Daniella Washington
Education, Higher Education
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Community College / Lower Division
  • Counseling
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  • Santa Monica College
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    Diversity and Cultural Competency

    Diversity and Cultural Competency


    Diversity: the art of thinking independently together. —Malcolm Forbes, entrepreneur, founder of Forbes magazine


    By the end of this section, you will be able to:

    • Define diversity and identify many aspects of diversity
    • Differentiate between surface diversity and deep diversity, and explain the relationship between the two
    • Define and apply principles of cultural competency
    • Explore the positive effects of diversity in an educational setting

    Diversity and Cultural Competency

    Diversity and Cultural Competency


    Cultural diversity is found everywhere in college, and it should be respected, appreciated, and celebrated. To be successful as a college student, it is critical that you understand and can describe your own diverse background. Being self-aware allows you to identify what makes you who you are while recognizing the differences that exist between you, other students, your professors, and all the members of a campus community. This section will discuss the factors that make up a person’s culture and how one can effectively communicate and work with people who may be different. You will also learn about aspects of a college culture in order to successfully navigate this new world.


    Diversity: the art of thinking independently together.

    Malcolm Forbes, entrepreneur, founder of Forbes magazine


    What Is Diversity?

    There are few words in the English language that have more diverse interpretations than diversity. What does diversity mean? Better yet—what does diversity mean to you? And what does it mean to your best friend, your teacher, your parents, your religious leader, or the person standing behind you in a grocery store?

    For each of us, diversity has unique meaning. Below are a few of the many definitions offered by college students at a 2010 conference on the topic of diversity. Which of these definitions rings out to you as most accurate and thoughtful? Which definitions could use some embellishment or clarification, in your opinion?

      Diversity is a group of people who are different in the same place.

    Diversity to me is the ability for differences to coexist together, with some type of mutual understanding or acceptance present. Acceptance of different viewpoints is key.

    Tolerance of thought, ideas, people with differing viewpoints, backgrounds, and life experiences. Anything that sets one individual apart from another.

    People with different opinions, backgrounds (degrees and social experience), religious beliefs, political beliefs, sexual orientations, heritage, and life experience.


    Having a multitude of people from different backgrounds and cultures together in the same environment working for the same goals.

    Difference in students’ background, especially race and gender.

    Differences in characteristics of humans.

    Diversity is a satisfying mix of ideas, cultures, races, genders, economic statuses and other characteristics necessary for promoting growth and learning among a group.

    Diversity is the immersion and comprehensive integration of various cultures, experiences, and people. Heterogeneity brings about opportunities to share, learn and grow from the journeys of others. Without it, limitations arise and knowledge is gained in the absence of understanding.

    Diversity is not tolerance for difference but inclusion of those who are not the majority. It should not be measured as a count or a fractionthat is somehow demeaning. Success at maintaining diversity would be when we no longer ask if we are diverse enough, because it has become the norm, not remarkable.[1]

    Diversity means different things to people, and it can be understood differently in different environments. In the context of your college experience, diversity generally refers to people around you who differ by race, culture, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, abilities, opinions, political views, and in other ways. When it comes to diversity on the college campus, we also think about how groups interact with one another, given their differences (even if they are just perceived differences.) How do diverse populations experience and explore their relationships?

    More and more organizations define diversity really broadly,” says Eric Peterson, who works on diversity issues for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Really, it’s any way any group of people can differ significantly from another group of peopleappearance, sexual orientation, veteran status, your level in the organization. It has moved far beyond the legally protected categories that weve always looked at.[2]

    These are just some of the types of diversity you are likely to encounter on college campuses and in our society generally. In the following video, students from Juniata College describe what diversity means to them and explain why it’s an important aspect of their college experience.

    Empowering Conversations: Diversity and Inclusion at Juniata College


    Surface Diversity and Deep Diversity

    Surface diversity and deep diversity are categories of personal attributes—or differences in attributes—that people perceive to exist between people or groups of people.

