific Northwest. And within our small but growing student population, 201 students to be exact, we represent 12 states and 10 international countries.

However, I would be foolish to simply boast about our diversity rate, the wide array of cultures represented here or the number of international countries from which our students come.

What makes Trinity’s diversity worth boasting about is the way it impacts our students.

One long-term study showed that students who interacted with racially and ethnically diverse peers both informally and within the classroom showed the greatest “engagement in active thinking, growth in intellectual engagement and motivation, and growth in intellectual and academic skills.”

Another researcher found that diverse peers in the learning environment can improve intergroup relations and mutual understanding by challenging students to refine their thinking and enriching the dialogue between students.

Clearly, diverse learning environments are better learning environments.

Walk around Trinity’s campus, and you’ll see something surprising—here, students are both deeply connected to their own culture or ethnic background and also wonderfully engaged in this community. Trinity is a place where ethnic and racial divisions fade away in lieu of the rich multicultural relationships that our students form. Here friendships are forged alongside differences.

Take lunchtime in the Commons, for example. A scan around the room demonstrates what I’m trying to explain perfectly: Clustered around one table, I see a group of soccer players who come from as close as Everett and as far away as Mexico, Sweden and Venezuela. They chatter away in English, Spanish and Swedish, talking about last weekend’s game, sharing food across the table. These young men compete together and in their free time, they also socialize with one another—by choice.

In another part of the room I see members of the Dean’s Circle, Trinity’s academic leadership group. They represent Asian, African-American, Latina, Caucasian and Native American backgrounds. On Thursday nights, these students meet at the Dean’s house where, this semester, they talk about issues of technology and virtual reality and how these advancements impact religion, particularly Christianity. These students bring their best intelligence and critical thinking to class each Thursday night. They share dissenting viewpoints, debate nuanced arguments and learn from each other.

Just down the hall from the Commons, Stuart Webber, professor and chair of business, teaches Global Business Environment to a group of business majors. Filling up the classroom are students from Washington, California, Oregon, Mexico, Africa and Sweden. They are African-American, Latino, Arab, African, Caucasian and Asian.

Webber’s course, according to the course description, is described as providing an introduction to the global business environment, particularly in regard to doing business in a world economy and operating within the framework of the global marketplace. Students must “understand the economic, political, technological and socio-cultural environmental factors facing them to be successful, while still behaving in an ethical and responsible manner.”

Imagine how much more rich this class becomes when the seats are filled with such a diverse group of students. When I hear the discussions that occur and watch Webber adeptly balance varying student opinions with the content he’s presenting, I see in very vivid ways the impact that an “education of diversity” has on our students.

They learn to respectfully disagree, asserting their opinions clearly and with confidence. But they also learn to listen to each other, to compromise or see things from a different perspective. Most of all, at the end of the day, Trinity students learn to see themselves from a global perspective with the world as their community. And some days, the world literally IS their community, like the students sitting in Webber’s classroom engaged in discussion about the global marketplace. Webber himself agrees that this kind of diversity enriches the Trinity student experience.

“Our global business class has been greatly enriched by the diversity of our campus as well as our many international students. Not only do our students learn about how culture and business ethics vary around the world, I find I am learning something new almost every week too,” Webber said.

Trinity’s diversity isn’t the kind of college attribute that is easily reflected in percentages, statistics or numbers. Our “45% diversity rate” actually tells very little about the kind of diverse, rich culture that we have here. I’ve seen colleges boasting high diversity rates where students of similar backgrounds hang together, where all I have to do is scan the dining hall to see segregation between races and cultures—a table of international students in one corner, a group of Latino-American students in another, for example.

When I describe the amazing benefits of Trinity’s small size to prospective students, diversity is at the top of the list. President John Reed would agree.

“Trinity is small enough that students from diverse backgrounds are literally forced to get to know one another. The beauty of it, though, isn’t that they simply know each other, but that they build friendships, gain a shared understanding, and come to have a broader perspective about themselves and their respective fields that shape them and change them forever,” Reed said.

The college’s mission statement reads: Trinity Lutheran College, through biblically-centered education, develops Christian leaders with a global perspective whose lives and ministry serve Jesus Christ in church and society.

I can’t say enough about the importance of a “global perspective,” particularly as we equip students to go out in the world and do they work they are called to do. At Trinity, we believe that equipping students to see the world globally is an important step toward their success.

And while they are here, being filled with knowledge and experiences, our students also receive this unique aspect of a Trinity education: the chance to live and learn alongside people who are different than they are, to be changed and enriched by the diverse relationships they forge, and to become better leaders and more highly-skilled workers in their respective fields and future careers.