Understanding Diversity and the Source of Our Beliefs

Diversity is the variation in social and cultural identities among people living together. Multiculturalism is the active process of acknowledging and respecting social groups, cultures, religions, races, ethnicities, attitudes, and opinions. As your journey through higher education unfolds, you will find yourself immersed in this mixture of identities. Regardless of the size of the institution, going to college brings together people who have differing backgrounds and experiences but similar goals and aspirations. Each person brings to campus a unique combination of life story, upbringing, value system, view of the world, and set of judgments. Familiarizing yourself with such differences can greatly enhance your experiences in the classes you will take, the organizations you will join, and the relationships you will cultivate. For many students, college is the first time they have been exposed to so much diversity. Learning experiences and challenges await you both in and outside the classroom. College provides opportunities to learn not only about others but also about yourself.

diversity Variations in social and cultural identities among people living together.

multiculturalism The active process of acknowledging and respecting the diverse social groups, cultures, religions, races, ethnicities, attitudes, and opinions within a community.

Many of our beliefs grow out of personal experience and reinforcement. If you have had a negative experience or endured a series of incidents involving members of a particular group, you’re more likely to develop stereotypes, or negative judgments, about people in that group than if you haven’t had such experiences. Or maybe you have heard repeatedly that everyone associated with a particular group behaves in a certain way, and you might have bought into that stereotype without even thinking about it. Children who grow up in an environment in which dislike and distrust of certain types of people are openly expressed might agree with those very judgments even if they have had no direct interaction with those being judged.

In college you might encounter beliefs about diversity that run counter to your basic values. When your friendships with others are affected by differing values, tolerance is generally a good goal. Talking about diversity with someone else whose beliefs seem to conflict with your own can be very rewarding. Your goal in this kind of discussion is not to reach agreement, but to enhance your understanding of why people see diversity differently, why some seem to flee from it but others allow experiences with diversity to enrich their college experience.

Before coming to college, you might never have coexisted with most of the groups you now see on campus. Your home community might not have been very diverse, although possibly it seemed so before you reached campus. In college you have the opportunity to learn from many kinds of people. From your roommate in the residence hall to your lab partner in your biology class to the members of your sociology study group, your college experience will be enriched if you allow yourself to be open to the possibility of learning from members of all cultural groups.

When you think about diversity, you might first think of differences in race or ethnicity. Although it is true that those are two forms of diversity, you will most likely experience many other types of diversity in college and in the workplace, including age, religion, physical ability, learning ability, sexual orientation, gender, and economic status.

Ethnicity, Culture, Race, and Religion

Often the words ethnicity and culture are used interchangeably, although their definitions are quite distinct. Throughout this activity we will use these two terms together and in isolation. Before we start using them, it’s a good idea to learn their definitions so that you’re clear on what they actually mean.

stereotype An oversimplified set of assumptions about another person or group.

Ethnicity refers to the identity that is assigned to a specific group of people who are historically connected by a common national origin or language. For example, let’s look at one of the largest ethnic groups, Latinos. Latin America encompasses more than thirty countries within North America, Central America, and South America, all of which share the Spanish language. A notable exception is Brazil, but even though the national language is Portuguese, Brazilians are considered Latinos (both Spanish and Portuguese are languages that evolved from Latin). The countries also share many traditions and beliefs, with some variations, but we shouldn’t generalize. Not every Latino who speaks Spanish is of Mexican descent, and not every Latino speaks Spanish. Acknowledging that differences exist within ethnic groups is a big step in becoming ethnically aware.

ethnicity An affiliation assigned to a specific group of people historically connected by a common national heritage or language.

Culture is defined as those aspects of a group of people that are passed on or learned. Traditions, food, language, clothing styles, artistic expression, and beliefs are all part of culture. Certainly, ethnic groups are also cultural groups; They share a language, foods, traditions, art, and clothing, which are passed from one generation to the next. Numerous other, nonethnic cultural groups can fit this concept of culture, too. Think of the hip-hop community, in which a common style of dress, specific terminology, and distinct forms of musical and artistic expression also constitute a culture but not an ethnicity.

culture The aspects of a group of people that are passed on or learned. Traditions, food, language, clothing styles, artistic expression, and beliefs are all part of culture.

Although we don’t use the term race often in this activity, it’s important to understand this word as it is commonly used in everyday language. Race refers to biological characteristics that are shared by groups of people, including skin tone, hair texture and color, and facial features. Making generalizations about someone’s racial group affiliation is risky. Even people who share some biological features—such as similar eye shape or dark skin—might be ethnically very distinct. For instance, people of Asian descent are not necessarily ethnically and culturally alike because Asia is a vast region encompassing such disparate places as Mongolia, India, and Japan. Likewise, people of African descent come from very different backgrounds; the African continent is home to more than fifty countries and hundreds of different languages, and Africans are genetically very diverse. More and more individuals today, including President Barack Obama, describe themselves as multiracial. You might meet fellow students whose families include parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents of several different racial groups.

