Helping Students Build Bridges across Racial Divisions

By Yates, Eleanor Lee | Black Issues in Higher Education, September 14, 2000 | Go to article overview

Helping Students Build Bridges across Racial Divisions

Yates, Eleanor Lee, Black Issues in Higher Education


A University of Michigan-based research project is looking at the link between diversity and learning on campus, examining how associating with different ethnic peers affects students' social skills, cognitive thinking and attitudes on democracy. The project also will highlight college programs and activities that are successful in helping students of different ethnic backgrounds get to know each other.

In the near future, one of three Americans will be a member of an ethnic minority, says Sylvia Hurtado, associate professor of education at the University of Michigan and the principal investigator of the project, Preparing College Students for a Diverse Democracy. Hurtado says that colleges need to prepare all of their students for workplaces and communities that reflect the population.

"Our ultimate goal is to discover how diversity is part of our learning process. This will also help institutions learn how to build bridges across racial divisions, and will help students to become more effective leaders," Hurtado says. "Instead of replicating social divides, we'll learn how to link groups."

The 10 public universities participating in the project will administer baseline surveys to incoming freshmen this fall about issues on race and diversity. Over the next three years, students will respond to additional surveys, and researchers will monitor changes in their attitudes. Hurtado says the project will provide information about the kind of education that will be necessary for citizenship in a diverse society.

Before the national elections, students will be queried about their feelings on self-interest compared to public interest, their conceptions of democracy and their involvement in the formal democratic process.

The surveys also will reveal if students have positive or negatives views of conflict and whether students understand diversity issues.

"We want them be more astute, more skilled in negotiating differences," says Hurtado.

Project officials also will study how undergraduates develop ties to communities through volunteer programs that offer opportunities to interact with people of various ethnicities. The project will survey students who tutor, help build houses and participate in other volunteer programs.

"Service learning gives students an opportunity to reflect on diversity issues, to develop values and maybe a different strategy," says Hurtado. "Students come to understand that all members of an ethnic group don't think and act alike."


Jesus Trevino, director of the Intergroup Relations Center at Arizona State University in Tempe, is working closely with Hurtado. Trevino estimates that about 10 percent of the campus population is Latino; 5 percent African American; 5 percent Asian; 3 percent American Indian and the remainder are White.

Arizona State, which has an enrollment of 48,000, has had some racial tension in the past. The center came into being following a campus incident four years ago when a teacher's assistant wanting to explore the topic of racism with students introduced some material that many found offensive, Trevino recalls. Though the teacher meant well, the class was a catalyst on a campus that was already experiencing racial tension.

"We're in the business of bringing students together," Trevino says. Research shows that interaction between diverse groups does not take place on its own, he says.

At Arizona State, six-week intergroup discussions have been extremely successful. The groups are conducted within "safe space" guidelines with facilitators present. The sessions are eye-opening for most participants, Trevino says.

"White students wonder if Blacks are angry at them because of history. White students wonder if all African Americans think alike. African Americans want to know if Whites really care about them," he says. …

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