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Building a Community
After 30 years in college admission, I am still surprised by how challenging it is to explain to prospective parents and students the art and science of college admissions.
Most would love nothing more than to be given a set of specific numbers by which to measure oneself.
- What GPA do you need to get in?
- What are your average SAT scores?
- Will being in the honors program at my school give me an edge?
- Is my school considered better than the one down the street?
- How many AP courses do you need?
Of course every institution has a response that will reflect the general standards for admission. It’s in the “behind the scenes” consideration of each person that is greater than people think. And the objective is larger than any one person. It is, in a word, diversity.
Diversity, in all of its manifestations, matters more than anyone might think.
Think about how much further we grow when we are provided the opportunity to experience difference or change through exposure to another point of view or another way of living.
Think about it this way:
Each fall, 950 18-year-olds arrive on our campus from various backgrounds — but often limited in personal experience and exposure by the community and school environment in which they have lived and learned.
Most of them have lived in perhaps one or two communities during their formative years. Many have grown up with the same peers from kindergarten through high school. They’ve formed friendships through mutual interests rather than understood differences. Their parents’ values and customs are most likely the ones that shape their world view.
Now: think about a classroom discussion that is fueled not only by the lessons provided by the professor but even more so by the dialogue that takes place. People from different backgrounds interact, giving context and contrast.
Add to that classroom experience the rich opportunity to grow when differences converge in residence halls, athletic teams, clubs, community service, group work.
Rural, suburban, and urban American students from all over the country mix with overseas students from vastly different cultures. The deeply religious live with the unaffiliated and atheist. Classes, political leanings, race and ethnicity, gender and other differences mingle in a shared educational mission and living situation — hopefully, one in which discovery and respect for differences can flower.
There is also the experience of friendships. Students working and living together form attachments that allow them to see other points of view. They develop their own core values and beliefs through the interaction with people from different walks of life and who have taken different paths than they have.
For many, college will be life-changing. As a business school, we want our students to have experiences that will reflect their future life in the work force. In an ever-more-globalizing world, fostering shared objectives in a diverse setting is perhaps the most valuable lesson they will learn.
It’s a dramatic journey. The dialogue that takes place in and out of the classroom can be amazingly enriching as students arrive as 18-year-old kids and leave as adults four years later. It is indeed transformative when you welcome with open arms the opportunities to step outside the world as you have known it for 18 years.
Sure, when I sit on the stage at freshman convocation, looking out at the new freshman class, I can recount the statistics that summarize the collective achievements of the students in front of me.
Really, though, my mind wanders to the excitement I feel knowing these 18-year-olds are only on Day 1 of the most transformative years of their lives.
And sure, they are wondering about how smart the student is to their left or right, wondering how their grades and scores would stack up. But I know they will discover that — while the faculty will help develop and push their intellectual capacity — it is the other students all around them that will help them develop their full potential as human beings and members of society.
The opportunity to experience and mature through diversity can be the catalyst to a fulfilling and productive life at work and in the community. It’s the real beginning of the rest of their lives.
If I were asked to give just one piece of advice to parents and students, it would be this: ask less about the statistics and more about the values of an institution. Genuine diversity, embedded with other strong values, creates one of the best experiences a university can offer.
Joann C. McKenna is Vice President for Enrollment Management at Bentley University.
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