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John R. Broderick: Valuing diversity and inclusivity in higher education

There has never been more important for higher education institutions to serve as a marketplace for ideas. Generation X, millennials and Generation Z converge throughout academia seeking more personal clarity and understanding of the evolving world in which they live.

Differing points of view have always been a backbone of American culture, especially on campuses. Discussions — both informal and formal — have helped thousands of students throughout the decades determine their own views on topics ranging from the Vietnam War and civil rights to global warming and immigration.

If you seriously study or casually observe enrollment patterns in higher education, you must listen closely to what is being said. Why do people choose a particular institution and remain there through graduation? While the quality of education, affordability and area of study still top most lists, many consider an institution's commitment to diversity and inclusivity a significant factor.

The campus I call home, as well as many other metropolitan institutions, offers the perfect venue to foster open discussions, given that students come from many different races, ethnicities, national origins, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities and socioeconomic backgrounds. Additionally, the majority of college students today are transfers, distance learners and working adults.

As someone who teaches a course every year, I find it personally rewarding to hear a diverse group of students talk about their respective journeys toward earning a degree. Further, this is a learning moment for those trying to grasp how to better understand and successfully participate in the world awaiting them.

Countless students, via social media, share the personal and positive significance of being in classes with people who don't always look like them, pray like them or think like them. As one student told me last semester, "How can I adapt to a changing world if I am always around people who are like me all day and night?" As a 22-year-old, she valued the opportunity to hear a variety of perspectives, whether they come from an active member of the military, a working mother or an international student.

Being a diverse place, however, should be only a part of any institution's mission these days. The larger question is: How do we foster inclusivity?

Classes and activities where people from different backgrounds gather to learn are now the new normal for many colleges and universities across the country.

The recent 18-year-old high school graduate can gain insight from the 26-year-old active-duty military member, while the rural Virginia student learns the challenges of balancing a job and a family while earning a degree.

This informal learning will never lead to a single answer to any question, but that is not the intention. These students, however, are gaining valuable insight on how to create a world in which they will cooperate with each other.

Students emerging from this model receive advantages that many of us missed during our time in school. They will have had a chance to compare and contrast their beliefs and opinions with those of actual people, not just through reading.

Being a marketplace for ideas doesn't simply require bringing speakers and programs to campus. It must also include broader classroom discussions as well as informal gatherings. The ever-changing demographic for higher education increases the odds that future societies will increase understanding of one another and our differences.

Various forms of diversity will, as I have heard students say, allow them to gain insight from valuable resources — each other.

View article in The Virginian Pilot

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