Helping Students Strike a Balance Between Inclusion and Diversity

By: Tim Elmore

Did you hear how Columbia University handled their graduation ceremonies? No, I’m not referring to mask-wearing or social distancing. I’m talking about the administration’s decision to host six separate graduation ceremonies, based on the graduates’ income level, race, ethnicities, and gender preferences. My concern has nothing to do with the pandemic, as each ceremony was a virtual one. My focus is actually on the school’s attempt to be personally relevant to Native, Asian, Latinx, and Black students who graduated at the end of April. There was even another ceremony — an “FLI Graduation” for first-generation and/or the low-income community. The school also hosted a “Lavender” graduation for the LGBTIAQ+ community.

It was all about tailoring each event for the kind of people with whom each grad identifies.

I Applaud the Inclusivity  

The advantages of these ceremonies are clear. Each student graduating will be with those they identify with. Those first-generation students will be celebrated alongside others who also come from families without members who are college graduates. The words coming from the platform, including the student speeches and the guest speakers will all be customized for them. Wow. Talk about inclusivity. Who can ask for more than that?

The statement Columbia University is making is timely. Society is finally acknowledging minority groups publicly in these ceremonies and allowing them to feel like the majority of students have felt since the beginning of modern public education. The protests and courtroom verdicts over the last year have led to decisions like this one. I applaud this.

I See Some Potential Blind Spots

My concern is just as real. In full view of cultural inclusivity, is this one more misstep we’re taking as we prepare students for their careers in diverse workspaces? The workforce they’ll soon join will likely be eclectic and look little like a classroom or their tailored graduation ceremony. People will come from different income levels, different races, different generations, and different genders.

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff released a book a few years ago called The Coddling of the American Mind. Much of the book is about the mistakes universities make in their well-intentioned efforts to create safe places for students and shield them from microaggressions, but the gap between the campus and the cubicle is huge.

Further, where will tailored ceremonies end? I’ve already heard some minority groups even say the steps schools have taken are not specific or inclusive enough. Are we setting schools and students up for frustration because of the impossibility of making sure every special interest group (race, gender, or socio-economic background) is given the proper attribution and acknowledgment? This may feel silly, but I think it’s a valid question.

In short, are we playing the short game and not the long game? Are we sacrificing future career readiness for current comfort? Making life feel homogenous seldom prepares students for life after graduation. Young professionals have come across fragile, unable to negotiate differences or conflict, and ill-equipped to collaborate with older generations. Is it because college felt like a silo?

How Do We Strike a Balance Between Inclusivity and Diversity

Herein lies the struggle for schools today. How can we strike a balance between:

  1. You feel safe and can find others you belong to and identify with on campus.
  2. You feel stretched as you get ready for a diverse and unpredictable world.

I find myself in a quandary. I want to lead our young team members at Growing Leaders with incredible inclusivity. I want them to feel their leaders understand them and empathize with them — that they belong here. At the same time, because I believe in their abilities and skills, I don’t want to communicate I feel they’re not strong enough because I keep removing stressors from their lives. My solution must balance both: I am sensitive to their unique needs AND I believe they are capable of taking on tough challenges.

I actually know one of the recent Columbia University graduates, and I enjoyed his response to the various graduation ceremonies. He requested to participate in a ceremony that was different than the one he’d been assigned. When asked why, he said he wanted to be with people unlike him, to celebrate this time with those different from him. His request was not granted, but I loved his spirit. He was saying: Make it harder for me so I will be more ready for different encounters in the future.

What do you say? Can we begin to strike a balance between inclusivity and diversity for our students? What would this look like on your school campus?

Appreciating Diversity is a sub-competency in social and emotional learning. For more information on our Habitudes® for Social and Emotional Learning Middle School and High School Editions, click HERE.

Helping Students Strike a Balance Between Inclusion and Diversity