I just got back from attending my daughter's college orientation. She was going to stay over night in the dorms and started to fret about the possibility of getting a "freak" roommate. She, of course, was matched with a lovely young lady, with whom she will stay in touch. I was reminded of my trepidation about my first college roomie. Remember the form you fill out to ascertain your preferences for a roommate. You know, smoking, sleep and social habits, music and noise tolerance, play an instrument, hygiene etc etc. Have you seen the questions they ask today? Anyway, I asked for a non-smoker, non-music, serious, and clean freak. My roommate, I'll call him Alvin, was a rock and roller bass player with electric amp, pot head, who worshiped dust and debris--sort of the Pig Pen meets Led Zeppelin type. In short, the opposite of what I expected. But as I have come to learn, we can acquire great insight, self understanding, and experience from those that are different from ourselves. And Alvin was an interesting person with deep thoughts, a different perspective and played a mean version of Deep Purple's music. While living with him presented a range of health, safety, and reputational concerns, I did maintain a friendship with him after I found more suitable accommodations.
My point is we meet people randomly all of the time. And when we do, we are often confronted with our own views, stereotypes, prejudices, and cultural biases. One of the great and sometimes forgotten opportunities of a college education is the chance to interact with different people. People from different perspectives, geographies, ethnicities, nationalities, sexual preferences, religious beliefs, etc etc. Colleges that seek student diversity as part of their excellence are providing superior educations and the graduates are better prepared for the real world. Schools with homogeneous populations will never compete with these institutions. The Ivy league schools and the top educational institutions in the world have known this for a long time. That's why none of them admit students based solely upon scores and GPAs. They know that intelligence is not measured that way AND that the true goal of a liberal education requires a truly diverse class:
Liberal Education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings. Association of American Colleges and Universities
The only way to do this is to recruit and maintain diversity in the academy. Back on roommates. So as my daughter and I have discovered, the roommate assignment process is random. You get what you get. The NY Times ran a story this week Interracial Roommates Can Reduce Prejudice. This study found that African Americans with high SAT scores who roomed with White students had consistently higher grade pt averages, regardless of the SAT score or GPA of the roommate. One conclusion drawn was these black students became better acclimated to a predominantly white school. To be honest, when less than 15% of the students at Indiana University are non-white, not sure how significant this study is. For example, UCSB, an average California school in terms of diversity, has a majority minority in the entering freshmen class and 43% will be the first in their families to graduate from college. Now that's diversity! I think the study by faculty at Princeton and UCLA, The effect of university roommate contact on ethnic attitudes and behavior, is much more relevant. A four year study of the impact of rooming with a student from a different ethnic background. Did this random, highly personal, 9 month relationship change the views and attitudes of the roommates?
Here were the key measures:
- Random roommate selection
- Social dominance--Is equality a goal? Should some groups be at the top and the bottom?
- Friendship heterogeneity--Do you have close friends from different backgrounds?
- Inter-ethnic dating--Have you dated someone from a different group?
- Inter-group unease and competence--Does any group make you feel uneasy and incompetent in dealing with that group?
So what did they find? This was a complex study with many variables and there were differences between the racial and ethnic groups, especially for Asians ( I will cover this in future posts). But the bottomline was:
Greater heterogeneity of the roommates caused more positive views of all other ethnic groups. Almost all of the measures improved for almost all groups.
In other words, having ideas and thoughts about other people will change when you get to know them. Like many prejudices, they are exaggerations and generalizations that do not apply to individuals. We find that our differences are more interesting than dangerous and then discover how much we have in common
. When we are open to learning about each other in random and not so random circumstances, our eyes, minds, and hearts are also opened, our view of the world expands, as well as the possibilities.
Here's to my old roommate Alvin, my daughter's future roommate, and to your next encounter with someone different.
Thanks for reading. John