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A Scholar Revisits Study of Campus Diversity 2 Decades Later

In 2005, Elizabeth Aries started work on a book that chronicled what 58 first-year Amherst College students—Black and white, affluent and lower income—learned from racial and class diversity. Her study, which references other groups but doesn’t focus on them, emphasized the value of campus diversity at elite colleges. Her work was published as Race and Class Matters at an Elite College (Temple University Press). Four years later, Aries interviewed the same students about their diversity experiences as they graduated. Now she has re-interviewed her participants to see how and to what extent race and class continue to play a role as they move into adulthood.

The results appear in The Impact of College Diversity: Struggles and Successes at Age 30, also published by Temple. In the book, Aries, the Clarence Francis 1910 Professor in Social Science at Amherst, outlines how and why affirmative action matters not just in the admissions decisions of colleges, but in the experiences of Black and white students to age 30.

Aries concludes her study with a discussion of why elite colleges have been beneficial in promoting upward mobility in lower-income students, and the importance of achieving equity and inclusion in making diversity initiatives successful.

She answered questions via email.

Q: Why did you pick 30 as the age of your research subjects?

A: Markers of adulthood such as leaving home, marriage and parenthood are occurring at later ages than they did 50 years ago. Psychological research has shown that for most college graduates, the decade [of] the 20s has become a distinct period of development before adulthood is reached. These years are marked by continued identity exploration; exploration of job options; possible graduate school enrollment; changes of residence; fluctuations between being single, dating and cohabitation before committing to marriage; and a focus on self-development. For most by age 30, this period of instability ends and people feel they have reached adulthood. Thus, I waited to do my follow-up interviews until my participants were age 30 and would be at the end of this transitional period and the beginning of their adult years.

Q: What were your major findings?

A: At age 30, 81 percent of the Black and white Amherst graduates in my study reported having learned about race and racism through their regular interactions with college classmates of a different race. Hearing about Black classmates’ lived experiences of race opened the eyes of white graduates to the harm of racial prejudice and discrimination that their Black classmates had endured, and heightened their awareness of their own racial privilege.

Through experiences with racism on campus, Black graduates acquired coping strategies to deal with racial prejudice. As a small minority, they learned how to be comfortable when they found themselves to be the only Black person in the room. They also learned to be bicultural—to be attentive to and adjust their presentation and behavior in order to fit in and be successful in a predominantly white environment. These skills helped enable their success in facing racism in the predominantly white work world they had entered.

Read entire article at Inside Higher Ed