Diversity Dialogue: The importance of diversity in higher education

Jesse Bernal

Since our first class of students began in 1963, Grand Valley State University has been educating students to shape their lives, professions, and our society through a robust and challenging curriculum steeped in the tradition of liberal education. This tradition emphasizes a strong capacity for empathy, a sense of social responsibility, and strong analytical, critical thinking and problem solving skills in addition to specific knowledge and skills in a particular field of study.

In order for GVSU students to truly develop a sense of social responsibility that allows them to be responsible citizens, they must be able to work with, empathize with and respect individuals from all backgrounds and identities. Diversity is a core competency of liberally educated students in the 21st century and its importance in higher education is borne out in the research. As the vice president for inclusion and equity at GVSU and a practiced diversity officer, I frequently point to four main reasons that diversity is critical in higher education.

First and foremost, educational research has demonstrated significant positive effects on educational outcomes when a diverse student body is present. Living and learning among people of different identities and life experiences enhances the experience of all students. The presence of diversity contributes significantly to a student’s development of empathy and social responsibility – two key elements of liberal education. The presence of diverse group of students makes for more fruitful conversation in class and brings the curriculum to life.

Diversity is also beneficial when it comes to employability after graduation. Survey research of industry and corporate leaders indicate that businesses are relying on employees who can operate in a diverse environment. Employers value employees who can work together, across cultures and with a diverse perspective.

Closely related to this “business case” for diversity, is the idea that the university has a responsibility to create global citizens. This is part of what GVSU is referring to in its mission statement about educating students to shape their societies. The societies in which our graduates are living and working are increasingly heterogeneous and global in nature.

The experiences a GVSU student has with people of diverse backgrounds prepares them to be conscientious and ethical citizens and professionals who understand that their experiences are not universal and that different people experience the world in different ways and, as a result, have different needs. This understanding is invaluable in our increasingly connected global community.

The fourth and perhaps most important case for diversity in higher education is tied to social justice. The first colleges and universities in the U.S. were sites of significant exclusion. They were created by and for the most elite and privileged members of society and their existence reinforced inequality. We have a responsibility, as a university in today’s world, to continually make education more accessible and to shift traditional power dynamics by increasing our attention of underserved and historically underrepresented populations.

Through higher education, under-served populations are able to advance educationally, economically and socially in leadership and decision-making roles. As the first person in my family and one of the first people in my high school to pursue college, I know this to be true. College and the life experiences I have had because of college offered me opportunities I could have never imagined.

I have been honored to learn at some of the best institutions in the country, and now am privileged to serve at the best university focused on student success. Most importantly, a university focused on success of all students not regardless of, but because of our diverse backgrounds. It’s this diversity that makes GVSU the great place we are today, and makes me proud to be a Laker.