The Diversity of Diversity

Discussing access to and within higher education often leads us to the issue if diversity. Before we can address questions as targeted measures to increase diversity, we have to talk about diversity itself. What does diversity mean? At North Eastern university, we heard a very interesting speech with a lot of personal passion in it by Professor Neenah Estrella Luna. She told us about her own experience in higher education, being a first generation college student, having a Latino family background. In her opinion, diversity issues in the US focus to a big part on race. This is interesting enough for us Europeans, since race is a category we simply do not think in.

Thus, the perception of diversity in the US seems to be very simple at first glance. Looking deeper into the matter however reveals complexity. Neenah Estrella, for example, pointed out differences in the perception of race groups in California and Massachusetts. While in California people are aware that there is diversity amongst Asian or Latinos, this idea seems not so familiar in Boston. On the other hand, Professor Estrella discovered diversity amongst white when in Boston white people identified themselves as Irish or Jewish. There are so many ways for people to identify themselves: gender, education, sexual orientation, race, religion. Groups do not exist but they are constructed! They are constructed according to normative criteria as the ones mentioned.

Hence, the relevant diversity groups vary according to parameters such as national background and they change over time. From what we learned from Neenah Estrella and later from Joanne Berger-Sweeny, Dean of Arts & Sciences at Tufts University the predominant diversity issues in the US are race, gender and socio-economic status. In Europe, diversity issues almost only focus on gender. I am convinced that the socio-economic background is not as much problematic in Europe than in the US. However, looking closer at this issue, we might discover that our egalitarian perception was too optimistic. This example shows that identifying the relevant diversity groups needs inconvenient debate.

But why do we need diversity at all? Perhaps the most obvious approach to this question would be a liberal individual rights one. However, Neenah Estrella as well as Joanne Berger went further. They both stressed that diversity in research is essential for a university to move on and ask new questions. If research was only done by white wealthy male, some questions would never be asked. To quote Joanne Berger: “There is no excellence without diversity!”

Co-op Matters

Today, the highlight for the Swiss GPP group started: our US trip. We had a very intense first days visiting North Eastern University, Tufts University and Swissnex. We heard many enlightening, inspiring and compassionate presentation. I will not go through the day in a chronological order and summarize every presentation. Instead I will, in two brief posts, refer to some, not all, of the today’s main topics.

The first post is actually a follow up to my last one on co-op programs. North Eastern University has very intense co-op programs. Ellen Goldman, Associate Director of the University Career Services referred to them as a signature of NE University. Participating in these programs is not compulsory, but highly recommended. The programs have a high conversion rate of 50%. First and foremost, however, the working experience helps students finding out who they are and what they want. Or to put it in Tufts-lingo: finding out about their VIPS. Values, Interests, Personality, Skills.

That co-op programs matter was put in one sentence by Salvatore Mazzone, Associate Director of the International Student & Scholar Institute. He said that participating in co-op programs often lead students to change their major subject.

Co-op Porgrams: Access to Higher Education and Beyond

In our Riva working group on access to higher education it was repeatedly hold, how important it is to see all the options you have in order to make a somewhat informed decision on your educational path. Vocational training? University? University of applied sciences? Which subject?

Once you know about your options, the next problem turns up: you don’t know what it is like to study the subject you have chosen until you have been studying it for certain time. Sneak peeks before you start studying might provide a remedy to some extent. You can for example visit some lectures in the physical or, if available, in the virtual world.

So now you made an informed decision, considering all the options and you found a subject you really like. Well, your time studying eventually ends and you start working. And all the questions rise again. What are the options? What does it feel like to work in a certain job? I recently talked to a friend who was a passionate law student and graduated with an excellent result. For two years now he struggles to find a legal job he likes.

It is important that during your studies you get insights into working in your field. When I did some research on the universities we are going to visit in the US, I found it quite common for American universities to offer co-op programs that provide structured job experience during your studies and you also get credits for that (some basic information and more resources on cooperative education here). I don’t know whether this concept exists at all within European universities. However, I don’t know about any such initiative at the university of Basel or at any Swiss law school. At my faculty, for instance, there are some hesitant moves on integrating the working world. But so far this steps inly go as far as showing you the options.

Thinking about it, this is amazing, since the Swiss vocational training, the apprenticeship, is based on cooperative education and there is widespread consensus that it is for the cooperative approach that the apprenticeship system is such a success. It seems that also this discussion leads to one of the overall Hi Ed questions: What is university for? What should our graduates be able to do? What should the know? What for do we educate?

I am curious to hear your experiences from co-op programs. Further, I ask my european colleagues whether I am wrong. Do we have co-op programs and I just don’t know about them?