    Surface-level diversity refers to differences you can generally observe in others, like ethnicity, race, gender, age, culture, language, disability, etc. You can quickly and easily observe these features in a person. And people often do just that, making subtle judgments at the same time, which can lead to bias or discrimination. For example, if a teacher believes that older students perform better than younger students, she may give slightly higher grades to the older students than the younger students. This bias is based on a perception of the attribute of age, which is surface-level diversity.

    Deep-level diversity, on the other hand, reflects differences that are less visible, like personality, attitude, beliefs, and values. These attributes are generally communicated verbally and non-verbally, so they are not easily noticeable or measurable. You may not detect deep-level diversity in a classmate, for example, until you get to know him or her, at which point you may find that you are either comfortable with these deeper character levels, or perhaps not. But once you gain this deeper level of awareness, you may focus less on surface diversity. For example, at the beginning of a term, a classmate belonging to a minority ethnic group whose native language is not English (surface diversity) may be treated differently by fellow classmates in another ethnic group. But as the term gets underway, classmates begin discovering the person’s values and beliefs (deep-level diversity), which they find they are comfortable with. The surface-level attributes of language and perhaps skin color become more “transparent” (less noticeable) as comfort is gained with deep-level attributes.

    The following video is a quick summary of the differences between surface-level and deep-level diversity. (link:

    As we’ll use the term here, diversity refers to the great variety of human characteristics—ways that we are different even as we are all human and share more similarities than differences. These differences are an essential part of what enriches humanity. Aspects of diversity may be cultural, biological, or personal in nature. Diversity generally involves things that may significantly affect some people’s perceptions of others—not just any way people happen to be different. For example, having different tastes in music, movies, or books is not what we usually refer to as diversity.

    When discussing diversity, it is often difficult to avoid seeming to generalize about different types of people—and such generalizations can seem similar to dangerous stereotypes. The following descriptions are meant only to suggest that individuals are different from other individuals in many possible ways and that we can all learn things from people whose ideas, beliefs, attitudes, values, backgrounds, experiences, and behaviors are different from our own. This is a primary reason college admissions departments frequently seek diversity in the student body. Following are various aspects of diversity:

    • Race: Race refers to what we generally think of as biological differences and is often defined by what some think of as skin color. Such perceptions are often at least as much social as they are biological.
    • Ethnicity: Ethnicity is a cultural distinction that is different from race. Ethnic groups share a common identity and a perceived cultural heritage that often involves shared ways of speaking and behaving, religion, traditions, and other traits. The term “ethnic” also refers to such a group that is a minority within the larger society. Race and ethnicity are sometimes interrelated but not automatically so.
    • Cultural background: Culture, like ethnicity, refers to shared characteristics, language, beliefs, behaviors, and identity. We are all influenced by our culture to some extent. While ethnic groups are typically smaller groups within a larger society, the larger society itself is often called the “dominant culture.” The term is often used rather loosely to refer to any group with identifiable shared characteristics.
    • Educational background: Colleges do not use a cookie-cutter approach to admit only students with identical academic skills. A diversity of educational background helps ensure a free flow of ideas and challenges those who might become set in their ways.
    • Geography: People from different places within the United States or the world often have a range of differences in ideas, attitudes, and behaviors.
    • Socioeconomic background: People’s identities are influenced by how they grow up, and part of that background involves socioeconomic factors. Socioeconomic diversity can contribute to a wide variety of ideas and attitudes.
    • Gender roles: Women hold virtually all professional and social roles, including those once dominated by men, and men have taken on many roles, such as raising a child, that were formerly occupied mostly by women. These changing roles have brought diverse new ideas and attitudes to college campuses.
    • Gender identity: Gender identity is one’s personal experience of one’s own gender. Gender identity can correlate with the sex at birth – male or female, or can differ from it completely: males may identify as female or vice versa, or a person may identify as a third gender or as falling somewhere along the continuum between male and female.
    • Age: While younger students attending college immediately after high school are generally within the same age range, older students returning to school bring a diversity of age. Because they often have broader life experiences, many older students bring different ideas and attitudes to the campus.
    • Sexual orientation: Gays and lesbians make up a significant percentage of people in American society and students on college campuses. Exposure to this diversity helps others overcome stereotypes and become more accepting of human differences.
    • Religion: For many people, religion is not just a Sunday morning practice but a larger spiritual force that infuses their lives. Religion helps shape different ways of thinking and behaving.
    • Political views: A diversity of political views helps broaden the level of discourse on campuses concerning current events and the roles of government and leadership at all levels.
    • Physical ability: Some students have athletic talents. Some students have physical disabilities. Physical differences among students bring yet another kind of diversity to colleges—a diversity that both widens opportunities for a college education and also helps all students better understand how people relate to the world in physical as well as intellectual ways.

