International Week Highlights Mason’s Student Diversity and Global Emphasis

Posted: April 10, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

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Mason’s diverse student population includes a substantial number of international students who bring their global perspective into the classroom.
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By Christopher Anzalone, Robin Herron and Nicholas Zinzer

George Mason University celebrates International Week once a year, but the university’s diverse student body and faculty, combined with its global emphasis in the curriculum, could be celebrated all year.

Named the most diverse university in the nation by Princeton Review for the past two years, George Mason has an enrollment that is nearly one-third minority, including more than 1,700 international students.

A study published last year by the American Association for Higher Education,

“Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter,” pointed to diversity as a principle for promoting student success.

International student

“The diverse student body plays a significant role in creating an enriching educational environment,” said the editors. They added, “According to several student leaders, Mason’s diverse student population was a huge influence on their choice of – and satisfaction with – the institution.”

In fact, another study of immigrant freshmen and immigrant family freshman (students born in the United States to foreign-born parents or those who immigrated to the United States before age six) showed that they considered a multi-ethnic student body important, in many cases “essential.”

But how does this diversity translate into the classroom and campus life?

Breaking Down Barriers inside and outside the Classroom

The recent success of George Mason’s men’s basketball team has been credited by students as fracturing social cliques and unifying students from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

Student leaders are hopeful that the social unification will continue to break down social barriers between international students and American-born students.

Monique Bagirimvano, an undergraduate majoring in conflict analysis and resolution and president of the African Student Association, says the men’s basketball team “became Mason.”

Although Bagirimvano would like to see more African students associate with non-Africans, she believes immigrants feel more comfortable with other individuals who share similar cultural roots.

“Cliques tend to be a cultural thing. Blacks tend to stick with blacks. It’s the first thing I noticed here,” says Bagirimvano, an immigrant from Rwanda. However, during the basketball frenzy, she says members of the African Student Association “became the Mason crowd, not the African crowd.”

Marwah Khalid, president of the Pakistan Student’s Association, says that Mason is different because of the success of the men’s basketball team.

“I think Mason definitely has changed,” says Khalid. The senior premed major believes “people were more segregated before the game…but during the [tournament], there was a lot of unity among the students.” Khalid joined other members of the Pakistan Student Association to watch the Final Four game in the Johnson Center. “People in front of us that we didn’t know were slapping us high fives.”

In the classroom, students necessarily mix with all kinds of other people, and from an academic perspective, the faculty welcomes the variety of backgrounds and viewpoints.

“The diversity of the student population at George Mason University is an asset in all of the courses I teach,” says Susan Trencher, associate professor, Sociology and Anthropology. “In valuing diversity, I am not just referring to minority populations, or populations of students from ‘elsewhere,’ but to the ways in which students representing myriad backgrounds bring different skills, knowledge and insight to class discussion.”

International student

However, faculty members such as Rutledge Dennis, a professor of sociology and anthropology, would like to see even more sharing among students.

“The problem I’ve encountered over many years of teaching is that so many students appear so fearful of not being ‘politically correct’ that they often say nothing in class, but will share their views with me in my office or in the hall.

“In this sense, there is no point in having a highly diverse academic community if students are reluctant to share those views with others in class, or engage in class conversations. I’ve had classes, however, where we’ve had energetic discussions around themes highlighting cultural, religious and ethnic diversity. On these occasions, class discussions can be, and are, both intellectually and academically stimulating and very rewarding.”

Encouraging Global Understanding

Mason has long fostered an outward look in the curriculum, and six years ago formally introduced a “global understanding” requirement to the undergraduate curriculum.

According to Provost Peter Stearns, the requirement “represents a clear recognition that having some familiarity with issues outside our own national and civilizational context is an absolutely vital educational asset for the 21st century. These are the leading set of issues that people will be dealing with in their public and work lives once they graduate from college.”

Johanna Bockman, assistant professor of global affairs and sociology, gives an example from her Introduction to Global Affairs class.

“To get a better idea of what a slum is, I asked which students had seen or been in a slum. A student who had grown up in Ethiopia, a student who had been a child of a U.S. State Department official stationed in Nigeria and a student who had grown up in Appalachia talked about the slums that they had seen, which brought the topic of slums to life and showed that we needed to go beyond the reading to understand the many different kinds of slums and their relationships with globalization.”

Donald Boileau, professor of communication, says, “Campus diversity makes teaching Foundations of Intercultural Communication more exciting for the students, because many students add information from their own experiences both here and overseas. Students realize in making remarks that they have a variety of people in their audience to consider to whom they must adapt. This adaptation must consider differences, not to gloss over, but to include in definitions.”

While the bases may be covered on the academic side of campus life, Dennis thinks there is still room for improvement in the social relations of students.

“I think we should encourage organizational exchanges and visitations between student organizations, because I suspect that International Week may be the only occasion in which there might be a degree of interaction between student organizations. We don’t need rigid ethnic, cultural or religious enclaves on campus. We learn by getting outside of our skins. I hope our great diversity will give students, and faculty, the sense of ease to get out of their skins.”

International student
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