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How Universities Support Cultural Diversity

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In the run up to the UN’s World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, find out how universities support and celebrate diversity.

On 21 May, events will be held around the world to mark the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, which was established by the United Nations (UN) in 2001.

The event is based on the UN’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, which states that “cultural rights are an integral part of human rights”. As a result, the Declaration says, everyone should have the right to communicate in the language of their choice, participate in their own cultural practices, and be treated with respect for their cultural identity.

These are clearly principles that could apply to all situations and aspects of life – and that certainly includes higher education.

Indeed, universities are well placed to lead the way in supporting and celebrating the cross-cultural exchange and dialogue the World Day for Cultural Diversity aims to promote.

So, how can universities fulfil the UN Declaration on Cultural Diversity?

Anti-discrimination polices at universities

Most universities have policies in place to guard against discriminatory treatment of any group of people – whether based on gender, race, disability, religion, sexual orientation or any other factor.

Further, many universities have an Office for Diversity and Equality, which provides a first point of call for staff or students who have any concerns about this, or who would like to help promote equal opportunities and treatment within the university.

Universities with large numbers of international students may also be aware of the need to make special arrangements for students with important cultural commitments.

For example, if an important deadline or exam clashes with a religious festival or period of fasting, universities can make allowances to ensure that students don’t have to choose between their education and their cultural identity.

Opportunities for intercultural learning at university

Some universities, particularly in the US, have made it a requirement for all undergraduate students to complete a certain number of modules in subjects relating to cultural diversity. This could encompass a huge variety of options.

At Saint Louis University, for example, students can choose from courses including world music, contemporary black America, psychology of oppression, post-colonial literature, US Hispanic theology, intercultural communication – and many more.

At other universities, opportunities for intercultural learning are optional.

For example, at the University of Pennsylvania (‘UPenn’) in the US, students can apply to participate in the Intercultural Leadership Program. This brings together a group of domestic and international students for a series of workshops and projects, with the aim of nurturing “an intercultural community of leaders who are ready to take on issues they are passionate about, learning more about communities different than their own, and make a lasting impact.”

The University of Pennsylvania also has an International Residence Program, which promotes intercultural exchange by encouraging students from diverse backgrounds to live together in a shared accommodation facility, and also to participate in a series of social, academic and cultural programs.

These include trips to major cities, musical and theatrical performances, sampling different cuisines, and opportunities for students to give presentations about aspects of their own culture.

This idea of promoting inter-cultural learning and exchange outside of the classroom underlies the International House movement, which currently has 15 members, spread across the US, Canada, Australia, the UK, New Zealand and France.

These facilities range in size from 100 beds at the international student house in Washington DC, to a whopping 5,700 beds at the Cité Internationale in Paris. Each international house is run independently, but with a shared mission: “To provide students of different nationalities and diverse cultures with the opportunity to live and learn together in a community of mutual respect, understanding and international friendship.”

Special events and celebrations

Check most university events calendars, and you’ll probably find a large selection of cultures represented.

This may include events to mark particular festivals, events focusing on certain cultures or aspects of culture – for instance, a night of Ethiopian music and food or an international film club – and also week- or month-long programs of events.

At the University of Nevada, Reno, the university’s Annual Intercultural Month takes place every April to May, featuring events to celebrate the range of cultures represented at the university.

This extensive program is driven not so much by large numbers of international students, but by the ethnic and cultural diversity that exists within the US.

Acknowledgement of diversity within a shared nationality also forms part of the Diversity Week program at Leiden University in the Netherlands. In October 2011, this featured a ‘subcultures fashion show’, in which the catwalk was taken over by groups ranging from ‘goths’ and ‘skinheads’ to ‘nerds’ and ‘skaters’.

This light-hearted event was accompanied by more serious explorations of cultural diversity, including workshops on intercultural communication in business and within the law, and a screening of documentary film Religion connects! Religion connects?

Meanwhile, Rhodes University in South Africa schedules its International Week for 19th-25th May – to coincide with the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development.

The week kicks off with students and staff joining for a colorful parade celebrating a wide range of cultures, followed by a concert in which groups are invited to share part of their culture through a musical, spoken or theatrical performance.

Sounds like fantastic fun, and just what the World Day for Cultural Diversity is all about. But of course, these kinds of special event are just the tip of the iceberg; on many university campuses, intercultural dialogue is a way of life – something that occurs in every lecture theatre, library and student dorm.

Written by Piotr L.

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