Minority Student Clubs: Segregation Or Integration?

By Gabriela Moro

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Image Credit: UC Berkeley

Minority representation on college campuses has and is expected to increase significantly in the coming years: "By 2015, undergraduate enrollment is projected to expand by 2.6 million, 80 percent of these being minority students. White undergraduate enrollment is projected to decrease from 70.6 percent in 1995 to 62.8 percent in 2015 (Carnevale & Fry, 2000), with a corresponding increase in the percentage of minority students from 29.4 percent in 1995 to 37.2 percent in 2015" (U.S. Census Bureau). Universities have made it a priority to increase diversity, or the representation of racially or ethnically underrepresented groups, on their campuses in order to prepare students for a culturally diverse U.S. democratic society (Hurtado, Ruiz 3-4). To complement this increase, universities across the U.S. have implemented minority student clubs to provide safe and comfortable environments for minority students to thrive in their academic and social lives with peers who have similar backgrounds. However, do these minority groups amplify students' tendency to self-segregate with peers similar to themselves? Do minority groups inhibit students from engaging in diverse relationships, which is a major goal in higher education?

Many view minority student programs to be positive and integral to minority students' college experience; however, some feel that these clubs are not as productive in promoting cultural immersion and diverse interaction. Self-segregation is common among college students who experience a racially diverse campus for the first time (Martin 7; vol.55 p.720). Beyond this, minority student clubs promote a type of cultural loyalty that may lead to self-segregation:

Although some participants acknowledged limited cross-cultural collaboration and interaction, most participants noted that racial segregation, including the segregation among student organizations, was problematic. This could be an indication that the extent to which institutions support interaction and collaboration among student organizations may, in part, determine the extent to which it fosters cross-cultural skills among its minority students, but this requires further inquiry. (Museus 6; vol. 49 p.581).

Julie J. Park, Assistant Professor of Higher Education at the University of Maryland, organized a study in which she examined how participation in college student organizations and development of interracial friendships are related. Park suggests "if students spend the majority of time in such groups [Greek, ethnic, and religious student organizations], participation may affect student involvement in the broader diversity of the institution" (Park 7; vol.55 p.642). If minority students form all of their social and academic ties within their minority group, the desired cultural immersion among the study body could suffer. However, minority clubs have proved to be beneficial to minority students who enter a campus climate that is less racially and ethnically diverse than others. The entire student body of a university would benefit from increased cultural competency if campuses also implemented multicultural advocacy clubs rather than just selective minority clubs.

To frame my discussion in terms of the two sides of my argument, I will use an article from the College Student Journal that distinguishes two types of students: one student that believes minority clubs are essential for minority students to stay connected with their culture, while the other student believes minority clubs isolate minorities and increase the lack of diverse interaction among students. To pursue the question of whether or not minority student groups segregate minorities from the rest of the student body and increase a lack of cultural awareness, I will use perspectives from minority students to show that minority programs are especially helpful for first-year students. I will also use other student perspectives to provide direct insight into student experiences of self-segregation and to show that when taken too far, minority groups can become self-segregating and defy what most universities claim to be their diversity goals. Statistical and sociological studies of both majority and minority student experiences, such as developing diverse friend groups on college campuses, will contribute to a better understanding of the role minority clubs play on college campuses and offer a complete answer to my question about the actual productiveness of minority programs.

Ingram, Assistant Dean of Multicultural Affairs, Chaudhary, Master of Extension Education, and Jones former vice provost for educational equity (all at Pennsylvania State University) conducted a study that explored how biracial students interact with others on the college campus. The three authors concluded that there are two definite groups of people who view race-oriented student services (ROSS) differently: "Although some argue that these race-oriented student services (ROSS) are divisive and damage White-minority relations (Stem & Gaiter, 1994), others support these services as providing a safe place and meeting the needs of minority students to develop a sense of racial pride, community and importance (Patton, 2006)" (Ingram 2; vol.48 p. 298). I will start by examining the point of view of those who associate minority clubs with positive outcomes.

