With all the focus regarding diversity around campus, little attention has been paid to what people actually mean when they say they want “increased diversity.” For the most part, the focus of the debate has been on getting more people of color enrolled at the University. Unfortunately, this narrow definition leaves out many other diversity options, ones that are necessary for today’s modern education.
As a 35-year-old undergrad, I am no stranger to discrimination via lack of diversity on campus. It’s mostly benign things, like students sitting next to the professor before they’ll sit next to the “creepy old guy.” Sometimes, it’s that cute girl at Bert’s giving me a weird look when I assure her, yes, I am a student (or maybe it’s the creepy old guy thing). Usually I just shrug it off and continue, but occasionally I recall that while we’re peers, I have more in common with my professors than I do other students.
I’m not the only student experiencing this. Before long, your parents won’t just be your ride to school, but your lab partners, too. With the continued shift from a labor economy to a service economy, the average age of a college undergrad should continue to go up for the foreseeable future. With the increased age comes increased responsibilities, and the University is not adequately equipped to handle them.
Older-student support at the University is commendable in spirit and condemnable in practice. In all fairness, the University has traditionally served a very young demographic. As older students, we have responsibilities far surpassing those of normal undergrads — spouses, children, houses and businesses, to name a few. This is reflected in the wait list at campus daycare facilities and the lack of affordable married housing options. This isn’t mere discomfort, either. Housing scams are rampant in the area (just call any realtor and ask about local scams), and young parents are being forced to choose between putting their children or themselves through school.
It’s past time for the University to act. They should look no further than our local community colleges for ideas to help increase the range of services available for older students. Instead of focusing on finding “America’s Next Top Football Coach,” the school should have been looking into funding for additional childcare services on campus, increased flexibility in class scheduling (including more evening and online classes) and more married housing options.
Unless we do something soon, we are going to miss out on the unique life knowledge that older students bring with them. They will be forced to go to campuses that recognize the changing times and are quicker to adjust services. Indeed, one could make the argument that the reason for-profit colleges are reeling in huge numbers of students is precisely because they cater their services toward non-traditional students.
Campus diversity also needs expansion in more traditional areas. Another example of this is the lack of inclusion of “none” in discussions about religious diversity.
According to a Pew Research Center poll from May 2014, more people would be less likely to cast a presidential ballot for an atheist (53 percent) than an adulterer (35 percent), a septuagenarian (36 percent) or someone who has never held public office (52 percent).
Worldwide, there are record amounts of people who identify as “non-theist” or “atheist.” In places that used to be dominated by religion, old icons are being pushed away and a wave of secularism is coursing through the general public. As many as 40 percent of the French do not believe there is “any sort of spirit, God or life force.” On campus, the numbers tell a much different story.
A search on Maize Pages for the word “atheist” in a club returns exactly one group, the Secular Student Alliance. A similar search for “Muslim” returns 10 clubs while a search for “Christian” returns 26. You know who else only has one club on campus? Pokemon aficionados (Pokemon Maize and Blue). Then again, I would hate to cast Pokemon lovers in the same light as atheists, because they probably get enough flack as it is without that additional baggage. Besides, they probably poll better among future presidential candidates.
All jokes aside, there’s no rational explanation for this lack of non-religious students. Atheists and agnostics bring a uniquely humanist approach to the table, free from the obligations of religion. Humanists are a diverse group, with people of virtually all nationalities and sexual orientations comprising their ranks. I would love to see more free-thought and secular activities on campus. It could be something as simple as a food drive for the homeless, or as complex as a support system for helping people overcome substance abuse without invoking the name of God.
The key is taking the meaning of diversity away from the narrow definition groups like BAMN get us to focus on. Diversity on campus isn’t an issue going away anytime soon. The quicker we go for true diversity of thought and away from the notion of diversity as skin color, the better off we all are. The University has a responsibility to its students outside of the classroom to provide access to cultures and ideas not found at our local high schools. Increased diversity, beyond just geography and skin color, is one way to help accomplish this. Until we focus on a more broad definition of diversity, we are forever going to be living in the shadows of our own past.
Eric Kukielka can be reached at email@example.com.