When I arrived at the University of Washington (UW) campus in Seattle, I assumed that courses on diversity and cultural differences would be included in the undergrad credit requirements – called Areas of Knowledge (AoK).
Within AoK are subject areas meant to broaden the student’s topics of study, introducing new ideas as to not limit learning in only the chosen major. These subject areas are named Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts, Individuals and Societies, and Natural World. Unfortunately, no such requirement existed, disappointing my hopes for an opportunity to put my military diversity experience into perspective.
Being a military kid
Being a kid of military parents, I became accustomed to the military lifestyle, which also meant being accustomed to diversity. That’s been my life!
Experiencing multiple schools in one academic year due to the nomadic military lifestyle forced me to adapt to ever-changing surroundings, and thus, broadened my awareness of diversity. Naturally, I first noticed diversity in my classmates—from our appearances, to eating different foods, to practicing different traditions. My knowledge of diversity grew as I progressed from preschool to elementary school, to high school, and then college. Embracing the differences in backgrounds and learning from them was essential to making friends throughout the years. Later, as high school classes turned into college courses, I grasped the significance of diversity through accomplishing group projects, receiving advice, and overall making meeting new people all the more exciting. Unfortunately, this positive realization had not occurred to the UW.
Diversity requirement took years
The University of Washington has taken about the same amount of time as my entire life experience to integrate diversity into its core curriculum. Finally, after three failed attempts in the past 22 years, student groups have convinced the UW to approve a policy requiring undergrads to complete a diversity course within economic, cultural, or political areas before they can graduate—effective Fall Quarter 2014. Some of these diversity courses include Peasants in Politics, Class and Culture in East Asia, Gender and Spirituality and World Music.
According to the university website for Undergraduate Advising, “The University asks you to take no fewer than 3 credits of courses, approved by the appropriate school or college, which focus on the sociocultural, political, and economic diversity of human experience at local, regional, or global scales. These three credits will simultaneously satisfy other Areas of Knowledge requirements and do not add to the total number of credits you need to graduate.”
The primary obstacle preventing immediate approval of the policy was the faculty’s belief that the definition of diversity in the students’ proposal was not broad enough; they were concerned that the minority students were acting upon anger and simply pushing for a political statement.
Approval took a process
This time around, students involved with the endeavor frequently met with faculty members to grasp understanding of what they sought to accomplish, and to fine tune words in the proposal. After the measure’s approval in April 2013, the dean of each school and college within the UW (College of Arts and Sciences, College of Built Environments, College of Education, College of Engineering, College of the Environment, Information School, Michael G. Foster School of Business, School of Medicine, School of Nursing, School of Public Health, and School of Social Work) crafted a list of courses to satisfy the diversity requirements in the effort to put the policy into motion beginning Autumn 2014.
Of course, similar to any other organizational change effort, this action stimulated opposition and skepticism. Many reactions included complaints that certain majors already had enough requirements to fulfill in a short amount of time. Others argued that implementing a diversity requirement is completely unnecessary and even useless because being a student with diverse classmates and events was sufficient diversity exposure.
I found diversity challenging
Unfortunately, merely being surrounded with diversity does not ensure learning and understanding. Being the minority child I was during my early years in school, I opposed diversity and wished I could be around people who understood my culture and didn’t give me puzzled looks over the foods my parents would pack for my lunch. After a few more years of moving around the world and gaining maturity, I made an active decision to accept the differences around me and educate myself about them. Had my learning been supported by school classes that developed my perspective even more would have been most helpful. Hopefully, this is what the UW diversity requirement will inspire.
Requirement is an accomplishment
The weight of this triumph washed over me during my English Department graduation ceremony in June 2014. Introductory speeches just finished and general recognition was being announced before we would bask in our momentary walks of glory across the stage. Suddenly, my seatmate and dear friend began excitedly nudging her seatmate to her left. Shangé E. Purnell, one of the students involved with the UW Students for Diversity Coalition (UWSDC) fighting for the diversity requirement was two seats from me. As her successful work was being applauded, I had my own moment of admiration for a peer who contributed to a struggle for the sake of our student body.
Simply being surrounded by diversity is passive, inactive. Applying awareness and thought about the implications of diversity, and understanding the experience of diverse groups is an active choice. Sure, for some students this new requirement may not make much of a difference, but the fact that it was a long-term struggle that turned out successfully instills deeper importance. And most importantly, it makes the University of Washington’s curriculum not only responsive to the changing demographics of its student body, but preparing its students to be effective in diverse multicultural environments after graduation.