Minority student clubs provide familiar and approachable environments for minority students to thrive in their academic and social lives with peers who have similar backgrounds. These programs are instrumental for minority students to stay connected with their culture when they go college. Minority student programs are especially important for first-year students. They help ease first-year minority students' transition into the college environment. Ethnic student organizations help students adjust and find their place at universities that have a predominately White student body (Museus 6; vol.49 p.584). Museus, Assistant Professor of Higher Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston Graduate College of Education, concluded that universities should stress the importance of racial/ethnic groups and develop more opportunities for minority students to make connections with them. This way, students can find support from their minority peers and work together to face academic and social challenges and share in their experiences. Museus' findings suggests that minority student groups play a positive role in minority students' college experiences and are essential for these students to preserve and foster their own cultures that their university as a whole may not provide.

Hall, Cabrera and Milem conducted and examined a study that evaluated the differences between minority students and non-minority students in their predispositions to take part in diversity activities and communication with racially/ethnically diverse peers at a predominantly White university. The three agreed, "engagement with diverse peers is a learned behavior" (Hall). Students who engaged with diverse students before going to college were more likely to interact with diverse peers by the end of their sophomore year. Minority students were more predisposed than their White peers to interact with diverse peers during their freshman year (Hall). This is an indicator that minority study clubs can be helpful for first-year minority students who have not previously engaged with other minority students to do so in college, especially if the university has significant majority representation.

Professors and scholars are not the only ones who heavily support minority clubs. For example, Andrea Delgado, Denzel, and Kami Fafowora (all Harvard College Students) give their perspective on student life and multicultural identity on campus to incoming students via YouTube. The students explain how positive and influential the minority programs are on campus and how they have helped them assimilate into the college environment as a first year student: "I thought [cultural clubs were] something I maybe didn't needed but come November, I missed speaking Spanish and I missed having tacos, and other things like that. That's the reason why I started attending meetings more regularly. Latinas Unidas has been a great intersection of my cultural background and my political views" (Andrea Delgado). The experiences these minority student shared, in addition to the information provided in the studies mentioned above, support the idea that minority clubs are important for incoming students to aid in their assimilation into a very new and often intimidating environment.

While the benefits of minority student clubs are quite evident, there are several problems that arise from minority alliances. The most recognized limitation to such organizations is self-segregation. Self-segregating tendencies do not exclusively belong to minority students. College students overall possess or develop self-segregating tendencies as they enter an unfamiliar college environment for the first time: "Today, the student bodies of our leading colleges and universities are more diverse than ever. However, college students are increasingly self-segregating by race or ethnicity (Saenz, Ngai, & Hurtado, 2007)" (Martin 7; vol.55 p.720). Several studies and student opinions suggest that minority student clubs amplify students' inadvertent inclination to self-segregate. Students become comfortable with their minority peers. These students may no longer desire or feel the need to branch out of their comfort zone.

Self-segregation as a result of minority student groups not only puts those participating minority students at a disadvantage, but it also disrupts campus unity (Li). Li, a columnist for The Dartmouth College Newspaper, discusses the issue of minorities self-segregating themselves from the rest of the student population. Li agrees that these groups have positive effects, but he urges students to not get too caught up in their own minority organization that they lose cultural awareness. He indicates that ethnic self-obsession takes away from the unity of students on campus (Li). Li's observations further support the point of view that minority student clubs can be counter-productive in promoting cultural immersion on college campuses.

