Santa Clara University


The Big Q

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Living Situations

Monday, Aug. 22, 2011

 Best student comment wins a $50 Amazon Gift Certificate. Responses must be received by midnight August 29, 2011


With his acceptance to his first-choice school, a medium-sized private university far from his hometown, Mo gets a package of information about his options for dorm living. He’s heard a lot about the various Residential Learning Communities on campus, each of which focuses on a different theme. As an African American, Mo is interested in exploring his racial and cultural identity, so he’s drawn to the African American–themed dorm, United. But then he wonders whether living in United will limit his interactions with students from other communities. He doesn’t want to be defined entirely by being African American, but he also doesn’t want to feel isolated in a dorm where there may be no other African American students.

Should Mo choose the United dorm knowing it may allow him the best chance to explore his ethnic identity, or should he opt for another residence hall where the dorm’s theme may attract a wider variety of students?

Some resources you may find useful:

A Framework for Ethical Decision Making 

The Impact of Diversity on College Students

Why Does Diversity Matter in College Anyways?


Photo by Derek Severson available under Attribution- Non Commercial- No Derivs License.


Comments Comments

Kristyn said on Aug 22, 2011
I understand Mo's dilemma as I am a Black female attending SCU, a private university where only 4-5% of the entire student body identifies themselves as African-American or Black. Mo's opportunity to live in "United" reminds me of Stanford University's "Ujamaa", a real "Black dorm". I don't think living in United (or Ujamaa) for that matter will limit a student's perspective. If anything, it could help broaden it. Black people are more diverse than some may realize. Some Blacks have strong ties to Africa as their families are from countries like Nigeria or Ethiopia. Others are descendants of slaves and know no other home than the US. And others still, are multiracial. Black students who live on campuses across the nation are already at a disadvantage in that there aren't many other students like themselves. I've been in private schools all my life and can say there's a difference between being the only Black girl in class in high school and being the only Black girl in class in college. This is because in high school, I would go to class for 6 or 7 hours and then go home to my family where there would be people of my same background who could understand and relate to my experiences in a way that my non-Black classmates couldn't. In college, I go to class for a few hours and then go home to a residence hall. Living on campus away from your family is already a challenge. Living on campus away from people of your same culture is even harder. Having residence halls and dorms centered around unity that bring together students of similar backgrounds is comforting when you're a student in an unfamiliar place with people who mostly come from backgrounds other than your own. Mo will only limit his interactions if he doesn't branch out and try other things that his campus has to offer him. If he plans on staying holed up in United all day, then yes, he will be limited. However, if takes advantage of the resources his school has to offer him and joins clubs or sports and gets involved, he will end up befriending people of various backgrounds who also share something in common with him and will have a well-rounded college experience. - Like - 5 people like this.
Erik Nook said on Aug 23, 2011
Unfortunately, social situations like this have no magic solution that will make everyone unconditionally accepting and identity affirming, but I believe that actions and conversations that encourage people to be this way can indeed build a future that resembles this goal. To me, even if spaces are historically black or white, these divisions don't necessarily need to be perpetuated. Mo's choice of residence *doesn't* need to define the race of his social circle. Intelligent deconstruction of the constructed social color boundaries is only a dose of courage away. Mo could reach out, bringing White students into the black spaces so they become educated allies, devoted to demolishing inequality, and he can bring himself and other black students into the white spaces to do the same in the opposite direction *regardless of where he lives.* This would allow him to explore the issues central to his racial identity while gaining allies, breaking down barriers and not bowing to the social norm of racial self-segregation. We are lucky enough to be nearing the time when there is the political, academic and social support to ensure that the color of our skin doesn't need to define the color of our friends, and continuing to work for this goal will require courage, patience and care for those who are different from us. To adapt the words of Ghandi - together we can be the change we wish to see in the world. - Like - 2 people like this.
Ariel Newman said on Aug 25, 2011
If Mo is attracted to the United dorm option because he wants to explore his ethnic identity, chances are many other students will be attracted tot hat dorm for the same reason. College is full of diversity. Even if the dorm will be all African American, his classes and most of the clubs on campus will be filled with people from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. Even if he chooses the African American-themed dorm, he will in no way be limiting his interactions. There are many other things on campus to be involved in. - Like - 2 people like this.
Laryssa said on Aug 26, 2011
While it may be said that a student can find diversity in his or her relationships outside of the dorm, such as in classes or student groups, I have found that dorm life really defines most students. Dorms offer friendship, listening ears, study groups, classmates, and social activities, and many students find them convenient ways to interact with others. In my experience, most of my friends were from my dorm - we spent so much time living around each other that it was natural for us to eat meals, walk to class, and attend social events together. Also, if Mo were to choose to live in a residence hall that may attract a larger variety of students, there is no doubt that he would be able to find an African American presence on campus if he wanted. Many campuses offer African American student unions, fraternities, and other student groups that would allow him to explore his heritage. My advice to Mo is to choose a different dorm to have the possibility of having friends from all walks of life, and to explore other African American student groups that may be more suitable to him. Good luck! - Like - 3 people like this.
