Students from Diverse Backgrounds

Why your diverse students should consider a small liberal arts college

Posted by Gretchel Hathaway, Chief Diversity Officer & Coordinator of Title IX

Here’s an intriguing question I often get from high school guidance counselors, especially those who work largely with students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds:  why should my students consider Union? What can a small liberal arts college not located in a major metro area offer diverse students?

It’s a good question, and no doubt one that students ask, as well. Especially if they’ve grown up in an urban area surrounded by other kids from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds.

My answer is that Union – and many other small liberal arts colleges – have placed a much greater emphasis on diversity in recent years and are growing more diverse all the time.  Since 2005, the percent of students in Union’s incoming class who represent domestic multicultural diversity has increased from 12 to 19 percent. Our international students have grown from 2 to 5 percent of the student body. More importantly, our overall approach towards diversity has changed vastly.

I became the Chief Diversity Officer & Coordinator of Title IX after President Stephen Ainlay joined Union in 2006; prior to that, I was Director of the Community Outreach Center, overseeing our volunteer programs. I also served as our college’s affirmative action officer. Back then, our approach to diversity was primarily crisis management mode:  we addressed harassment and bullying, but we lacked any kind of comprehensive, campus-wide approach to increasing diversity. Ultimately, we established a committee that focused on Campus Climate, and its final report and recommendations were used as part of our 2006 Strategic Plan for the College.

Our new president wanted to spark an ongoing conversation about diversity, and he wanted concrete actions. We could feel the shift immediately.  My position, which reports directly to the President, was created, along with a Multicultural Affairs Office, which I oversee.  The President also immediately established a Presidential Forum on Diversity. The arrival of Matt Malatesta, our new head of admissions, brought big changes as well, since he began to focus on the recruitment and retention of incoming students.  Diversifying our student body became a top priority for the admissions office.

Our view of diversity at Union is more global now. We no longer view it solely through the lens of race; we consider ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, culture, disability, nationality and age, as well. We want our students to understand and respect differences, but also to find connections in our shared humanity.  We want to think of diversity education as an approach, a way to interact.

Our Presidential Forum on Diversity, which explores diverse and inclusive topics every year, has been very successful.  We’ve examined women and gender issues, LGBT issues, religious fluency and spiritual life, and the role of diversity in Union’s unique history. (It turns out Union had an anti-slavery society, and some of our students marched in Civil Rights demonstrations.) We’ve welcomed nationally-celebrated speakers, such as Maya Angelou and Soledad O’Brien, and local leaders, such as Albany politician Barbara Johnson and John Robinson, a disabled mountain climber. The Presidential Forum talks are some of our most popular campus events, with students eagerly awaiting the speaker announcements each term.

During our first year, in an effort to encourage students to appreciate and embrace the wide variety of cultures and beliefs they contribute to our campus, we worked with students, faculty, staff, administrators and alumni/ae to design and make a beautiful quilt representing our diverse community. I think that was the beginning of understanding our communal history and recognizing previously marginalized groups. Many students and student groups contributed patches to the quilt, from the sports teams to the academic departments to the extracurricular clubs, and even our alumni. Now we display the Union Unity Quilt every year for the Presidential Forum, for Founders Day and for Convocation, and its creators – now graduating seniors – are proud of their handiwork.  It’s a beautiful visual representation of who we are, of “our Union.”

Union’s changes have definitely surprised and heartened some.  During our LGBT forum, we welcomed a gay former student as a speaker who told us that the forum could never have taken place when he attended Union in the early 1990s. And our support for diversity continues to develop in so many ways. Diversity discussions are now part of first-year orientation, where trained Residence Directors lead fun, informational workshops. We also have a student Leadership and Diversity Council, made up of cultural groups, as well as fraternities and sororities. This group supports each other’s programming, including a series entitled “How to talk to…”   in which students held open dialogue lunches on topics such as “How to talk to an Asian student” or “How to talk to a Person Who’s Gay.”

Change is always a slow process, but so many positive things are happening. I see our community taking multicultural studies more seriously, recognizing that classes like Russian Literature and African Cultural Studies enhance the breadth of everyone’s education.

And while our interactions aren’t perfect, we handle any problems more quickly and thoroughly, before they escalate—often with students taking the lead. For example, a Jewish fraternity and non-Jewish fraternity were recently playing baseball, and someone made an insensitive comment. Before a complaint reached my office, the individual’s fraternity leader called me, apologizing and asking for a workshop. He wanted to correct the situation immediately, because the fraternity did not support the comments and wanted to make sure all members understood that the behavior was unacceptable.  They also invited other fraternities and sororities to attend.

Another argument I point out to counselors when weighing whether to promote what looks like a largely white, non-urban campus to their students is perhaps less obvious – Union is a “safe place” for students to explore and work through their own diversity challenges and any preconceived notions they may have about certain cultures and groups.  It’s far better for them to have that experience at a small liberal arts college, where staff like me are here to guide and support them, than out in the “real” world.  At Union – and other liberal arts colleges – students can work through cultural issues in an encouraging environment.

As a counselor, you can urge your students to explore all that small, supportive, striving colleges like Union have to offer. The focus should be on getting a broad, high-quality education, on exploring opportunities to interact with people from diverse backgrounds, and on appreciating how such a college’s unique environment can help students grow academically, socially and personally.

Gretchel Hathaway is the Chief Diversity Officer & Coordinator of Title IX at Union College