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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Nontraditional students key to campus diversity

Diversity issues extend beyond race and nationality. I would argue we are a product of our experiences, and though skin color and nationality play a significant role in influencing our experiences, encouraging a diversity of experiences on campus cannot be measured by admittance data alone. UW-Madison cannot hope to achieve true diversity simply through programs aimed at aiding minority students. A truly diverse campus would embrace students from all walks of life, whose experiences are as vast as they are different and who are united by a common goal: to educate and better themselves.

Campus life is dominated by what I will refer to as the traditional student, someone who graduated high school, entered college the following fall, may or may not have transferred or switched majors and usually graduates in four to five years. As a result of this high number of traditional students, classrooms are dominated by voices of those who, in general, have little life experience, have never worked full time, live off student loans and parental allowances and have never lived alone or independently. From an educational standpoint, this lack of diversity in experience does not provide for a varied classroom discussion or exposure to new and different opinions and perspectives.

For classroom discussion to be beneficial, constructive and progressive, a variety of viewpoints must be represented and expressed. Dialogue between persons with similar viewpoints and opinions is not productive. Students can only begin to form their own opinions and learn to think for themselves by being exposed to different ideas, whether those ideas are hazy or well-formed, widely accepted or widely discredited or shaped by experience or word of mouth. This diversity of thought is only as large as the diversity of our students.

UW-Madison's diversity forum seeks and advocates for inclusiveness and excellence, the idea being that the more inclusive, the more excellent we are. In theory, this is a great goal. But ideology and college admissions rarely go hand in hand. Until the application process removes the ethnicity boxes and incorporates a section devoted to determining what a student would contribute to campus and the classroom, a diversity of inclusive excellence will fail to exist in the reality of campus life.

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We need to determine and evaluate where diversity enters into and impacts students' daily lives. This impact certainly isn't in diversity forums or foreign film viewings, but we can achieve daily diversity in the classroom by opening up education to and encouraging the participation of nontraditional students. A university's demography should not be evaluated in terms of race or nationality, but rather by the difference in experience and viewpoint.

This more valuable diversity measure is nearly impossible to gauge, but it can be felt and experienced in the classroom. I can't begin to explain how valuable I find the voices and opinions of those whose experiences in life are worlds different from my own. I don't gain perspective or develop critical thinking skills by talking with others who have similar experiences and opinions to my own.

As previously mentioned, measuring or quantifying a diversity of experience is nearly impossible, and admission based on variety or breadth of experience is at best subjective. To increase the diversity of experience, the university should encourage the pursuit of ""life experiences"" and non-education-based experiences to achieve a campus demographic of thought that is wide-ranging.

The university could foster this diversity of experience by encouraging freshman applicants to take a year off after high school to study abroad, work for a non-profit, get experience in the work force or travel. A freshman class comprised of students not fresh out of high school would diversify campus and improve the classroom.

A diversity of perspectives is not represented by a demographic largely comprised of Midwestern young adults. It is unreasonable to expect that a campus made up mostly of recent Sconnie high school grads can offer a diverse range of perspectives. Fortunately, perspective can be gained through experience, and if the university is truly committed to inclusiveness and excellence, it will seek out students whose varied experiences and alternative perspectives will enrich the classroom and campus.

Kathy Dittrich is a senior majoring in English and French. Please send responses to 

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