Students encounter a new level of diversity on campus. How do they learn from it?
You’d expect to experience culture shock while traveling the world, but going to university?
“Culture shock can catch some UBC students by surprise,” says Alden Habacon, UBC’s Director of Intercultural Understanding Strategy Development. Given the noticeably large numbers of international and Canadian-born visible minority students, arriving on campus can be especially shocking for students who come from rural, more homogenous communities.
“Other universities are still trying to bring diversity to their schools,” says Habacon. “UBC’s Vancouver campus is already a multicultural place, but merely having contact with diversity isn’t enough.”
Habacon’s job is to make UBC’s diversity more meaningful for students, faculty, staff and alumni.
“One-third of UBC students are of Chinese descent,” says Habacon. ?“Does that mean that the other two-thirds of our students leave UBC with a better understanding of what it means to be of Chinese descent in the world?”
Habacon was appointed last October, one month before the publication of a controversial Maclean’s article, originally titled “Too Asian?” The article sparked debates across the country about the ability of universities to create communities where students from different backgrounds can work together and “hang out” in inclusive circles of friends.
The Maclean’s article framed the issue around groups of students from different ethnic backgrounds but Habacon’s definition of culture goes beyond ethnic boundaries.
“The factors that influence a person’s cultural identity the most are often where they have lived, who their partner is, their education and their work,” says Habacon. “The biggest cultural differences among many UBC students aren’t ethnic, but whether they are from a rural or urban community and whether they live on campus or commute.”
Habacon has been gathering information from meetings and focus groups with students, faculty and staff. He’s found that people commonly complain about two things on campus: that UBC is a difficult place to make friends, and that we are “bad at high-risk conversations” on issues like racism, abortion and religion—or don’t have them all.
Habacon believes the university needs designated “neutral spaces” where high-risk conversations can take place and where such dialogues are supported by trained facilitators. He envisions a UBC where people with a diversity of opinions can take part in a discussion and come away, not in agreement, but with a greater understanding of varying perspectives of complex issues.
Ultimately, Habacon says students themselves will drive change in campus dynamics. He believes students want to go to a university for an intercultural experience—not just the classes—and want to experience the maximum benefit of a diverse campus.
“For me, a good measure of success would be to hear that students at UBC are building circles of friends from all over the world,” says Habacon.
To get involved, contribute or share ideas or concerns, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Students can also connect with their AMS representatives and Students Services.