Vocation and Diversity: Some Institutional Considerations

Given the cost of higher education, it is not surprising that parents and many students see college’s purpose as providing students with the skills to make a good living. Colleges, especially colleges in NetVUE, see their vocation in wider terms: to allow students to reach their full potential, intellectually and personally, to become good citizens, to find a meaningful path in life.  I have long argued that given our globally interconnected world and pluralistic country, it is part of our vocation as educational institutions to give students the knowledge and experiences that would allow them to understand and navigate that world. The way difference is now being used to divide, this has only gotten more important.

This education in diversity can be accomplished through many means. An obvious one is faculty hiring and retention, but unconscious bias and even institutional identity itself can make this more difficult to accomplish despite good intentions. Best practices have been developed to help departments and institutions identify unconscious bias and do fairer searches, but institutions also need to make sure that new faculty from underrepresented groups are given the kind of welcome and support they need once they are hired. Especially when their numbers are small, these faculty are often asked to do more service and end up doing more student advising as student enrollment of underrepresented groups usually rises faster than faculty hiring; this work is often informal and thus invisible. 

Offering a wide variety of courses that introduce students to different nations, cultures, religions, and indeed differences of all kinds is obviously important. But institutions also signal what they think is important through requirements.  When I started teaching at Gustavus in 1990, the general education requirement in this area was “Non-Western.” For this reason, a course on Buddhism would fulfill this requirement but my first-term seminar on African American and Native American lives and culture or Ethnic American Literature would not. Five years ago, the requirement was changed to allow courses addressing non-Western culture or diversity to count. In the current revision, we will finally include required courses in both categories. 

But courses can only do so much. In Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World the authors noted that many of the people interviewed who had a sense of vocation in their work had had a meaningful encounter with someone that would be categorized as an “Other” at some time in their development. Numbers help. At Gustavus, diversity in the student population has increased substantially. When I started at Gustavus in 1990, Lutherans made up 63% of the student body, and the diversity figure was 6%. Those numbers have changed, reflecting national and local trends. Today Lutherans make up 36% with a much wider range of religious affiliations including 13% “religiously unaffiliated”; the diversity figure is 20%, with a wider range of ethnicities represented, reflecting the large Hmong, Somali, Hispanic, and Tibetan communities in Minnesota and recruitment efforts in other parts of the country. But numbers are not enough; it is important to provide places where students of different backgrounds can thrive–and interact. 

When Gustavus made increasing diversity a priority in the early 1990s, it created a Diversity Center and hired a Director. The “D-Center” educates the wider campus about diversity but also provides a place where students can gather, relax, and get support. Student-run culture clubs also serves this dual function. Africa Night has proven so popular that the Pan African Students Organization has expanded their activities to a week. I Am, We Are, our social justice theater group, also addresses diversity issues in their presentation for first-year orientation.  Most recently Gustavus inaugurated the Bonnier Multifaith Center, which is a beautiful space with programming during our regular “chapel time.”  Providing dedicated space signals institutional commitment and increases visibility and welcome to students of other faiths as well as serving their religious needs. 

Changes in the chapel program have led to some concern for me, however.  Gustavus’ chapel had a tradition of inclusiveness. When built in 1965, President Edgar Carlson told its first and long-serving chaplain Richard Elvee that he wanted the chapel modeled on the Swedish Lutheran Folk church tradition, that is, it should be a chapel of the community, welcoming to all. Elvee embodied that by inviting homilies from faculty and staff of all religions and none. I worry that current chapel-goers are now getting less exposure to other faiths as part of the “regular” chapel program. We do have a student group whose focus is interfaith dialogue and I was glad to see that this year, Fridays are being used for interfaith sharing of beliefs and practices in the Multifaith Center. It is important that establishing things like a multi-faith center does not decrease programming that exposes all students to other faiths and cultures. 

Christ Chapel at Gustavus Adolphus (Dedicated in 1962)

As our colleges become more diverse, our institutional calling to ensure the growth and thriving of all of our students requires us to think more deeply about the needs of different populations. What obstacles might hinder students in these groups from thriving and how can those obstacles be overcome?  What might advisors/faculty/staff need to learn to support the academic, personal, and vocational development of these populations more effectively? 

For instance, one day in the middle of a fall semester four years ago, I noticed that one of my African American first-year students looked a little down. She admitted that while she appreciated the extra programming for students of color during orientation, she felt somewhat abandoned by the college as she struggled to adjust during her first semester, which left her considering transferring, feeling this still very white campus was not for her. I encouraged her to check out the student groups; she discovered the Pan African Students Organization, which started a journey to campus leadership and has culminated this year with her as a senior receiving the inaugural award from the President’s Council on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. All of us, faculty and staff, alike need to pay attention to make sure we are an inclusive campus that supports all of our students, that makes every student feel seen and valued. [Dr. Monica Smith spoke on this theme at the 2019 NetVUE conference in Louisville; NetVUE members can access her presentation, “Mentoring Students of Color for Deep Purpose,” through the shared files on the online community site].

Another example:  I noticed a notable uptick in the number of Asian students using our Diversity Assistant for writing help when we were able to retain the services of a particularly welcoming, supportive, and helpful writing instructor, one of our recent graduates. News travels fast among our students of color. And I have recently learned that this alumnus has made this kind of work his vocation. 

Many students recognize the need to learn about other cultures. Long ago I noticed that my first-term seminar on African American and Native American lives and culture attracted white students from homogenous small towns who wanted to be teachers and nurses; they knew they needed to learn about other populations to do their job well. Twenty-five years ago students started a day-long conference called Building Bridges to discuss diversity issues and devise action plans, which has become a signature spring event.  Students were also the driving force to get our multi-faith space. 

I believe today’s students need greater knowledge of and comfort with diversity of many kinds if they want to thrive in our society and to make the world a better place. I also believe our institutional vocation calls us to provide students with that education and to model the kind of place where all students are seen, valued, and helped to develop into their best selves. I recognize that my beliefs about diversity come from my own background; your background and experiences may lead you to prioritize other values. However, thinking about our institutional vocations can help all of our colleges become even better.

Florence Amamoto retired last spring from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota where she was an Associate Professor in English and held the Sponberg Chair in Ethics.  She was also affiliated with the Japanese Studies, the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies, and the Three Crowns programs, with a long-time involvement with diversity, church-related higher education, and vocation initiatives. Her essay, “Response-ability in Practice: Discerning Vocation through Campus Relationships,” is included in the latest collection of essays published by David Cunningham, Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy (Oxford, 2019).

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