What college taught me about diversity

The word “diversity” has been thrown around a lot lately. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a place that isn’t promoting it in some way. Just take a look at these snippets from company mission statements:

ESPN– “ESPN will embrace diversity to better serve our fans and customers. We strive to attract and retain talented and diverse people, and to create an inclusive environment where all employees can contribute to their fullest potential…”

Starbucks– “Together, we embrace diversity to create a place where each of us can be ourselves. We always treat each other with respect and dignity. And we hold each other to that standard…”

Hyundai– “Diversity is our strength and the foundation on which we expect to grow. Here at Hyundai, we foster an environment where everyone feels welcome to be who they are…”

And good luck finding a college or university that doesn’t include the word “diversity” or a synonym somewhere in its mission or values. In a society with increasing global awareness and affirmative action, “diversity” is the new buzzword businesses of all types use to relay the message that they care, and that they are inclusive and embrace new ideas. But have you really stopped to think about what that word means? What comes to your mind when someone mentions it?

A lot of people (myself included) will immediately think towards race. But that is only part of it. Diversity can include someone’s religion, gender, weight, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, and many other factors. There’s a reason people and companies make such a big deal about it, because it is a big deal. But what makes college so special regarding this topic, special enough to have a blog post dedicated to it?

When I first started college, I was a quiet, sheltered young man who mostly kept to himself and only ever knew what his parents taught him. I didn’t watch much TV growing up, and living in the inner city in northern New Jersey, I was only ever really familiar with the Hispanic culture around me. Going to a predominantly-White college campus was quite the eye-opener for me, but not in the way that you would think.

Yes, being a Latino from New Jersey and seeing so many White students at my university in Florida was different, but that paled in comparison to the amount of diversity that I found once I entered college. So many viewpoints, so many beliefs, so many backgrounds. Students who had previously been stationed overseas prior to going to college. Sons and daughters of senators and CEOs. Students who have been to jail. International students from all parts of the world, experiencing the United States for the first time. It was unbelievable!

I’ve seen many  people describe college as a salad bowl, where students from different cultures and backgrounds all come together to interact for four years like some kind of large-scale reality show. I met roommates who couldn’t be more different or incompatible having to share a tiny space for an entire year before being allowed to switch rooms. Classrooms were full of students with different ideas, who, to my surprise, would constantly argue and debate with each other and even their professors. I witnessed fights that would break out because of political viewpoints or even sports team affiliation. Sometimes I figured I could walk around with a camcorder and record everything that went on in a college campus and make a killing from some type of TV show.

But that wasn’t even my biggest surprise going into college. Yes, college tends to have the most diversity out of any other location you’ll experience in your life. Yes, you learn to tolerate opposing beliefs and even embrace them sometimes. Yes, you could make a friend you would otherwise never even talk to under different circumstances. But do you know what is the most valuable lesson that college taught me about diversity?

That outside of these superficial characteristics, we are not different at all. I was friends with a guy for two years before I learned that his family was wealthy beyond all means. He came from wealth, yet he was still just a poor college student trying to find his way through life. I had just as much trouble finding my way around the college town as a friend of mine from Africa who had never set foot into this country prior to coming to college. Despite all of our different reasons for coming to college, we all had the same goal: to broaden our minds and get our degree.

We all live in a wonderfully-colorful world, but we all have the same motivations, the same struggles, and the same joys. Rather than promote diversity by solely focusing on our differences, why don’t we also focus on what makes us all similar?

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