Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Differences benefit us all

The name for my column is inspired by my Twitter handle, @dhanno. It seemed particularly fitting since I use social media pretty much daily to engage with students, share what’s happening on campus with parents and alumnae/i and connect with colleagues. For me, it’s a great way to communicate with my communities.

But as most of us know, social media has a dark side. Beyond the trolls and the hatred, it also affects society in ways that are less visible than an angry diatribe but equally dangerous: confirming our biases and reinforcing our convictions. Social media often resembles an echo chamber. Our Facebook and Twitter feeds tend to be filled with people, opinions and experiences very much like our own. It’s junk food, momentarily satisfying, but offering little in the way of intellectual nourishment.

Where technology falters, the college campus can excel. And there’s good reason for Wheaton and other colleges to ensure that students with different experiences and views interact in a variety of settings, beyond the virtual ones. Numerous studies have demonstrated that a diverse student body benefits all students. Developmental psychology suggests a good reason for this. Young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 are particularly receptive to considering new ideas, new social roles and their relationships to each other and the wider world.

Wheaton students attend a lecture in Hindle Auditorium.

Wheaton students attend a lecture in Hindle Auditorium.

Wheaton provides just the right environment for that kind of learning. Our students hail from 36 U.S. states and territories as well as 76 countries. More than 20 percent of our students represent communities of color. Beyond geographic and racial and ethnic diversity, our students bring a wide variety of interests, running more than 100 clubs focused on everything from social justice and politics to athletics and the outdoors. And while conservative views might be a minority on college campuses including ours, the Wheaton College Conservatives is a vibrant organization, making an impact on campus through its engagement.

On its own, of course, diversity does not guarantee learning. An institution must find ways to ensure that people with different backgrounds and experiences actually interact. To some extent, this happens naturally in classes—especially because Wheaton’s curriculum infuses diverse perspectives into course material across the disciplines—as well as in the residence halls and the athletic fields. But educational researchers have found that students who attend a college that encourages these cross-cultural interactions learn more. Wheaton strives to be that type of institution.

For the past two years, the college’s Committee on Inclusion and Diversity has organized an impressive series of events—workshops, lectures, arts performances and town hall gatherings—that have encouraged students and faculty and staff to come together, share their ideas, appreciate their differences and, at times, grapple with difficult issues. Our Building Community Together initiative is an ongoing program designed to sustain our focus on the importance of diversity.

Many other cross-cultural opportunities arise outside the boundaries of an organized, institution-wide effort. In the past year, student clubs hosted open celebrations of Diwali, the Day of the Dead, Hanukkah and Christmas, to name just a few of the cultural events that have taken place. Arts programming—from fiction readings and concerts to theater performances and gallery exhibitions—invite us to look at the world through the eyes of another.

Clearly, there are many opportunities for students to learn from each other. One interesting finding from some of the studies on the benefits of diversity in higher education indicate that even the students who don’t participate in cross-cultural activities and interactions benefit simply by being in a campus environment that offers lots of opportunities for doing so. That’s an encouraging thought, but I don’t see it as a reason to settle for anything less than involving every student in engaging with others who are not like themselves.

In today’s world, we are more connected than ever. The impact of climate change makes it clear that we are all in this together. Technology may offer many answers, but, as social media demonstrates, it is hardly a panacea. Real solutions lie in human beings listening to each other, learning from each other and working together. That’s what we do, and what we teach, on the Wheaton campus.