Diversity offers a valuable college lesson

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The recent court battle over whether colleges should use race as a factor in their admissions decisions -- known as affirmative action -- has made me think about the hidden benefits of diversity in my own college experience.

When I speak of diversity, I am not thinking of the dry dichotomies that offend so many in this debate: black vs. white; Asian vs. Hispanic.

At my school, in my classrooms and among my friends, diversity is a much more dynamic concept, one that reaches far beyond the issue of a person's race and into the realms of culture, language and belief.

In her 2003 opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, a case focusing on affirmative action in college admissions, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that accepting more minority students furthers "a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body."

While her language sounds clinical, it reflects a crucial, if not often discussed, advantage of surrounding yourself with people who aren't like you -- a conscious effort I have made in seeking out friends in college.

I am both Persian and Jewish -- that rare crossbreed that emigrated en masse from Iran in 1979 for fear of what might befall them under an Islamic regime. For better or for worse, a disproportionate number landed in the town where I grew up, Great Neck, N.Y.

At my high school, there were essentially two kinds of people: the Jews whose parents emigrated from Iran, and the Jews from elsewhere. Sure, there were non-Jews, too, but there weren't enough of them to constitute a vocal minority.

I knew, in a cerebral sense at least, that I would likely be the only Persian Jew at college. But my high school experience didn't prepare me for the incredulous gasps or the squeaks of excitement when I disclosed my identity: "I didn't know someone could be both Persian and Jewish!" (Yes.)

Truth is, I found the people I encountered freshman year every bit as fascinating as they must have found me. I lived with a Chinese-Canadian from San Francisco whose family regularly eats salted duck eggs for breakfast and a white Episcopalian from Virginia whose fondest family tradition is hiding an ornamental pickle among the branches of their Christmas tree.

Their stories, backgrounds, traditions -- even the food they were used to eating -- were different from mine. We all spent a great deal of freshman year learning about each other's world views.

I brought them to Shabbat dinner at the Hillel, where they learned to hum disjointed Hebrew melodies and appreciate the unrivaled blessing that is hamantaschen, which are soft, triangular cookies.

In turn, freshman year marked my first Christmas and the first time I tried Buddhist meditation.

Sophomore year brought more roommates and, inevitably, more cultural exchange.

That year, I based two academic research papers on personal stories my roommates had told.

There was the treatment on fighting rampant corruption in Nigerian police that originated with a roommate telling me she had to pay a bribe at every toll or checkpoint when she visited her family in Nigeria. There was the review on how to reduce gun violence in Los Angeles, where another roommate went to high school and witnessed it every day.

For too many of my friends from home, the college path often traversed is one that leads them firmly in the direction of their Persian-Jewish peers, to schools in and around New York City, where they can commute together and take classes together.

There is some comfort in knowing that their college friends, thrust into a similarly new and weird environment, have the bond of shared experience on which to build.

But in my experience, surrounding myself with diverse classmates has, as Justice O'Connor suggested, made for livelier class discussion and a broader range of topics to study.

More important than that, they have irreversibly reshaped the way I view the world, molding me into a person who is a little less ignorant, a little more cultured and considerably more empathetic.

When I graduate, this will be the most valuable lesson I will take away from my college years.

education

Michelle Hackman, who was a summer intern at the Post-Gazette, is a junior at Yale University where she majors in political science and psychology. She can be reached at localnews@post-gazette.com.


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