Diversity and Democracy

Campus Diversity and Ethnic Identity Development

Colleges and universities increasingly embrace diversity in its multiple forms, and many have established diversity as an important institutional value. But definitions of diversity vary across campuses, and diversity goals range from increasing access for underrepresented students to infusing diverse perspectives in the curriculum to building democratic campus climates that promote social justice. Each of these is a noble objective. Some are more difficult than others to achieve. But all are essential to the work of building institutions that fully realize the promise of diversity.

California State University, Long Beach.
California State University, Long Beach.

Mitchell Chang, Sylvia Hurtado, and their colleagues have published widely on the educational benefits of diversity (see for example Hurtado 2007; Chang, Denson, and Saenz 2006). Their work suggests many positive outcomes associated with diverse student populations and curricular and cocurricular activities that address the topics of race, ethnicity, and gender. Relying primarily on data generated through large research programs, their work gives a macroscopic picture of the role of diversity in higher education. Our work, summarized in our recent book Ethnicity in College, builds on this research by taking a closer look at how diverse college campuses (where students of color outnumber white students) affect students and, in particular, their sense of identity (Ortiz and Santos 2009).

Studying Students' Experiences

Identity formation has long been established as an important developmental goal of the college years. In the 1960s, Chickering's groundbreaking work in this area delineated the multiple components of identity and how typical developmental tasks during the college years contributed to its formation (1969). For the past few decades, research on students' identity formation has expanded to focus on social identities such as gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class. To adequately support students' strong psychological need to explore and affirm their different social identities, it is important to understand how those identities develop and intersect.

Our study of 120 students at two highly diverse universities in Southern California focused on ethnic identity. We defined ethnic identity as that which students construct based on group membership, salience of or commitment to ethnic identification, participation in behaviors associated with ethnic groups, and external affirmation in response to ethnic group membership. While recognizing the two as inextricably intertwined, we distinguished ethnic identity from racial identity, which we defined in relation to students' experiences of race-based discrimination and stereotyping (Ortiz and Santos 2009).

We found that the diverse campus environments exerted both positive and negative effects on students' ethnic identity formation. Because ours was a qualitative study with in-depth interviews at its center, we were able to learn from students about the nuanced ways in which peers, courses, and activities challenge—and ultimately help students make sense of—their ethnic identities and their place in a multicultural society.

Student Reflections on Intergroup Exchange

Students from all ethnic groups expressed an appreciation for the role of cross-ethnic interaction in their understanding of ethnic identity. Their comments reflect how on-campus diversity encouraged them to explore ethnicity's role in their lives and the lives of others.

—Anna M. Ortiz and Silvia J. Santos

Most of my study group knows more [than I do] about their cultural background[s] and traditions. It has made me go and ask questions about my cultural background. They are always sharing with me, and I'm really a little ignorant. I've never really been taught, so I have to go to the library and check it out or ask aunts, uncles, mom, or dad. Then I can share that information, too. It's helped me because when I was hanging around in high school with just my own culture, we never asked these questions. (Latino/a student)

Some of my friends, we've all pursued some kind of club or organization. They've gone to their [groups], like the Korean Student Association, Chicano, or Latino ones, Indian. When they all did that, it supported me. Like, "Oh, I can do this." This is because I didn't feel like they thought that I was abandoning them. In that way, we all kind of mutually supported each other, and we can all come together still. (Asian American student)

Before I started taking black history classes and learning about my true heritage, I was not very proud of being African American. But now that I've read a lot of history and do all this studying, I'm very proud to be African.... As I learned more about being black and [about] black history, I really changed. It's really made me proud of being who I am. (African American student)

My ethnic identity? I never thought about ethnicity before coming here [....] Now it means a lot more [to me]. (White student)

Peer Influences

The presence of coethnic peers on campus had multiple influences on students. Students felt comforted by the company of people who came from similar backgrounds. Coethnic peers not only helped students feel like they belonged, but also served as role models, showing students that people from their ethnic group could succeed in college. They also encouraged students to become involved in ethnic student organizations and take ethnic studies classes. Students often reported evaluating themselves in relation to their coethnic peer group. When this self-evaluation was positive, it encouraged students to learn more about group history or language. When it was negative, students expressed feelings of ethnic inadequacy.

Students from other ethnic groups also had positive effects on students' ethnic identity formation and served as role models in the ethnic identity development process. Many students reported that they felt encouraged to explore their own cultures when other-ethnic friends attended ethnic student organization meetings, spoke in their "native" languages, or took courses to learn more about their respective cultures. Through their example, students saw that they could commit more deeply to their own ethnic groups without jeopardizing relationships with other-ethnic peers. Other-ethnic peers also modeled selective acculturation for immigrant and nonimmigrant students, demonstrating ways to integrate aspects of mainstream and other cultures into one's ethnic identity. Our findings clearly indicate that an increased commitment to one's ethnic identity in no way prevented students from connecting with, learning from, and valuing people from other ethnic groups. Thus participants' experiences departed significantly from the current discourse claiming ethnic balkanization on America's campuses.

By engaging in significant ways with other-ethnic peers, students developed multicultural competence and confidence in their abilities to successfully negotiate cross-ethnic relationships. Through these interactions students challenged and changed their beliefs about difference, prejudice, and discrimination. While some students (particularly white students) found these interactions challenging, students expressed an overall sense of having benefited from encountering diverse peers daily in and out of the classroom. Students connected campus diversity experiences with their goals for the future, voicing intentions to act politically on behalf of other ethnic groups and to challenge prejudice in their families. Their experiences led us to conclude that campus diversity helped prepare them for "effective social and civic engagement in a diverse and complex democracy" (265).

