Branding Diversity in Higher Education
Today, as I reflect on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the USA, I offer some thoughts about diversity in higher education, adapting an earlier post on the subject that was written in the wake of the Arizona immigration law.
It was a Sunday evening early in August years ago. Athletes and student leaders moved in the day before, and one had just arrived unexpectedly. I received a phone call from campus safety and headed to the college.
I met Sam for the first time. He had just arrived after a long flight from Cameroon. He was hungry. So off we went to his first American restaurant. Never having met before, each from a different culture and with different perspectives, we spent about two hours getting to know one another over dinner.
About a week later, after he got settled on campus and with the soccer team, my family and I had the fun experience of going to Disneyland with him. What a joy it was watching him take it all in.
I’ll never forget Sam being mesmerized by The Lion King parade. Now that was something. Homesick for Africa, Sam was finding joy in the sights and sounds of that parade. He had never seen anything like it. Neither had I.
College life has always been a multicultural experience for me. As a professor, I had an ethnically diverse group of students, and a few from other countries like India, Yugoslavia (it was the 1980s), and Japan. As an undergraduate student, I had classmates from Germany, Iran, Japan, Canada, Samoa, etc., along with friends of ethnicity not my own, and from different geographic regions in the United States. My closest friends in college were quite different from me in background, ethnicity and lifestyle.
Then it happened. After suggesting to a friend of mine who is Hispanic that he should ask out a beautiful Hispanic student on campus, I fell for her instead. She became the love of my life, and my world expanded further. Not everyone understood. But we worked it out and attitudes came around. Our wedding was filled with joy as our diverse wedding party and our families from different cultures celebrated our marriage.
Our family grew to four with a son and a daughter, and now includes a son-in-law and granddaughter.
Our world is indeed diverse. My wife and I have been involved in multicultural education, she in highly diverse public elementary and middle schools (administrator), and I in higher education (Hispanic Serving Institution initiative).
Looking back, I am grateful for the positive multicultural experiences I’ve had as an undergraduate student and as a higher education professional that have widened my perspectives, helped shape my worldview, and opened up a new life for me.
Colleges and universities work hard at fostering a supportive diverse community by integrating multicultural perspectives campus wide. Diversity isn’t relegated to a few courses and student affairs policies. Institutions focus on access (students and faculty), curriculum and scholarship, institutional leadership, campus climate, and retention.
But these are only the parts of diversity in higher education. What holds diversity together and makes it a gestalt experience for students, faculty, staff and administration is that it happens in a community.
So, as marketing higher education professionals, how should we brand such a community? How do we show the value of diversity on our campuses, connecting it to alumni, prospective students and their parents, some of whom who may not totally get it?
First, tell stories, just like I did about myself in this post. Don’t just show the obligatory diverse photos. Photos tend to look staged, like you’re not being authentic.
Stories, on the other hand, connect with the heart and touch our shared human experiences. They get beyond race, ethnicity, and creed, and connect the prospect with the story you’re telling.
Also, work on finding ways to capture how your brand is shaped by diversity. Be creative. In a previous post, I wrote about the UCLA campaign, UCLA. Here. Now., in which UCLA used a tagline that communicated their brand culture:
Nobody at UCLA keeps score on who you are, they just want to see what you do.
It’s a wonderful tagline that reminds us of what’s possible creatively as we work to brand our universities.
But what I also love about the tagline is that it essentially says what Martin Luther King, Jr. said so powerfully…
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
May it be so.