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Helping Students Learn About Diversity

Matthew Robinson

Wright State University


Diversity has been at the forefront of many conversations on college campuses for well

over 50 years. As access to college began to open to many more groups of people, student affairs

professionals began to embrace diversity. With this, it became important for student affairs

professionals to begin learning and teaching their students about the growing diversity in the

world of academia. Major developments like the GI Bill after World War II and the Civil Rights

movement opened the doors for many new students to attend college, which in turn opened new

discourse on how to educate students. More recently, the growth of the LGBTQA movement has

added another area of diversity that must be taught in order to create citizens who will be

engaging in a multicultural society (Sandeen and Barr, 2006, p. 55-57).

In their book Critical Issues for Student Affairs, Arthur Sandeen and Margaret Barr said

that the most important role of student affairs professionals was to educate the campus on

diversity, not just bring in more students from diverse backgrounds. Poor planning in the past led

many students to feel isolated and exploited, so it was important to go beyond just increasing the

numbers of minority groups. The authors provided some initiatives that were being taken at the

time and may still be in use.

First, identifying unmet or ignored student needs. Sandeen and Barr (2006, p. 57)

highlight that student affairs professionals are active participants in students’ lives and have daily

interactions that allow them to better understand what students are going through. This allows

professionals to identify needs that may have gone unnoticed previously. Sandeen and Barr

believed that helping a group become a recognized member of the university community is one

of the most important things that a student affairs professional could do.

With helping underrepresented communities, it is also important to have knowledge of

special cultures (Sandeen and Barr, 2006, p.58). Professional development is highlighted by the

book as being a main component in increasing knowledge for professionals in the field.

Conferences at every level as well as graduate programs providing education on multicultural

competencies and diversity give student affairs professionals an avenue to continue their


Two other initiatives mentioned were the hiring of a diverse student affairs staff and

collaboration with academic affairs. In hiring a diverse staff, it was important to have a staff that

reflected the diversity found on college campuses and to maintain a staff that can relate to

students at more than just the surface level. The collaboration piece touches on the inclusion of

capstone courses that can be used to measure learning when it comes to diversity. Educational

retreats and seminars are also mentioned as ways to educate students about diversity (Sandeen

and Barr, 2006, p.59-60).

Sandeen and Barr (2006, p. 62) also point out some obstacles that diversity education has

faced. First they point to a survey conducted in 1998 that students were reluctant to talk about

diversity and that a large number of them may be pessimistic about the future. They also said that

the students may just be tired of talking about it. One other obstacle of note mentioned was the

inclusion of diversity courses in the curriculum having little to do with the real world or students’

academic pursuits. Other obstacles include media portrayals of minority groups, military actions,

and the fact that education is seen more as job preparation than exploring new ideas.

Sandeen and Barr close the chapter with a few suggested actions to take going forward.

First, professionals should treat students as individuals. Students are typically defined by a group

that they may identify with, but Sandeen and Barr calls this an arbitrary and superficial way to

categorize students. In fact, they say that it goes against the core belief that each student is

unique. Diversity should not be thought of as categories, but instead of as preparing students to

be in a multicultural society.

The next suggestion given is for student affairs professionals to become visible leaders on

their campuses and communities on the topic of diversity. Sandeen and Barr (2006, p.64)

challenge professionals to not shy away from tough conversations and to take leadership roles

when an issues arises in their area, even if their jobs are on the line. The next two suggestions go

hand in hand with this one in that student affairs leaders should take the lead to collaborate with

academic affairs to generate programs that will help with multicultural education and that

professionals are to be responsible for their own continuing education on topics in diversity.

The next two suggestions can also be viewed as a pair. Not only do students affairs

professionals have many colleagues and campus partners in the effort to teach diversity, but they

also need to understand that they also need the participation of those outside of the profession to

help accomplish their goals. Pride can be dangerous and lead to professionals believing that they

are the only ones who are knowledgeable about diversity issues. Sandeen and Barr (2006, p.65)

challenge this thinking and call for senior staff to intervene if they see a staff member whose

personal agenda is getting in the way of their commitment to teaching diversity. The many

partnerships that can be made on campus can help accomplish the goal of creating citizens

prepared to live in a multicultural world. Collaboration can help increase the chance of success

for diversity education, and student affairs professionals can initiate such partnerships (Sandeen

and Barr, 2006, p.66).

The final suggestion by Sandeen and Barr (2006, p.66) was for student affairs leaders to

insist that diversity learning remain a core value of the profession. They believe that diversity

represents beliefs like tolerance, openness, acceptance, and respect for others that are core to the

profession. Diversity presents an important challenge to influence students, and student affairs

professionals should be up for the challenge.

Sandeen and Barr’s book was published 12 years ago in 2006. Is diversity education still

necessary for student affairs? A recent poll conducted by Gallup and the Knight Foundation

showed that 53% of college students surveyed valued diversity and inclusion more than free

speech, which received 43% of the vote. 3,014 students were surveyed across 100 campuses,

both public and private. The poll also revealed how certain populations feel about diversity and

free speech. Women valued diversity more than men, with 64% of women voting for diversity

and 61% of men voting for free speech. It was also shown that white students value free speech,

with 52% voting as such. Black students overwhelmingly voted for diversity at 68% (Bauer-

Wolf, 2018).

The poll also revealed that students are wary of social media. 57% of students polled

thought that debate and social issues took place online more than on campus. 59% said that they

are afraid of being attacked online as well. The online arena is one area that diversity education

is developing. In an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Katherine Knott (2016) shared

some strategies employed in online diversity courses. Knott points out that it is a challenge to

teach diversity online and difficult discussions may arise. The importance of building community

and trust is highlighted as well. Knott gives a couple examples that have been employed in

online courses so far.

One way that some professors are approaching online diversity courses is the use of

video. One professor requires all students to meet at a certain time during the week via a video

conference software. Other professors share their use of video in discussion boards. Some use it

to introduce the topic of the week while others require it as the response to the discussion.

Setting requirements and expectations is the other example that Knott gives in her article (2016).

One professor shared that at the beginning of the term that she laid the ground rules for

how the class would proceed; if something upset a student, conversation was encouraged.

Another professor told his students that he would not participate in the discussions online, but

would track what was said and that if anyone did not participate he would ask them why. The

last professor highlighted would her assign her class roles to play during the week’s discussion

like devil’s advocate or starting the conversation in a creative way (Knott, 2016). As online

classes continue to grow, traditional on campus classes continue to be an area of diversity


Jim Winship, a professor at Wisconsin-Whitewater, provided 12 tips that can be used as

an approach to teaching diversity in the classroom (2003). Some of the main suggestions include

becoming aware of one’s own biases, being clear with course objectives, working on the

student’s ability to reflect, and to create a safe classroom climate. Winship also makes the point

that learning should come from the material, not minority students that may be in the class.

Winship (2003) said,” it is not the job of minority students to help other students understand

issues such as prejudice, exclusion, and discrimination.”

Diversity education is a topic with many layers. The writings presented here are just

some of the literature on the topic. As students call for more diversity in today’s climate, student

affairs professionals are at the forefront of addressing their needs and educating them on

becoming citizens in a multicultural world.



Bauer-Wolf, Jeremy. (2018, March 12). Students say diversity is more important than

free speech. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from



Knott, Katherine. (2016, September 29). Teaching diversity online is possible. These

professors tell you how. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from


Sandeen, A., & Barr, M. (2006). How should student affairs help students learn about

diversity? In Critical Issues for Student Affairs (pp. 49-46). San Francisco, CA.


Wiship, Jim. (2003). An approach for teaching diversity. Retrieved from