Teaching and Learning Diversity

At UIC—and at the College of Education—we pride ourselves on the racial and socioeconomic diversity of our student body. But what does that diversity really mean in a tangible sense?

Stephanie Hicks, PhD Policy Studies in Urban Education – Social Foundations student, is attempting to answer that very question through her doctoral research. Her research work was recently awarded a grant by the UIC Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy.

“When we think about the fact we are different and have different lives, what does it mean to still want equality when faced with this difference?” Hicks (photo, below) said. “What does it mean to want everyone to have an equal opportunity in life?”

Hicks is honing in on the Dialogue Initiative at UIC, an initiative started in 2008 on campus mirroring a program established at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s. The Ann Arbor campus faced a string of student protests and challenges to affirmative action in the late 80’s, and campus leaders initiated the intergroup dialogue process to attempt to bring students together across a number of divides.

At UIC, the program grew from less controversial roots. While UIC’s student body has long included strong representation of Latino, Chicano and Asian-American students, the intrinsic benefits UIC students derive from the depth of life backgrounds among the student body is still being defined.

Hicks is exploring a number of dimensions of diversity on UIC’s campus. Students say they come to UIC partly because of its diverse student body, but Hicks wants to know what students really mean by that declaration. Students identify a particular way racially, economically, religiously and in other ways, and many UIC students tend to originate from homogenous communities.

Despite the known diversity of UIC’s student body, Hicks says stakeholders across campus say a sense pervades that groups remain divided on campus, for reasons both positive and negative. Formal curriculum in the form of core undergraduate courses has sought to bridge some of those divides.

“[These ideas] make me think about the way that we [as teachers] enter a classroom,” Hicks said. “We think about the identities we hold, how they intersect. When we’re faced with a bunch of different students, we have to think about how our identities impact our relationships with students.”

Hicks says opportunities for students to examine diversity among their peers, and a student’s own diverse role with their peers, often creates a spark. Students may not think about who they are in terms of social identity groups, or come with a sense that everyone is equal. As a graduate teaching assistant on campus, Hicks says she sees students starting to question meritocratic values that espouse each person has the same life chances and opportunities.

“Even though you have made it to college, does everyone at the university have the same chances?” Hicks said. “Students say they want to be a part of a diverse community, but they really start to question what their identities mean for their life chances.”