Organizations, Activities, and Courses

Ethnic student organizations were critical to students' exploration of and commitment to ethnic identity. These structures helped students build friendships within and across ethnic groups and conferred institutional support for personal development around ethnic identity. They were places where students could learn while being protected from the prejudice and discrimination they often experienced elsewhere. Many students customized their learning by engaging on different levels with a variety of organizations (for example, by taking part in a range of activities focused on language, dance, or religion sponsored by various ethnic or cultural Greek-letter associations). The organizations also provided spaces where students could connect with other ethnic groups, especially through activities hosted by multicultural centers.

Ethnic studies and language courses extended similar effects. As Jean Phinney has argued, ethnic knowledge, behaviors, and practices are important components of ethnic identity (1992). Students took courses to learn or improve their abilities in their or their families' "native" languages or to learn more about their families' countries of origin. Thus programs such as Asian, Latin American, or European Studies were important supplements to ethnic studies programs that focused on groups' experiences in the United States. Through these courses students learned more about the content of their ethnic identities (their groups' histories, cultures, and languages).

Ethnic studies and language courses strengthened two additional components of ethnic identity: ethnic pride and affiliation. One Japanese American student described how learning about Japan's history instilled pride and helped him see commonalities with others of Japanese origin. Similarly, an African American student indicated that his African American studies courses helped him develop pride in his ethnicity as he learned about group members' accomplishments and ability to overcome obstacles. One woman related how her Chicano studies course taught her about social stratification in public transportation, spurring her to change the way she behaves in these venues.

Intergroup learning was evident as well. When students took courses that emphasized the histories and experiences of groups other than their own, they experienced dramatic learning that contributed to their multicultural competence and ethnic understanding. Even white students, who often felt discomfort in courses that focused on other-ethnic groups, realized that their worldviews changed substantially as a result. White students experienced a process ofdisintegration--where new material or experiences challenged their previous understanding of race and ethnicity (Helms 1990). White students began to think about whiteness as a racial construct, but also to consider their own ethnicities, including the heritage and historical trajectories of their particular groups (such as Irish or Jewish Americans) in U.S. society. As in the process outlined in Multicultural Education Framework (Ortiz and Rhoads 2000), students' deconstruction of whiteness relied on an understanding of other cultures, one's own culture, and racial dynamics in society.

Differential Experiences with Ethnic Identity

Although many students had positive and enriching experiences with campus diversity, diverse campus environments posed challenges to some students. For example, students reported that coethnics often acted as arbiters of group membership, instituting "qualifications" for membership such as competence in the native language, a concentration of coethnic friends, or knowledge of history and culture. This left some students feeling a sense of ethnic inadequacy, as though they weren't "Latino enough"or "black enough."

White students also felt a sense of ethnic inadequacy. Because many saw themselves as having no ethnicity, they felt excluded from the campus diversity that was so often celebrated. They felt out of sync with their other-ethnic peers and struggled to negotiate being white in the diverse campus context. White students told us that when they studied other-ethnic groups, they seldom spoke because they were afraid of offending classmates. In addition, white students' concerns over "reverse discrimination" often impeded their progress in expanding their multicultural competence.

Supporting Ethnic Identity on Campus

As we summarized in our book, numerous studies show many positive outcomes associated with strong and stable ethnic identities, including increased self-esteem, improved mental health, decreased self-destructive behaviors, and greater academic achievement (Ortiz and Santos 2009). To support these outcomes, colleges and universities should strive to take advantage of all the benefits a diverse learning community has to offer.

Institutions that do not offer a diverse range of courses or programs where students can learn about their countries or cultures of origin should find ways to build these opportunities into the curriculum and cocurriculum. Student activities personnel can examine the range of organizations and activities on their campuses to determine whether these attend to important within-group needs and differences. (For example, due to significant intragroup diversity, a college may need more than one student association for Asian Americans to create adequate opportunities for Asian American students to explore their ethnic identities.) Academic advisers should encourage students (particularly those who might be struggling with ethnic identity) to enroll in ethnic studies courses and engage in related student activities. Faculty need to realize that infusing diverse perspectives into their courses can serve to validate students' experiences and support their personal development. Administrators should ensure that faculty have the tools they need to do this and that support staff are prepared to help students with any challenges that might arise so their learning is not impeded but enriched.

As diversity increases throughout the country, higher education will play a key role in building the diverse democracy of the twenty-first century. Colleges and universities should encourage students to engage intelligently with ethnic identity so they can best contribute to our shared world.


Chang, M. J., N. Denson, and V. Saenz. 2006. The educational benefits of sustaining cross-racial interaction among undergraduates. Journal of Higher Education 77(3): 430-455.

Chickering, A. W. 1969. Education and identity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Helms, J. E. 1990. Black and white racial identity: Theory, research and practice. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Hurtado, S. 2007. Linking diversity with the educational and civic missions of higher education.Review of Higher Education 30(2): 185-196.

Ortiz, A. M., and S. J. Santos. 2009. Ethnicity in college: Advancing theory and diversity practices on campus. Arlington, VA: Stylus.

Ortiz, A. M., and R. A. Rhoads. 2000. Deconstructing whiteness as a part of a multicultural education framework: From theory to practice. Journal of College Student Development 41(1): 81-93.

Phinney, J. 1992. The multigroup ethnic identity measure: A new scale for use with adolescents and young adults from diverse groups. Journal of Adolescent Research 7, 156-176.

Previous Issues