Multiculturalism class for NIU

We have all felt the tension at NIU. If you are a member of our campus community, you have witnessed widespread misunderstanding, fear and mutual mistrust between groups of students from different racial and cultural backgrounds on our campus.

Many students that attend school here have come from homogeneous communities where they have not been exposed to people of other races or ethnic backgrounds. Upon arrival at NIU, the insecurity they feel around people of different races or cultures manifests itself in the easily observable self-segregation that only serves to reinforce the stereotypes, preconceptions and inhibitions that all people feel about those they have never interacted with.

Think about the last time you sat down and had a one-on-one conversation with a student of another race. When was the last time you saw three or four students from different racial or ethnic groups sit together in a cafeteria or around the same table in the library? A young woman put it well when she told me about a conversation she had with some of her friends who went to an all black university in Virginia. One of her friends asked her what it was like to go to an integrated University. The NIU student thought for a second and replied that she didn’t really know, because students from different racial or cultural backgrounds did not often interact on our campus. I believe that this is perhaps the saddest commentary that may be heard concerning any institution—especially a university—with the express goal of preparing its students for life in the 21st century.

What can be done about this? You might think that this is a problem that only others can solve … a problem that will take time to be corrected … a problem that is embedded in all of society. While all of these statements share some grains of truth, none of them serves as an excuse with which NIU can shirk it’s responsibility of taking probative steps to ensure that students receive a truly universal education.

Since at least 1988, different groups of students have been periodically working to make multiculturalism a classroom priority at NIU. The sad truth remains that NIU trails far behind other Illinois public universities in this vital area of education. While NIU offers a few classes that focus on cultural pluralism, other state schools have made classes such as these a requirement for graduation. NIU’s attempt to promote understanding and respect can unfortunately be likened to the minister preaching to the choir—since the classes are voluntary, those students in attendance probably aren’t the ones who need the cultural enrichment the most.

As Student Association President, one of my top priorities for the year is the initiation of campus-wide support for a required, comprehensive class dealing with society’s diversity. The program could take many forms, from a single class taught by T.A.‘s to a battery of classes that a student could choose from to satisfy his or her graduation requirement. I know that the battle might become an uphill fight, but I am convinced that it is a battle worth fighting. A mind stretched can never be the same. As the university grows to recognize the potential of a class like this to positively impact our campus environment, it must simultaneously come to terms with its own un-met responsibilities as a leader in higher education.

Last weekend, the work of many students and faculty of this campus to unite again behind a common goal that will bring greater awareness and understanding to students of different racial and cultural enclaves.

This column is being reprinted due to it not fully running on Friday Sept. 25 and the importance of its message.