Three faculty members from Pennsylvania State University, Ingram, Chaudhary, and Jones, conducted a study that reveals some students feel race-oriented clubs are unnecessary, while others maintain the belief that such clubs have positive benefits. Their study, published in the College Student Journal, examines the social interactions of biracial students in U.S. colleges as of 2014, focusing on the level of interactions, which occur between biracial and mono-racial students, and highlighting recommendations by biracial students for improving inclusivity on campuses (Ingram 2; vol.48 p. 299). Participants of the online survey, the method of collecting data for this study, were asked to respond in an opened ended question about what they think universities should do to create a more inviting environment for biracial students (Ingram 2; vol.48 p. 303). Multiple students responded with opinions opposing the formation of both biracial and multiracial clubs: "I feel instead of having biracial and multiracial clubs the colleges should have diversity clubs and just allow everyone to get together. All these "separate'' categorizing of clubs isn't that just separation of groups?" "Having a ton of clubs that are for specific races is counter-productive. It creates segregation and lack of communication across cultures. (Ingram 2; vol.48 p. 304-305)

The main concern these students voice is that these clubs can cause unnecessary separatism on campus. On the other hand, some participants "supported the creation and existence of biracial [and multi-racial] programs" (Ingram 2; vol.48 p. 305-306). These students considered the benefits of bi-racial and multi-racial students coming together to form bonds and strengthen cultural ties. Other students offered suggestions for the formation of multicultural activities: "Encourage more racial integration to show students races aren't so different from each other and to lesson stereotypes." "Hold cultural events that allow students of different races to express/share their heritage." Ingram, Chaudhary, and Jones concluded that, while creating biracial and multiracial student organizations are helpful in establishing an inviting college environment for these students:

Creating a truly inclusive environment, however, requires additional efforts (Ingram 2; vol.48 p. 308): these include multicultural awareness training for faculty, staff, and students, and incorporation of multicultural issues into the curriculum (White, 2006; Gasser, 2002). In addition to the creation of biracial/ multiracial clubs and organization, the students in this study want to increase awareness of the mixed heritage population among others on college campuses. (Ingram 2; vol.48 p. 308)

The presence of two very different opinions regarding the creation and existence of race-oriented clubs on college campuses reported in this study contributes to the needed recognition of the issue minority student programs can formulate and suggests ways to resolve them. Now that both viewpoints of minority student clubs have been established and evidence from both former research and student perspectives confirm that these clubs, while beneficial to minority students' experiences, can inhibit cultural immersion, I will continue with my original thought that the entire student body of a university would benefit from increased cultural competency if campuses also implemented multicultural advocacy clubs, rather than just selective minority clubs.

In order to understand why initiating diverse interaction among students is a major topic of discussion among universities, it is helpful to recognize the comprehensiveness of the three terms of diversity Patricia and Gerald Gurin, Dey, and Hurtado identify in their article published in the Harvard Educational Review. The first term defined is structural diversity, "the numerical representation of diverse [racial/ethnic] groups" (Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Peterson, & Allen, 1999). Nonetheless, the existence of structural diversity alone does not assure that students will develop valuable intergroup relationships (Gurin 3; vol.79 p.333). Classroom diversity, the second term, involves gaining "content knowledge" or a better understanding about diverse peers and their backgrounds by doing so in the classroom (Gurin 3; vol.79 p.333). The third type of diversity, informal interactional diversity refers to "both the frequency and the quality of intergroup interaction as keys to meaningful diversity experiences during college" (Gurin 3; vol.79 p.333). Students often encounter informal interactional diversity in social settings outside the classroom or lecture hall such as "informal discussions, daily interactions in residence halls, campus events, and social activities" (Antonio, 1998; Chang, 1996). Informal interactional diversity covers the scope of my research and aids in supporting the idea of encouraging colleges to establish social events and organizations that allow all students to experience and appreciate the variety of cultures present on campus.

The three types of diversity build the foundation for Patricia and Gerald Gurin, Dey, Hurtado's theory of educational and democratic outcomes diverse interactions in higher education produce. Even with diverse racial/ethnic groups present on campus and regular communication among students formally and informally, these researchers contend that it is not enough to provide students with the full benefits diverse interactions offer for their life after college. A greater push from educators is encouraged:

"Classroom diversity, diversity programming, opportunities for interaction, and learning across diverse groups of students in the college environment now constitute important initiatives to enhance the education of all students" (Gurin 3; vol.79 p.362). "However, in order to foster citizenship for a diverse democracy, educators must intentionally structure opportunities for students to leave the comfort of their homogenous peer group and build relationships across racially/ ethnically diverse student communities on campus" (Gurin 3; vol.79 p. 363).