We come into the world with our own unique characteristics—aspects of our physical appearance and personalities that make us who we are—but people around the world have one attribute in common: We want to be respected even if we are different from others in some ways. Whatever the color of your skin or hair, whatever your life experiences or cultural background, you will want others to treat you fairly and acknowledge and value your contribution to your communities and the world. Of course, others will also want the same from you.

Diversity of religion has been central to the American experience since the country’s colonial origins. In fact, many settlers of the original thirteen colonies came to North America to escape religious persecution. Religious diversity might or might not have been obvious in your hometown or neighborhood, but unless you are attending an institution that enrolls only students of one religious sect, you will find religious diversity to be part of your college experience. Religious denominations might sponsor campus centers or organizations, and students’ religious affiliations might determine their dress, attitudes, or avoidance of certain behaviors. While you are in college, your openness to religious diversity will add to your understanding of the many ways in which people are different from one another.


Although many students enter college around age eighteen, others choose to enter or return in their thirties and beyond. According to a 2009 report, more than 38 percent of American college students were twenty-five years of age or older. Age diversity in the classroom gives everyone the opportunity to learn from others who have different life experiences. All kinds of factors determine when students enter higher education for the first time or stop and then reenter. Therefore, when considering the age of a college student, there is no such thing as “normal.” If you are attending a college that has a large number of students who are older (or younger) than you, view this as an advantage for learning. A campus where younger and older students learn together can be much more interesting than a campus where everyone is the same age.

Learning And Physical Abilities

Although the majority of students have reasonably average learning and physical abilities, the number of students with physical and learning disabilities is rising on most college campuses, as are the services that are available to them. Physical disabilities can include deafness, blindness, paralysis, or a mental disorder. Also, many students have some form of learning disability that makes college work a challenge.

People with physical and learning disabilities want to be treated just as you would treat anyone else: with respect. If a student with a disability is in your class, treat him or her as you would any student. Overzealousness to help might be seen as an expression of pity.

If you have, or think you might have, a learning disability, consult your campus learning center for a diagnosis and advice on compensating for learning problems. Most campuses have a special office to serve students with both physical and learning disabilities.


The words gender and sex are often used interchangeably, but as you become part of an academic community, you will start to think differently about terms and ideas you’ve always known. Generally speaking, sex is used when discussing someone’s biological makeup, whereas gender refers to the things a person says, does, or wears that help display to the world what the person’s gender is. While sex is often thought of as either male or female, gender is generally understood as a continuum consisting of many different ways of identifying oneself.

While in college, make friends with all kinds of people, avoid stereotyping what is “appropriate” for one group or another, and don’t limit your own interests. Although sexism is still present in today’s world, there is almost no activity or profession that isn’t legally open to everyone, regardless of gender. If your school has a gender studies department, consider taking a course. Gender studies courses are generally interdisciplinary and look at subject matter from the perspective of gender. These classes aren’t necessarily about women or men; rather, they consider how the concept of gender influences the way we see and shape the world around us. Such a course could open up new ways of thinking about many aspects of your world.


One’s sexuality relates to the people to whom you are romantically attracted. You have probably heard the words gay, straight, homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual before, but sexuality includes many other categories as well. In college you will likely meet students, staff members, and professors who have sexualities other than your own. Although some people are lucky enough to come from welcoming and affirming environments, for many students college is the first time that they have been able to openly express their sexual identity. The subject of sexual orientation can be difficult to talk about, and it is important that you respect all individuals. Most colleges and universities have campus codes or standards of behavior to help ensure safety and a free exchange of ideas regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. Check to see if your campus has a gender and sexuality center or a center for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered (GLBT or LGBT) community. Go see some speakers and expand your worldview.

Economic Status

The United States is a country of vast differences in wealth. This considerable economic diversity can be both a positive and a negative aspect of college life. As a positive, you will be exposed to, and can learn from, students who present you with a wide range of economic differences. Assuming that you meet and become friends with students who are more or less affluent than you, you may have some special opportunities for growth, learning, sharing, and friendship that were not available in your secondary school or neighborhood. After all, college is one of the last melting pots left in the United States! On the other hand, you may feel distant from students whose financial circumstances are different from yours.

Try to avoid the natural tendency to segregate yourself into a group of people with similar economic means. We urge you to make the most of economic differences and seek them out. This experience is all part of going to college and learning how to live in a democracy that embraces all different backgrounds.

One of the best things about college is that it provides a level playing field: Everyone can excel, regardless of family background and wealth. All students can succeed if they practice college success strategies. What matters is what you do with the opportunities that college provides.

The bottom line is to not be distracted by an increased awareness of economic diversity. Try to avoid developing exaggerated feelings of superiority or inferiority. What matters now is not what you had or didn’t have before you came to college; what matters is what you do in college. You have more in common with other students than you think. Your individual efforts, aspirations, courage, determination, and ability to stay focused will enable you to transcend the boundaries of income and social class in the United States.

race A term that refers to biological characteristics shared by groups of people, including skin tone, hair texture and color, and facial features.