What to Do About Self-Segregation on Campus?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
I won’t pretend there’s a simple solution for improving cross-cultural mingling on college campuses—that it’s merely a matter of organizing more mixers or “starting an important dialogue” wherever four or more students are gathered.
Many of your responses to my note mentioned the programs in place at some colleges to address the clustering of students along demographic lines that our initial reader lamented. Things like orientation weekends for certain groups actually encourage it to some degree to give isolated students a chance to find others they can relate to, while course requirements might emphasize “diversity competence” for the entire student body.
First, this from an American reader who went to high school in Israel but attended college in the U.S.:

I’ve read that efforts at diversity work best when there is no clear majority, and looking at my experience I've generally found that to be true.

The high school I graduated from in Israel was a good example. I don't have the exact numbers, but from my recollection it was approximately 30% American, 23% Israeli, and the rest of the student body was relatively evenly distributed from various countries in South America, Asia, Africa, and other continents (no Australians or people from Antarctica, from what I recall).

Admittedly, there was some tendency for people to hang out with others like themselves, but there was far more interaction between groups and far more individual friendships between groups than I’ve witnessed since coming back to the U.S. In addition, there wasn't a noticeable pecking order (although this may have been partially because it was a small school with 50 people per graduating class).

When I came back for school, I noticed there was far less casual intertwining. I had friends of other ethnicities and races in college, but they were usually not people who had strong ties to their respective groups on campus. In other words, there were individuals who integrated, but interactions between groups who had strong ties to their campus communities tended to be less fluid than they were in my high school.

I don’t want to come up with a pat answer, but some sort of in-between, such as my high school, seems like a reasonable goal to shoot for. There was certainly a natural tendency to congregate with similar people (although, in my school, it was more by nationality than race). This was probably even more pronounced in situations where there was a language barrier. But, for the most part, those groupings were pretty loose and intermingling was common.

From the administrator side, I also heard from a reader who says he’s worked in diversity education and cross-cultural student development for nearly 30 years, including acting as director of the multicultural center at Mizzou until 2013:

Colleges are reflective of the demographic diversity of their respective regions. So for most Predominantly White Institutions (PWI), diverse students tend to be isolated when the local demography limits their access to others of similar background to themselves (ethnic/racial, religious, socio-economic, etc.).

This isolation can be mitigated when students meet people of similar backgrounds, they will then get together in SELF-PRESERVATION, not really segregation (Segregation was a legal discriminatory system that ensured one population had both legal and economic domination over another population). They are seeking a cultural connection that allows them to lower their guard and not have to be weary of the microaggressions that they face daily.

So in institutions that are PWI, the campuses try very hard to help students who may feel isolated to develop friendships with others of similar backgrounds who they can let their guard down with and feel safe.

He also wrote about dialogue programs and credit requirements at some schools to emphasize “cross-cultural competency development,” but I wanted to hear more about university efforts to match students with others who come from similar backgrounds. When I followed up, our reader expanded a bit on that:

Some of the programs that do this are specific diversity orientations. At Mizzou, my office hosted the Asian American and Hispanic American fall orientations. At University of California Riverside, they actually have a Middle Eastern Student Center. At UIUC, they are building a multimillion dollar Multicultural Center to house all the current diversity resource centers as well as the different ethnic studies programs.

He mentioned a host of regional and national conferences for students of various ethnic groups. “These efforts were usually started by student leaders who felt isolation on their campuses because they had few peers,” he wrote. “Most of the campuses (at least in the Midwest) provide financial support to help students get to these conferences. At the conferences, they see that their isolation experience is not uncommon and learn how to advocate for their issues.”

A recent Duke grad also mentioned orientation programs like the ones at Mizzou, which he found useful for making friends but cited the potential for further separation:

In an attempt to draw minority students to Duke, special weekends are prepared to highlight Duke’s diversity programming. During the first week of freshmen year, as anxious students are clamoring to meet new friends, they naturally are attracted to acquaintances and friends they’ve met beforehand.

For me, it was my old friends I had met at a summer program before my senior year. For minority students, it is the other students they met at their minority-focused weekends. These weekends succeed in creating a more “diverse” community at Duke, but they might also create a more segregated Duke.

What else have you seen work on campuses? We’re thinking mostly about the social spaces of the college experience. Send me a note at hello@theatlantic.com if you have something you think others might benefit from.