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The undergrad lowdown
Unpacking 'diversity': Student accounts of encounters across boundaries

This five-part series paints a portrait of UC Berkeley students, based on the recently released findings of the 2007 University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey (UCUES) and several smaller surveys conducted by the campus's Office of Student Research.

Today's installment highlights responses to a UCUES essay question on diversity, asking students to write about a personal experience at UC Berkeley with someone "whose background was different than yours," and how they were affected by this encounter.

 Undergrad Lowdown logoFive-part series:
A 360-degree view of a student body

• Roots & Identity: Family background, keeping in touch with home, campus personas
• School & Play: Academic experience, time and technology use
• Unpacking 'Diversity': Student accounts of encounters across boundaries
• Growing Convictions: Politics, religion, and community engagement
• New on Campus: The freshman and transfer-student experience

• The ABCs of UCUES: How the survey is conducted
• Complete student-survey results

UC Berkeley's undergraduate student body, like the state of California, is immensely rich in terms of race and ethnicity, languages spoken at home, immigrant status, and parental income and education. Statistics from the UCUES survey help paint a broad-brush picture of campus diversity, but they can also miss important nuances, notes Office of Student Research analyst David Radwin. "More importantly, these facts and figures reveal nothing about the effects of diversity on the student experience," he notes.

In the 2007 UCUES survey, Berkeley used its "wild-card" module to ask a randomly selected sample of 2,345 students to briefly describe, in their own words, a personal experience with campus diversity. While the results are yet to be fully analyzed, these brief narratives shed light on how encounters made possible by diversity affect students' development as individuals.

In many of their anecdotes such encounters — often with a roommate or classmate — were a force for greater understanding, "causing students to reconsider preconceived notions of others outside their own group," Radwin says. However, he adds, "some students chose to write about negative experiences in which they felt insulted, ostracized, harassed, or otherwise treated poorly based on difference. Such incidents, while not the norm, serve as reminders that diversity does not automatically lead to harmony, and point to the continuing need for faculty and staff to cultivate a climate of mutual respect for others."

Here's a sampling of student anecdotes — chosen for their illustrative value, not as a representation of the distribution of responses. They've been edited for clarity and to protect the anonymity of survey respondents.

  • "I had always assumed that Asian students were studious automatons with no personalities. Thus I was surprised to find that the funniest, smartest, most interesting individual in my physics class was an Asian girl who was my lab partner. As I got to know her over the course of the semester, I realized that my prejudice was ridiculous."

  • "Before coming to Cal I had very little contact with people that were openly gay. In high school there was a large stigma associated with being gay.... After coming to Cal I have met openly gay students that I am very close friends with… and it is not an issue."
  • Chris Carr, junior

    'It comes down to being comfortable in my own beliefs. I've been able to find a church group that I'm comfortable with. I talk to people [on campus] about religion, but I try not to impose my views on other people, and I don't feel that's happening to me, either.'

    Chris Carr, junior
  • "When I came to Berkeley, I was very excited to have the opportunity to interact with other East Indian students…. Unfortunately, when I made an effort to find out more about groups on campus, I was greeted with much more hostility than I expected.... I identify myself as East Indian, although I am technically biracial.... What I encountered when trying to join ethnic-specific campus groups was that they believed I did not qualify.... Although [Berkeley] has a heterogeneous population, one has to define oneself as only one thing to be part of a campus organization."

  • "Many university students have selfish attitudes that contribute to them sticking to themselves or their social group. As a result, many people like me [a Southeast Asian] are shunned from the group(s)."
  • "[Recently I] spoke to a graduating senior of Native American background… She spoke of the many hardships she faced in her pursuit of higher education — socially,... economically,... psychologically.... [It was an ] eye-opening discussion, [to meet] a person from a land that seemed so foreign and is so near."

  • "Before college I usually hung out with people of my own ethnicity [from Asia], but after college, especially because of the dorms, I got to become close friends with different cultures [from the Middle East, Asia, and Central America]. I have realized the differences of values from people of different cultural backgrounds. This realization has broadened my perspective and has helped me re-evaluate what is important to me."
  • "During freshman year,... one of my closest housemates was this devout Christian. I am a strong Muslim, hence a lot of our conversation was of a religious vein. I learned that although we differed a lot ideologically, because we both valued our religion so much, and because our religiosity overlapped in so many says, we felt closer than she did to other Asians in the house and than I did to other Pakistanis in the house."

  •  Catherine Jedlicka, sophomore
    'I went to Catholic high school and a lot of my friends are Catholic. I also have friends who are Buddhist, Hindu — just a whole bunch. It plays off of the racial diversity of the student body; I know a lot of people of different races, and there's also a lot of different religions.'
    Catherine Jedlicka, sophomore
  • "I still hear whites, and even non-whites, comment that there are too many Asians, or mention that Asians are deficient or inferior.... My friend, who is Asian, stated that his fraternity had too many Asian people."
  • "Amongst my group of friends, especially in the fraternity setting, I feel that I am an outsider at times.... As a financial aid student, and one who is overweight by any standards, I feel like my friends cannot understand my situation."
  • "When I got to Cal I was shocked by the segregation between groups. Although there are black student unions and Muslim student unions, which allow for separation, there is nothing that brings them together. In high school I ... had Filipino, Samoan, and black friends ... but at Cal it was much, much harder to build a diverse group of friends."
  • "I am close friends with a fellow student who comes from a military family.... Growing up ... I have never spent time among people from the military. Meeting my friend's sister ... in my senior year and talking to her about her feelings on the War with Iraq and about the military in general, I felt I had learned about things I had never been exposed to before."
  • "My roommate last year was a highly devout Christian who used every opportunity to try to convert me when she could.... I didn't mind her as a person, I just wish she had not been on my case every day about accepting Jesus."
  • "A white male student stated he was 'blacker' than I am simply because I'm 'articulate.'... As accepting and aware as Cal attempts to be, I often run into students, whether white or of color, who expect me to behave in a certain way either due to my race, class, or both."
  • "Freshman year, in the dorms, I met a girl who was born in Burma and lived in extreme poverty until she came alone to the U.S.... This is the first time I met someone born in a third-world country.... I learned a lot from her, mostly to be sensitive when discussing/using money."
Next: Political leanings, religious identification, and community engagement