This post originally appeared on So Educated.
I’ll admit, it was a bit startling to me when I walked into my classroom on the first day of classes this semester and was greeted by a sea of white faces. I’ve never taught at a university where 99% of my students were white. I always took diversity for granted. And because I took it for granted, I wasn’t a huge defender of it.
Now, with the majority of my students coming from similar backgrounds, mostly from the same small geographic area, I really understand the importance of diversity: diversity of ideas and opinions, diversity of experience, diversity of perspective according to race, class, sex, age, and gender identification. But, how does a rural school, or a rural institution, create a diverse experience?
When talking about education reform, one of my students spoke in defense of big schools because they were more likely to provide diversity. But, I countered, you could make a school as large as you wanted, but if the demographics aren’t diverse to begin with, the school will continue to reflect the people it draws from. Kentucky is 90% white. The regions where most of our students come from (and which we are tasked to serve) is probably a higher percentage, as well as representing some of the poorest regions in the state, if not the country. How, then, are we supposed to provide students at any level with a “diverse” experience when the demographics tend towards a homogeneous population?
This is something that rural colleges, especially, deal with. One way to provide students with a diverse experience is to provide them and expose them to a diverse faculty. But recruiting and retaining a minority or “queer” faculty in an isolated community is challenging, to say the least. We are also typically responsible for educating the teachers who will go out into the more rural communities, making it doubly important to try to expose them to a more diverse education.
But what about the student body itself? How does a public university, tasked with primarily serving a specific region, build a more diverse “class”? Much like recruiting a diverse faculty, how do you attract minority students to an area that is typically seen as “redneck country” (admit it, you think that about Kentucky)? And in the age of dwindling resources, is spending money of recruiting trips far outside of our service area the best use of funds?
There are no easy answers to that question. One of the ways the institution has addressed the issues is to bring in a diverse array of guest speakers, artists, and intellectuals. Last year, for example, bell hooks came to speak on campus. I also think that exposing students to the wealth of materials that are available, for free, online can broaden their intellectual perspectives. Why aren’t we using Skype more in our schools, K-12 and in higher education, to connect with people from all walks of life?
It’s easy to talk about diversity, champion diversity, and even vilify the cult of diversity that some claim has been created. I don’t take diversity for granted, but we all need to work, urban and rural, together if we want to ensure that students are exposed to diversity.