Research Group Looks at University Diversity from Within

Posted: September 5, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Diversity at Mason
The diversity of George Mason’s student population was in evidence during the pep rallies held for the men’s basketball team last spring.

By Lynn Burke

Where else would one study the effect of diversity on higher education but at a campus that is one of the most diverse in the nation? George Mason University has that distinction, and for the past three years, a group of faculty and staff from across the university has been meeting to explore this issue.

The Diversity Research Group (DRG) was convened three years ago by Karen Rosenblum, an associate professor of sociology who was vice president for University Life at the time. “The group came together not out any formal directive but out of a shared interest in the topic.”

Since then, the interdisciplinary group of about 20 administrators, staff and faculty has met once a semester to explore diversity-related issues.

Karen Rosenblum
Karen Rosenblum
Creative Services photos

Each meeting begins with the same reminder, says Rosenblum: “Mason is a highly diverse institution, and it is diverse in unusual ways. It is also marked by remarkable levels of collaboration across instructional, student affairs and institutional support sectors.”

With that as its focus, the DRG has accomplished much in its short history. Members of the group have taken new approaches to institutional data, conducted focus group sessions with students, offered panels at conferences of the American Council on Education and the Society for Applied Anthropology, investigated the prospects of collaborative research with other universities, shared information with one another, and thanks to support from the Office of University Life, embarked on several research projects, says Rosenblum.

A New Look at Some Existing Data

One project that evolved from the DRG involved additional analysis of data that Mason provides to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), a long-running longitudinal study of higher education in the United States administered by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Mason participates in the CIRP Freshman Survey every two or three years. The survey provides a detailed profile of entering freshmen classes, looking at student demographic and family characteristics; academic preparation for college; high school activities; choice of college, major and career; college expectations; self-perceptions; personal objectives; and political views.

“We also use CIRP data to report and track changes in entering characteristics of our own freshman cohorts,” says Ying Zhou, associate director of Mason’s Office of Institutional Assessment (OIA). Mason’s standard CIRP reports include a university-level trend report and a program-level comparison report for the Honors program, University Scholars, Mason Topics, and New Century College.

OIA’s further look at the data regarding issues concerning students with immigrant backgrounds resulted in “Freshmen from Immigrant Backgrounds at George Mason University: A Special Report of the 2003 CIRP Freshmen Survey.” The report shows substantial differences among first-generation freshmen, second-generation freshmen and freshmen whose parents were born in the United States in the areas of educational aspiration, choice of major, college expectations, diversity expectations and such.

“And these differences pose a series of challenges to the university: How to meet student expectations? How to support students with immigrant backgrounds?” says Zhou.

How Students Look at Diversity

The Office of Institutional Assessment findings then prompted DRG members to directly involve students in the research efforts. One such effort was a series of focus group interviews with second-generation immigrant students, the results of which will be presented in a forthcoming paper.

diversity image
Mason’s diversity has become a subject of research from within.
Photos by Evan Cantwell

Another project produced a collection of student essays, “Diversity at Mason: Student Reflections.” David Haines, associate professor of sociology and anthropology, describes the volume as an attempt to involve students as analysts of diversity rather than as subjects of research on diversity.

“In all, the essays provide an instructive sampler of how some students at a particularly diverse U.S. university are navigating a diversity that is neither static nor unitary, but rather constantly evolving along multiple dimensions,” writes Haines.

The volume has been distributed to University Life staff who will be able to use it in their training and educational programs.

A Look at the Writing Process

Another project with DRG roots is being undertaken by the University Writing Center, which has found that the majority of students coming to the center for help are from countries other than the United States.

“While cultural and linguistic diversity is an invaluable asset, addressing the issues specific to an ESL (English as a second language) population poses significant and complex challenges,” says center director Terry Zawacki.

Zawacki explains that the challenge to instructors is in recognizing the effects that culture and language have on ESL students’ writing and then adjusting their teaching methods to facilitate learning for these students. On their part, ESL students face an equally complex challenge in dealing with a lack of native fluency and accuracy and culturally or linguistically influenced writing preferences.

The Writing Center project aims to explore the writing process for ESL students and identify the approaches that seem to work best for them. Through interviews, information is being collected about the types of difficulties these students have had with writing, from sentence-level syntax to understanding the notion of plagiarism, and the nature of the diversity experience at Mason.

“The project is not scientific; rather, it is anecdotal, descriptive and based on self-assessment,” says Zawacki. “We are interested in students’ ‘stories’ about writing.”

More and More Questions

As the DRG finds answers to its questions about diversity at Mason, it also seems to find more questions. One of those questions is, what is Mason doing right?

For example, Mason has a high proportion of African American students who progress from freshmen to sophomore status. “We would like to know what accounts for this success and how we can build on why that is so,” says Rosenblum.

Other questions that have surfaced concern how and where students actually come to know other students who are not like themselves and the effect of diversity-based programs on the students. “There are a lot of interesting subjects out there,” says Rosenblum.

“The DRG is an open group,” says Rosenblum. In addition to those mentioned above, it includes Cheryl Choy, Center for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation; Ric Chollar, Diversity Programs and Services; Elavie Ndura and Sylvia Sanchez, Education; Camille Hazeur, Equity and Diversity Services; Karen Gentemann, Institutional Assessment; Julia Findley and Sandarshi Gunawardena, International Programs and Services; Jang Wan Ko, Institutional Research and Reporting; John O’Connor, New Century College; Marilyn Mobley, Provost’s Office; Toni-Michelle Travis, Public and International Affairs; Victoria Rader, Sociology; and Sandy Hubler, Alissa Karton, Rose Pascarell and Dennis Webster, University Life.

“If there are other faculty members who have this topic as a field of interest, they are welcome to join us,” says Rosenblum. For more information, e-mail

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