    Cultural Competency

    As a college student, you are likely to find yourself in diverse classrooms, organizations, and – eventually – workplaces. It is important to prepare yourself to be able to adapt to diverse environments. Cultural competency can be defined as the ability to recognize and adapt to cultural differences and similarities. It involves “(a) the cultivation of deep cultural self-awareness and understanding (i.e., how one’s own beliefs, values, perceptions, interpretations, judgments, and behaviors are influenced by one’s cultural community or communities) and (b) increased cultural other-understanding (i.e., comprehension of the different ways people from other cultural groups make sense of and respond to the presence of cultural differences).”1

    In other words, cultural competency requires you to be aware of your own cultural practices, values, and experiences, and to be able to read, interpret, and respond to those of others. Such awareness will help you successfully navigate the cultural differences you will encounter in diverse environments. Cultural competency is critical to working and building relationships with people from different cultures; it is so critical, in fact, that it is now one of the most highly desired skills in the modern workforce.2

    In the following video, representatives from Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care elaborate on the concept of cultural competency:

    Cultural Competency at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care

    We don’t automatically understand differences among people and celebrate the value of those differences. Cultural competency is a skill that you can learn and improve upon over time and with practice. What actions can you take to build your cultural competency skills?



    • Diversity refers to a great variety of human characteristics and ways in which people differ.
    • Surface-level diversity refers to characteristics you can easily observe, while deep-level diversity refers to attributes that are not visible and must be communicated in order to understand.
    • Cultural competency is the ability to recognize and adapt to cultural differences and similarities.
    • Diverse environments expose you to new perspectives and can help deepen your learning.
    1. Bennett, J. M. (2015). "Intercultural Competence Development." The SAGE Encyclopedia of Intercultural Competence. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. 
    2. Bennett, J. M. (2015). "Intercultural Competence Development." The SAGE Encyclopedia of Intercultural Competence. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. 
    3. "10 Reasons Why We Need Diversity on College Campuses." Center for American Progress. 2016. Web. 2 Feb 2016. 



      • Define and apply principles of cultural competency


      This activity will help you examine ways in which you can develop your awareness of and commitment to diversity on campus. Answer the following questions to the best of your ability:

      • What are my plans for expanding myself personally and intellectually in college?
      • What kind of community will help me expand most fully, with diversity as a factor in my expansion?
      • What are my comfort zones, and how might I expand them to connect with more diverse groups?
      • Do I want to be challenged by new viewpoints, or will I feel more comfortable connecting with people who are like me?
      • What are my biggest questions about diversity?
      • Submit this assignment according to directions from your instructor.

      Consider the following strategies to help you answer the questions:

      • Examine extracurricular activities. Can you get involved with clubs or organizations that promote and expand diversity?
      • Review your college’s curriculum. In what ways does it reflect diversity? Does it have departments and courses on historically unrepresented peoples, e.g., cultural and ethnic studies, and gender and sexuality studies. Look for study-abroad programs, as well.
      • Read your college’s mission statement. Read the mission statement of other colleges. How do they match up with your values and beliefs? How do they align with the value of diversity?
      • Inquire with friends, faculty, colleagues, family. Be open about diversity. What does it mean to others? What positive effects has it had on them? Ask people about diversity.
      • Research can help. You might consult college literature, Web sites, resource centers and organizations on campus, etc.




      • Diversity and Cultural Competency. Authored by: Laura Lucas. Provided by: Austin Community College. LicenseCC BY: Attribution



      • Cultural Competency at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care. Provided by: UBHC Production Studio. Located at Rights ReservedLicense Terms: Standard YouTube License