These suggestions serve as an implication that reaching desired cultural immersion results from a combination of participation inside and outside minority student clubs, with the intention that both minority and majority students enjoy the benefits of their higher education.

Dr. Clayton-Pedersen, who has conducted research in Diversity in Higher Education and Musil, former Senior Vice President of Office of Diversity, Equity, and Global Initiatives for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, analyzed and published an article in the Encyclopedia of Education on multiculturalism in higher education. They reviewed the ways in which universities have incorporated diversity studies into their core curriculum over a span of years from the mid to late twentieth century to the early twenty-first century. There have been significant increases in the amount of diversity courses offered and required that have the goal of preparing students for a democratic society rich in diversity (Clayton-Pederson 2; vol.5 p.1711, 11714). However, Clayton-Pederson and Musil recommend that institutions need to take a more holistic approach to their academic curriculum in order to purse a higher education program that prepares students to face "complex and demanding questions and pose and answer as they are challenged to use their new knowledge and civic, intercultural capacities to address real-world problems"(Clayton-Pederson 2; vol.5 p.1714). In accordance with Clayton-Pedersen and Musil's suggestions, I agree that a more holistic approach to the importance of diversity studies in the college curriculum and multicultural advocacy clubs is necessary in order to prepare all students, not just minority students, for the diverse world and society ahead of them.

The results the of reported research show that minority student clubs can increase self-segregation among minority students and contribute to fewer ethnically diverse interactions on college campuses. However, throughout the process of evaluation, I found that the two-sided view of how minority student clubs influence the lives of minority college students serves as an implication that a balance between providing support for minorities and avoiding segregation of these groups from the rest of the student body needs to be reached. Both sides of the argument have valid reasons for supporting or opposing aspects of minority student clubs. Ignoring the concerns of both sides would be unfair to the student body as a whole. Colleges and universities can implement multicultural events and activities for all students to participate in, especially during the freshman year, in addition to minority student programs. This is a positive initiative that will enhance the diverse interactions that occur on campuses, promote cultural immersion, and close the gap between the two perceptions of minority student clubs.

Beverly Daniel Tatum, in her book Can We Talk about Race: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation, explains three fundamental approaches to fostering a truly inclusive college environment and presents an example of a freshman program at the University of Michigan that embodies these approaches in an effective way. Affirming identity, building community, and cultivating leadership are the three approaches Tatum justifies. Affirming identity has to do with providing historically underrepresented groups with resources to develop their identity on campus such as cultural groups and centers (Tatum 114). Even so, these cultural resources "despite an institution's best efforts, are alienating at times" (Tatum 115). To relieve some of the alienating tendencies, Tatum proposes building community, which encourages appreciation of diverse interactions. She assures that "affirming identity is not a contradictory to but a prerequisite for building community. Learning to build community, to think inclusively, to cross borders, is both a challenge and a benefit of being apart of a diverse campus community" (Tatum 115). The last approach, cultivating leadership, is best explained by the Intergroup Relations Program (IGR) at the University of Michigan. The IRG Program "offers a course for first-year students that incorporates five key conditions: the presence of diverse others, a change from pre-college experiences, equality among peers, discussions under guidelines of civil discourse, and normalization and negotiation of conflict" (Tatum 117). This is a program that works to bring students together to stimulate cultural awareness in the first year with the hopes of the students' awareness developing further during their following years in higher education.

Beyond the reach of this evaluation, further research should be conducted, specifically on the types of cultural events that are most effective in promoting cultural awareness and meaningful diverse interactions among the student body. By examining different multicultural organizations from both public and private universities and comparing student experiences and participation in those programs researchers can suggest an ideal multicultural program to provide an optimal student experience.