Deepti said on Aug 28, 2011
If Mo is interested in exploring his identity by living in ethnic-themed housing, he should. One facet of being a member of a minority group is the experience of seeing your own culture and traditions constantly on the sidelines rather than in the mainstream. Minorities often feel surrounded by the dominant culture to the point of being completely distanced from their own traditions. As a member of a minority group myself, I've personally experienced feelings of insecurity and confusion about my identity, associated with living outside my own Indian culture. While this is common among minorities in general, it's especially difficult for minority students on college campuses. At home, they're at least able to practice their cultural traditions within their families. At college, this isn't possible, and they often feel isolated. Ethnic-themed housing offers them the opportunity to explore their roots within the context of a diverse university setting. While ethnic dorms give preference to members of minority groups, they also house other students. In this way, I think, these dorms nicely affirm the value of minority cultures. They become a resource for students of all races and ethnicities, allowing anyone on campus to explore the traditions of various minority groups. I'd see it as a problem if Mo were to live in ethnic housing and never reach out to students of other races. But if he were to explore his culture within his dorm while also forming relationships and friendships with people outside it, he'd have a good chance of developing a secure sense of identity, which, ideally, should happen during college. - Like - 1 person likes this.
Cameron said on Aug 28, 2011
In small to medium-sized schools, it becomes very easy to hang out with the same people all day, every day. As in high school, cliques form, and once you are a part of one, it is extremely hard to separate yourself and branch out. Some people are comfortable with this; others prefer to have a larger group of friends who don't all necessarily know each other. One problem I have with ethnic-themed dorms is that they tend to create cliques that are hard to break away from. Mo should absolutely take every opportunity to explore his racial identity, but he should be wary of limiting himself. If he truly doesn't want to be defined solely by his race, Mo has to make sure, if he joins United, that he reaches out to other communities. Overall, I am not a fan of ethnic-themed dorms. I think they promote stereotyping, self-imposed segregation, and prejudice. Granted, I am white so it's hard for me to imagine being a minority in a school community. Even so, I think these dorms separate different races from each other, making the minority status of some even more prominent. It sounds clichéd, but honestly, my friends' race does not matter to me. Their ethnicity is appreciated, respected, and noted, but it's not applicable to how I treat them. That's what happens when you integrate properly. To me, ethnic-themed dorms slow this process significantly, despite the good they do in allowing people to explore their own culture. - Like - 2 people like this.
David DeCosse said on Aug 28, 2011
College is about books, no doubt. But it's also about people. In fact, it may be the time in life where we encounter at close range more people of different background than at any other time. Even walking across many college campuses already exposes you to a wider variety of humanity than exists in most neighborhoods where you grew up. Then, in classes and in the dining hall, you may get to know some of this variety of people. There's nothing like hearing in class the honest, well-put thoughts of someone whom you otherwise might never speak to. "Wow," you think, "That person is really interesting. I never even considered that way of seeing things." Many ethicists speak about the importance of what is called the "moral imagination" or the capacity to place ourselves in the shoes of others to try to see life as they see it. Certainly, books and plays and films can help stir the moral imagination. But there's nothing like a living, breathing - and different - human being right in front of you to invite you to imagine other ways of seeing life. You might stretch yourself to live in a dorm with such a person. You might just pursue a conversation with her after class about something that she said that opened your mind. Or, best of all, you might become friends. - Like - 1 person likes this.
A said on Aug 29, 2011
Essentially, Mo wishes to explore his racial cultural identity without having his living situation completely define him or isolate him from other experiences. I think what it ultimately comes down to is Mo's personal preferences. It sounds like Mo is likely coming from a high school where African American students were not the majority and he hopes to have the opportunity to better explore his cultural identity in college. Yes, the social aspect of college is important, but ultimately the academic aspect of college is why we are here. If Mo feels that he might be uncomfortable in an RLC different from United then I would say he should pick United. If he feels that he could do well in a non cultural RLC I would say he should pick that option and become an active member of the African American Students club on campus or even take an African American studies class to better explore his cultural identity. - Like - 1 person likes this.
Miriam Schulman said on Aug 29, 2011
Not only did this week's Big Q describe a tough choice--a freshman who must decide whether to live in a racially-themed dorm--but also the really high level of the comments this week presented us with a tough choice. From the well-argued opinions above, it's clear that there's no obvious answer to Mo's dilemma. For some creative thinking on the subject, the $50 gift certificate goes to Erik. - Like - 1 person likes this.
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