Diversity: Why it matters
By Beth Chacey
Ariel Harris was a high school student in Spring, Texas, when she met a college recruiter promoting a rigorous learning style that stood out to her. It was Cornell's One Course At A Time, and its single-subject immersion seemed just the right fit for her learning style.
A visit to campus sealed the deal.
"I loved the campus. Mount Vernon is just a pleasant atmosphere, especially in spring and fall." The season in between? "That's something I'll never get used to," she said, laughing.
As an African-American woman from the South, Harris' leap into life at Cornell has been not unlike a tour of seasons: hot, cold, blustery, balmy. There's her accent. "I'm still learning to deal with people who don't understand me," she said, "but that's life."
There's less ethnic food than she's used to. There are classes she's loved, infused with thought-provoking multicultural lessons. And there have been classes for which she looked forward to sharing her unique cultural perspective, but race was only briefly discussed
As Cornell's student population reaches record levels in diversity, cultural assumptions are being pondered daily, a process that is fundamental to a liberal arts education.
"Diversity promotes critical thinking," said Tori Barnes-Brus '97, an assistant professor in Cornell's department of sociology and anthropology. "We expand our knowledge base when presented with differing viewpoints, or with accounts of different experiences, whether by students or faculty who are different, or by course materials that investigate diversity, inequality, and power. This allows us to understand things from multiple viewpoints, to weigh decisions based on experiences and situations that might differ from our own."
The value of these lessons has not been lost on Harris. In her journey through Cornell she's encountered ignorance and apathy, but also empathy and enlightenment. "I would not trade this experience for the world. Because of it, I'm a totally different person," said the senior.
That transformation goes two ways these days. Because of students like Harris, Cornell's student population is a melting pot with a medley of accents, international languages, life experiences, and wholly unique perspectives.
This fall Cornell welcomed its most diverse class ever—about 25 percent students of color, including 6 percent from around the world, according to Jonathan Stroud, vice president for enrollment and dean of admission.
The college's entire student population represents 47 states and includes 19 percent U.S. students of color, as well as 6 percent international students from 15 countries.
Cornell's numbers are comparable to the 2010 U.S. Census national average of 72.4 percent white, and much more diverse than Iowa's 2010 Census average of 91.3 percent white. Compare this to 2002. Then, Cornell's diversity stood at 6 to 7 percent students of color, with a 1 percent international student population.
"That was too homogenous," Stroud said. "We wanted to reflect the national population."
To cast a still-selective but much wider net, Cornell teamed up with organizations like the Schuler Scholar Program. The organization, based in Lake Forest, Ill., helps under-resourced and high potential students—most first-generation college bound—prep for college academically and financially.
"It's important because our graduates go into a world that is vastly different from even a few years ago," said Joe Dieker, dean of the college. "We're an increasingly diverse country and this country is playing an increasing role in the global community. That seems to be our future and we have to prepare our students for that future."
What better way to make students worldly than to bring the world to their campus?
And yet, bringing diverse populations to the Hilltop requires special considerations. For the first time, several families requested translators for parents at New Student Orientation this fall. And to ensure that issues of diversity are openly discussed, Ken Morris Jr., director of the Office of Intercultural Life, brought in Eddie Moore Jr. '89, a diversity consultant, founder of the White Privilege Conference, and director of diversity at Brooklyn Friends School, Brooklyn, N.Y., for training with the Class of 2015.
"America—and Iowa—is changing. The question is: Are we ready?" Moore asked. "As for Cornell specifically, the campus community is changing. In order for Cornell to continue being a top-tier liberal arts college it must have the ability, skills, and resources needed to produce culturally competent and culturally confident students and future leaders. They have an opportunity to be one of the leaders in the state for tackling the issues of diversity, privilege and leadership.
"My call to all Cornellians is this: We must challenge our youth from different identities, perspectives, experiences, communities and religious/non-religious backgrounds to find commonalities, possibilities and connections within issues of diversity, privilege, and leadership. Most importantly, they must develop the skills to be culturally competent and culturally confident."
Numbers are significant
Programming like that wasn't part of the culture when Madgetta Thornton Dungy '64 arrived on campus
.As the first African-American woman to graduate from Cornell, she was also the only African-American female student on campus during her first two years. She made lifelong female friends. But there were effectively no men on campus for her to date,