The power of diversity

What CWRU is really teaching

Abby Armato, What CWRU is really teaching

Registering for classes last semester, I was a little bitter about my computer freezing for 10 minutes. Frustrated, I sought for classes that were not filled and stumbled upon COGS 317: Cultural Diversity. The description seemed promising, plus it was taught by one of my favorite cognitive science professors (a statement made for the sake of honesty, not to suck up on the off-chance she reads this).

As its name would suggest, Cultural Diversity is built around empirical studies of differences in cognition, based on cultural differences. We spend our hour and 15 minutes with a peer review journal article or two focused on aspects of diversity like language, gender and race. Usually I leave the class with more questions than answers, but that’s never a bad thing.

If COGS 317 has taught me anything, it’s that cultural diversity is hard. Maybe this is everyday-common-household knowledge, but my mind was blown. I had always thought that if we all just try hard enough to get along, we will. Admittedly, this thought looks naive in print. Shame on me and my optimistic tendencies, I guess. Despite my previous beliefs, actually merging cultures together is quite difficult. Our culture shapes our cognition, the way we think and interact with the world. Which means, if we were to hypothetically bring a bunch of people from a bunch of different cultures and put them all in a hypothetical place like a college campus, their minds would process things differently because of the culture they grew up in.

This concept sounds pretty simple, right? We already know that nature and nurture both play a role in how we function as human beings. The mind-blown part of this idea is the extent of the role of nurture, culture, if you will. For example, one recent study looked at the differences between race and visual attention. The researchers used East Asians and Caucasian Westerners and a Navon figure (a large letter made out of different, smaller letters) to see how each race would respond to the visual cue.

The results showed that East Asians most often found the larger letter, suggesting a strong global advantage in attention, whereas Caucasians Westerners saw the little letters more often, implying a more local advantage in attention. What does this mean? It means that culture can affect cognition to a crazy extent, can make us more likely to see the details or the overall picture.

With all these subtle differences in cognition created by our culture, it seems like an impossible endeavor to mix all these differences in one community. Of course, it is necessary to learn how to interact with people from different cultures, especially as the world becomes smaller and more intertwined. But bringing culturally different people together is still a struggle, at least in the beginning. Despite this challenge, Case Western Reserve University tries to do just this. There is no denying that CWRU is proud to value diversity. This was honestly one of the reasons I came to CWRU. Here, the cultural diversity is not just in ethnicity but also in gender, community and ideology. The idea of having a safe place where so many differences can come together very much appealed to me.

CWRU, like any diverse college, must find a way to bridge the gap between cultural differences. A friend of mine put the ways very simply: “You either learn about the differences and celebrate them or find the commonalities and ignore the differences.” In his personal opinion, CWRU does a great job at the latter but falls short with the former. While I think it’d be interesting to discuss this idea further with him, I do think it’s fair to say that CWRU at least makes an effort to teach and celebrate differences.

I’m thinking about the cultural nights at Leutner Commons. Whether it’s Native American night or Mediterranean night, Bon Appétit attempts to bring aspects of different cultures to the community. Of course there’s Juniper Residential College, whose tagline is “Knowledge Through Multiculturalism,” a bold statement on the level to which CWRU prides itself on diversity. While one of my friends said he signed up for Juniper because he didn’t feel like he’d fit in any other residential college, he assured me “every kind of people” was living in his building.

And what about the different clubs on campus? I remember walking through the Activities Fair during orientation week and, despite not being Middle Eastern, the Middle Eastern Cultural Association being very happy to add me to the email list. Or, during MLK week, the African American Society who had brilliant presentations to discuss history and culture with the greater CWRU community.

Cultural diversity can be challenging to overcome. Because it manifests itself in ways we are not even consciously aware of, finding ways to bring people from different cultures together can be a tough hinderance to overcome. On a college campus, where collaboration is a necessity, being able to either celebrate the differences or find the similarities is imperative. While there may be some discrepancies in the community as to whether or not differences in cultural are fully integrated, I do appreciate CWRU’s effort at making our campus a diverse and accepting community.

Abby Armato is a first-year student currently majoring in English and anthropology. When she is not freaking out about impending adulthood, she enjoys various strokes of creativity, determination and passion.