As students return to college campuses this fall, they will have the opportunity to form new social circles and peer groups. It will be tempting for them to surround themselves with people who are similar, and that’s natural. When someone is in a new situation the path of least discomfort is to seek out the familiar. My challenge to them is to step outside of their comfort zone and seek out people with whom they have very little in common.
In the past I have made cases for diversity among faculty and students, diversity in the professional workplace, and diversity of thought. What’s easy to overlook is the role of diversity in our own lives. If it is beneficial to have diverse experiences and backgrounds represented in the classroom, in the lab, and in the board room (and it certainly is), surely there are benefits to having those same traits in our peer groups.
College campuses like ours at Georgia Tech are filled with people of every imaginable background. Our incoming freshman class is comprised of students from 69 countries, 43 states, 89 Georgia counties, and 1,429 different high schools. It is 41% female and 50% non-Caucasian. It will include students who hold a range of political views and religious beliefs, come from an assortment of economic and social backgrounds, have countless interests and hobbies, and dream of accomplishing all sorts of things both at Tech and in their careers beyond college.
Given the social climate today, perhaps one of the best ways to build bridges rather than barriers is to become friends with people you disagree with and stay friends with them. Rather than try to change their minds take the time to find out why they hold the views they do. I promise you that you’ll learn something from listening to them, and you may find that you have more in common with them than you realize.
Along the way you’ll also acquire the invaluable skill of being able to coexist with people you disagree with, which will most definitely be an asset when you have entered the workforce and can’t choose your colleagues. Diverse experiences bring unique perceptions to the table. Being exposed to new ideas and cultures allows everyone to grow intellectually.
The facts are there. Studies have shown diversity is a key driver of innovation; diverse groups are better problem-solvers; diversity promotes creativity; diversity prepares you for future career success and to work in a global society. Research tells us you learn more from people who are different than from people who are similar, so the sooner our students embrace diversity in their college experiences the better.
While campuses present great opportunities for interaction with an extremely diverse population, I would say that perhaps all of us should heed author Stephen Covey’s words, “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.” Embracing diversity early on lays the foundation for succeeding in an ever changing world.