Students Perceptions of Intercultural Contact in a Multicultural University Thesis

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Students' perceptions of intercultural contact in a multicultural university

Does exposing students to a multicultural environment in a university context automatically make students more tolerant? Or must the university have a more active role in the creation of intercultural dialogue? To truly promote diversity, the current literature suggests that merely creating a more heterogeneous campus demographic and even a more culturally representative curriculum is not enough. The university must actively promote dialogue and professors must promote an open intercultural discussion of multicultural issues for students to fully reap the benefits of their environment. The methodology of the curriculum must be truly inclusive as well as multicultural to truly create a new face of higher education. Existing literature suggests that mere exposure to individuals from different backgrounds does not have an automatically beneficial effect. When the curriculum and overtly expressed university attitudes are changed as well, the experience of the multicultural setting can be fruitful and yields greater intellectual and social dividends in the service of equality.Download full Download Microsoft Word File
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TOPIC: Thesis on Students Perceptions of Intercultural Contact in a Multicultural University Assignment

Multiculturalism and intercultural dialogue must go beyond mere college 'viewbook' tokenism. This type of common but counterproductive strategy uses student heterogeneity as a selling point for the university without really challenging the culture of the university like the: "numerous brightly illustrated posters made by students as part of their required coursework [in the art class of one school]....clearly aimed at promoting an awareness and understanding of multiculturalism... [and] featured photo collages of 'visibly ethnic' faces accompanied by some statement of a multicultural theme" (Hoffman 1996, p.546). But creating images of easy racial harmony and a focus upon happy faces merely generates and easy but false visual "metaphor for accessible, tamed, and nonthreatening" diversity that does not support honest dialogue and may frustrate students because it does not resonate with their own, personal experiences of being part of a racial minority on campus (Hoffman 1996, p.550). Within a university and large life context students' real intercultural engagements transcend the neat images about the benefits of multiculturalism through simply creating a more diverse environment. Student experiences and interactions must be acknowledged in their complexity in the classroom and without.

One experiment in education that successfully attempted to stimulate an open dialogue about social inequality that transcended an emphasis mere 'interaction' between others was conducted in the form of a 200-level course on the sociology of health and aging. The course was used as means of addressing broader issues surrounding a multicultural curriculum and intercultural issues of dialogue. It is chronicled by the professor in the article "Multicultural framework: Transforming curriculum, transforming students." The course was a required course for sociology majors. The classroom composition was not perfectly diverse, interestingly enough -- it was, as reflective of the sociology major itself, predominantly female (73%) and 86% were non-Hispanic, 44% African-Americans 30% Hispanic and 26% Asian (Moreman, 1984, p. 107). However, the professor actively engaged in an educational approach that was designed to facilitate an open and critical discussion of racial privileges and disadvantages and the impact racial disparities, access, and income had upon health care access in the United States.

Intercultural communication about race was built into the class syllabus. Small group work was utilized and students were encouraged to ask questions of one another such as: "What is a source of pride in your racial/ethnic background? When have you been discriminated against? When have you discriminated against others? How are you privileged?" (Moreman, 1984, p. 107). The approach was that of a systems inequality approach, designed to help students recognize what elements of their life (class, race, and gender) privileged them within society and which did not. Students were encouraged to express and explore how components of their personal identity affected their own health as well as the health of the communities to which they belonged (Moreman, 1984, p. 117). Communities were not regarded as fixed entities in the class context -- it was noted that, for example, an African-American professional might have better access to healthcare because of his class, occupation, or location than a Caucasian individual who was poor and living in a rural area. Race, class, and other factors all contribute to one's culture, in the understanding of the class -- as did age, given that attitudes towards health and aging was the primary focus of the class.

The use of small group interaction and journal-keeping made the searching questions about healthcare access raised by the class personally relevant to students (Moreman, 1984, p. 107). By discussing race openly in a multicultural environment (although not as diverse as the instructor would have wished,) students seemed to "develop a self-awareness that moves beyond denial, anger, presumed superiority, and the myth of meritocracy" (Moreman, 1984, p. 117). The class was extremely popular, even though it was designed to provoke and challenge conventional wisdom and did not offer easy answers to questions of race. The course was designed to avoid sidestepping "the political and socioeconomic conditions that contribute to real inequity in contemporary plural societies -- thereby making multiculturalism a safe way of sidestepping the important issues" (Hoffman 1996, p.548). The inclusion of a multicultural curriculum in and of itself was not equated with tolerance by the professor. Rather, addressing issues of race was something that had to be worked at in the structure of the classroom and on the part of the students.

Intercultural dialogue is ideally "an education for functioning effectively in a pluralistic democratic society. Helping students to develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to participate in reflective civic action is one of its major goals," not merely being with people of a diverse background (Banks 1994, p.5). After the sociology course, students enthused that this was the first time that they had a chance to truly engage in a fruitful debate about race, gender, and class in a meaningful academic setting that merged their classroom and personal lives, and allowed them to share these experiences with others. It made use of the classroom diversity as it existed, in all of its admitted imperfections, and took students beyond the college view book experience. Also, although the class was a sociology class about healthcare, it did not merely study sociology in a quantitative fashion, but infused anecdotal evidence from the students and from the literature to humanize the approach. This type of qualitative analysis demonstrates as well the value of having students record their experiences and responses for study in a way that is phrased beyond yes and no questions, or answers on questionnaires designed by researchers.

Such classes that truly promote intercultural dialogue evidence how students are often eager to be pressed have a dialogue about racial issues in a diverse setting, even if these issues may unsettle them and force them out of their own comfort zone. This approach suggests that a certain level of explicitness is required for students to fully benefit from multicultural education, given that without such pressure, students may be unwilling to broach the issue on their own, or self-segregate socially outside of the classroom. The phenomenon of self-segregation of students racially on many college campuses also challenges the notion that intercultural dialogue occurs on its own accord. "Achieving large numbers of black students on campus is one thing. Building a racially diverse and cohesive student body is another," observes the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (2004).

However, the university must be careful not to prescribe a specific ideology of multiculturalism, either. "The field of multicultural education abounds with untested and sometimes unsupportable assumptions regarding goals, strategies, and out-comes...unless these assumptions are made more explicit, multicultural education as a whole risks being dismissed not only as ineffective but as potentially encouraging of even greater educational inequities" (Hoffman 1996, p.545). Multiculturalism's assumptions may be just as doctrinaire as a social conservative fear of creating a social mosaic rather than a melting pot, and destabilizing the 'canon' of traditional, exclusionary forms of education may lack real critical analysis of race unless professors relate them to student's lives.

Debate seems more fruitful than prescription. The university cannot merely prescribe tolerance, and acceptance of the individual, particularly to students from less individualistic cultures than the United States. Multicultural education's emphasis on individualism has itself come under critique. Some question if it is really multicultural at all, but merely another brand of Western individualism that subsumes other cultures' understanding of the self: "multicultural discourses do seem to share certain fundamental assumptions about the nature of self, culture, and identity. It is for precisely this reason that multicultural education per se as a solution to perceived problems of pluralism appears most developed in the U.S. And other nations within the Western cultural sphere of influence, such as the U.K., Canada, and Australia" (Hoffman 1996, p.545).

Only by analyzing intercultural interactions in the classroom, with an understanding that valuing intercultural dialogue and multiculturalism is itself a 'point-of-view' and that the multiculturalism movement in education has its own ideological assumptions can intercultural exchanges between students truly take place where all cultures are on equal… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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