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At College, Diversity Can Instruct : Rancho Santiago's motto, 'A Diverse Learning Community,' could be a vision for the big picture.

March 15, 1994|THOMAS J. OSBORNE | Thomas J. Osborne is an instructor of history at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana and chairman of its Faculty Senate Task Force on Incorporating Diversity in Community. and

In the heart of the most feared city in Orange County lies our community college. In Santa Ana, where 17th Street meets Bristol, Asians meet whites, Latinos meet blacks, Muslims meet Hindus, Christians meet Buddhists, gays meet straights, old meet young--some 30,000 people come together to learn.

A more diverse body of people would be hard to find. This extraordinary diversity is a sure prescription for conflict, or worse--spasms of violence such as those that grip the surrounding city nearly every Saturday night. Recently, for example, an interracial conflict on our campus resulted in one student pulling a gun on another who had told an ethnic joke. So, educational intersections can be places where people meet, or where they collide.

With a student population that is 59% minority, mostly Latinos and Asians, and with 29% non-U.S. citizens, our college runs the risk of fragmenting into segregated enclaves of ethnicity, disconnected from each other and the college as a whole. This would lead to a downward spiral of "us" against "them," which would eventually paralyze the educational process.

Everything depends on how we respond to our diversity. If diversity becomes an end in itself, rather than understood and valued as part of a larger whole, then beware! It will tear apart not only our college, but our nation, and the world. Sarajevo, Capetown, Belfast, Los Angeles: The places differ, the cultural contexts differ; yet the dynamics and destructive outcomes are the same. Rancho Santiago College is a microcosm of the big picture, and the big picture tells us that when diversity is carried too far, a point of no return seems ominously awaiting us.

A far more promising response to Rancho's diversity would be to recognize its richness and connection to the larger college community.

A small but growing number of people on our Santa Ana campus are working to keep our fragile sense of community from being eclipsed by the diversity. Community and diversity are seen as being interconnected; individuals and groups should reverence their own diversity and that of others as well. Rather than assimilation, transformation of everyone would occur as diverse individuals and groups learned from and valued each other.

Last October, the Faculty Senate and the Board of Trustees unanimously adopted a motto to appear on the college's stationery and elsewhere: "A Diverse Learning Community." It is our college's "signature," saying who we are and what we stand for. It could be a statement of what we want to become, our vision for the future.

What does this vision hold? Foremost, it is a vision of ourselves as a community of learners. Beneath our considerable diversity, we are all human beings with the same basic needs and aspirations to develop our potential and contribute to society. All of us are learners: faculty, students, administrators, staff. An English worker in Botswana put it this way: "Don't try to teach anyone anything until you have learned something from them." As faculty more fully express this attitude in the classroom, less hierarchy and greater connectedness among people will result.

A second component of this vision is our willingness to accept personal responsibility for our learning environment.

Third, such a vision embodies sweeping changes. Staff development courses on diversity could be offered. Courses in cross-cultural understanding and conflict resolution might be required. A multicultural complex, featuring ethnic art, language training and a community mediation center might be established with city redevelopment funds. Community service projects could be undertaken.

These are but the broad brush strokes of a vision in our motto: "A Diverse Learning Community." The question remains: What will we do with it? Will it be a mere slogan decorating our letterhead? Or will it become our declaration that we are committed to saving our college and equipping it for the important work it has to do.

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