Students at Richard Stockton College Learn through Diversity

In 2002, the Bildner Family Foundation partnered with AAC&U and The Philanthropic Initiative to promote diversity as an educational resource on college campuses in New Jersey. Since then, the seven colleges and universities selected for the Bildner New Jersey Campus Diversity Initiative have been developing creative strategies that respond to the following questions: How can higher education prepare graduates for the opportunities and challenges of our diverse society? And how can diversity itself be harnessed as a resource for learning?

The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey is addressing these questions by making diversity a curricular "core" of the first-year student experience. Involving a number of components, including faculty development, curricular reform, and cocurricular programs that reinforce classroom learning, Stockton's innovative program seeks to make students aware of the importance of diversity while also broadening their notion of what diversity is.

Diversity as an Educational Resource

From the outset, faculty and administrators involved in Stockton's diversity initiative realized that diversity was best approached not as an "add-on" to the general studies curriculum, but as an integral part of it. As Vice President of Academic Affairs David Carr explains, they found that diversity itself was "a perfect topic for a freshman seminar": "It's complex, it's challenging, it captures the kinds of transformations we hope for when we get new students—we want to challenge their existing ideas, we want them to be able to think critically about difficult issues, we want them to deal with some of the ambiguity they'll face in their future careers."

In the early stages of the initiative, Stockton encouraged faculty from various disciplines to draw on this complexity in their freshman seminars. Interested faculty members met during the summer for intensive development sessions, where they discussed how to adapt required first-year courses to advance the goals of the diversity initiative. The aim of these sessions was to bring diversity learning into the broadest possible range of freshman classes, on subjects ranging from business to literature, from Greek culture and Hellenism to digital technology.

Service learning has also been central to this effort. Every student in diversity initiative seminars, regardless of the subject matter of the course, spends at least twenty hours working with a community agency or organization. As Sonia Gonsalves, a professor of psychology and a key member of Stockton's diversity team, explains, service learning provides an opportunity for freshmen to explore "some aspect of diversity—age, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, race, gender"—as it relates to course content. As a result of this service-learning requirement, freshmen have given presentations at local schools, visited elderly patients in hospitals, worked with the disabled, and distributed condoms and bleach to agencies serving at-risk populations. Students frequently come away from such experiences with a much broader understanding of what "diversity" means.

Another component of Stockton's first-year experience is the cultural apprenticeship program. Freshmen involved in this program spend ten hours of their first semester with a member of the Stockton community—a professor, staff member, or administrator—who comes from an unfamiliar cultural background. Through cultural apprenticeships, students are given a more personal experience of diversity: They might, for example, visit a church with faculty from a different faith, share traditional meals with a professor from Ethiopia, or visit the home of a Muslim professor.

Stockton has also developed a rich cocurricular schedule to complement its diversity initiative. The Office of Student Affairs now sponsors an expanded speaker series and a range of other activities, from "Unity Week" to multicultural conferences to a campus-wide "day of service" that will be launched in the coming year. What makes Stockton's approach to these activities unique, says Joseph Marchetti, Stockton's vice president of Student Affairs, is the opportunity the school provides for undergraduates to gain hands-on leadership experience. "Students play a major role, not just by attending events, but in planning and implementing the various programs and initiatives developed," Marchetti says. "They assist in developing the budgets, reviewing the contracts, handling the arrangements, and dealing with the media."

Professor Gonsalves attributes some of the Stockton's success to decisions made in the planning stages of the initiative. The diversity team recognized early on that progress would be made most quickly if they first targeted interested faculty who were willing and able to modify existing freshman seminars. "If we tried to get everybody on board at one time," Gonsalves says, "we would still be in the administrative phase of it." Equally important was the team's recognition that the diversity of its faculty and staff (for the cultural apprenticeships) and of the local community (for service-learning programs) could serve as a valuable resource. "Use what you have," she advises. "There are many resources in the community that you may be overlooking."

Teaching Diversity Issues

The centerpiece of Richard Stockton College's curricular reform, the "Diversity Issues" seminar, was launched last year. Currently taught in different sections by seven faculty members—and involving nearly 200 freshmen—Diversity Issues is the only course at the college that has been developed exclusively for the Bildner Diversity Initiative.

Diversity Issues is designed to broaden students' understanding of diversity, to deepen their knowledge of unfamiliar cultures, and to give them a firm grasp of contemporary multicultural issues, while also fostering more general skills such as research, critical thinking, writing, and oral presentation. To measure students' progress in achieving these goals, professors combine traditional means of evaluation—review of writing portfolios and other student work—with pre- and post-assessments that measure student attitudes. These assessment surveys give a detailed view of students' ideas about diversity: What do students think "diversity" is? What preconceptions do they hold about people of different ethnicities and racial backgrounds, about gender roles, or about people with disabilities? What kinds of social action are they likely to take if they witness discrimination?

By using these surveys, faculty are able to see, at the beginning of the semester, which issues require special attention. The post-assessments, similarly, provide clear evidence of how students' attitudes have changed during the semester—and indicate which areas still need work. Sonia Gonsalves, who teaches one of the Diversity Issues seminars, notes that the first round of assessments showed that the course was "very effective at broadening concepts of diversity and at bringing students' vocabulary up to par." Issues that incoming students did not associate with diversity—such as gender and age—showed the most dramatic change, whereas changes in opinions about racial issues were subtle.

Diversity Issues is also innovative for the unusual degree of coordination between its different class sections. Every section of the course uses the same primary texts—Tracy Ore's Social Construction of Difference and Inequality, Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, and the New York Times's collection, How Race is Lived in America—and these common readings, Gonsalves says, serve "as springboards for discussion and for collaboration among all the faculty who teach Diversity Issues." Further interaction is encouraged by scheduling the various sections of the course at the same time. Because of this scheduling, the different sections can convene to hear special speakers and can share in extracurricular and subgroup activities.

As Richard Stockton College enters the final year of Bildner funding, the school is considering how to expand courses like Diversity Issues while continuing to develop a broad curriculum and cocurriculum to foster learning through diversity. The challenge to the future of the initiative, according to David Carr, "is finding the right vehicle and the right focus so that diversity becomes something that is natural and valuable in its own right, rather than creating an artificial structure that will go away when the grant goes away." Carr is optimistic about Stockton's program, he says, because its various components—the freshman seminars, the service-learning program, the cultural apprenticeships, and other cocurricular activities—have already become a part of Stockton's campus culture

More information about the Bildner New Jersey Campus Diversity Initiative, including a complete list of participating campuses, is available on AAC&U's Web site. Richard Stockton College of New Jersey also has a site dedicated to their work with the Bildner Diversity Initiative. AAC&U's DiversityWeb provides a comprehensive online resource for diversity issues in higher education.

Front Page | Feature | Facts & Figures | News & Events | Perspectives | On the Road | Postings


Back to Top