August 20, 2018

Social Networks and Diversity in College

Colby (1)By Colby King

With the beginning of another fall semester, I have been thinking about the opportunities college presents to students. If you are a student who is working to make the most of your opportunities on campus, you may very reasonably be focused on earning good grades, or on avoiding accumulating much loan debt. But, I want to underscore a particular opportunity that college presents to students that I hope you do not overlook: the opportunity build a diverse social network.

I have been thinking about these issues because last spring, I was chosen as the recipient of Bridgewater State University’s Honors Outstanding Faculty Award. This was a really nice honor, and as part of the award I was interviewed for the Honors Program student blog, The Paw. In that interview I was asked about what advice I might have for students. I drew on my responses in that interview, and the speech I gave for that award in writing this essay. You can see the whole interview on the blog here.

I think about social network diversity for college students, because I see it is part of the hidden, or covert, curriculum of college. It is not always said explicitly, but the opportunity to create new social relationships, whether through group projects in class, or extracurricular activities, or just socializing in the cafeteria or in the commuter lounge, is an important part of what you will take with you when you graduate.

As I’ve discussed before, social and cultural capital can be critical resources for success, in baseball, in college, and in life more broadly. Additionally, Sally Raskoff explained a while back, the social relationships you make at school might help you in the future. She noted:

Going to school, whether it is kindergarten through high school or college, generates a potential to build both social capital and cultural capital. How do we build social capital? We belong to groups and networks, some of which we may not even be aware.

When I was a student in college, I remember taking a cultural anthropology class and reading about gift-giving norms in different cultures. At the same time, I was getting to know students from different cultural backgrounds, and I learned about how their holiday celebrations differed from my family’s traditions. Each of these experiences contributed to a light bulb moment when I realized, “Oh, there’s more than one way a society can do things.”

The diversity of college campuses makes these light bulb moments possible for all students. Students engage with different and difficult ideas that challenge common sense understandings and sharpen critical thinking. These conversations can be challenging and difficult, but they are critical to your education. The same holds for different relationships with different people as well.

We know that racial and social class segregation are seemingly entrenched in residential patterns across the U.S., but college can be a place where we make connections across those differences. Diversity enriches lives. As Bonnie Erickson noted in Contexts:

Knowing many kinds of people in many social contexts improves one’s chances of getting a good job, developing a range of cultural interests, feeling in control of one’s life and being healthy. … the critical matter is the variety of acquaintances and not the mere number.

I have included Erickson’s essay in my Introduction to Sociology classes since it was published, because I realized that for many of my students, their time on campus may be the best opportunity they’ll have to build a diverse social network.

Not only is the variety of the kinds of people in your network valuable, but the quality of these relationships can vary as well. As Bonnie Erickson makes clear in her essay, it’s the variety of acquaintance relationships that can be particularly valuable. You do not need to become best friends with every person on campus to meaningfully diversify your social network. But, how many acquaintances from class would feel comfortable asking you a question about homework? This could translate into who would tell you about a relevant job opening after graduation.

Variety, or diversity, does not just mean racial diversity. It means diversity across all kinds of characteristics. For many students, college is the most diverse social experience they will have in life. You will likely take classes with people from different generations, different social class positions, different religious backgrounds, different countries, or even different favorite professional sports teams.

At a school populated by people with diverse experiences and perspectives, you are being challenged to engage with different ideas from a variety of disciplines, and different perspectives from other’s experiences. The variety of perspectives that you and your fellow students bring to campus enliven classroom discussions and enrich your educational experience. And practicing communicating what you’re learning across those differences is also an essential skill that helps you make the most of your degree. So, I encourage students to value this diversity, by being sure to bring in and support diverse perspectives in your studies, and carry that on in your social life.

Of course, it is easier for some students to build diverse networks than others. Time commitments, social disposition, social privileges, and other circumstances shape these opportunities. This is why so many on and off-campus organizations working to support student success make diverse student social networks part of their mission. This is why I include group discussion and collaborative work in all of my classes, and I make class time available to facilitate group work that I assign. That way, even students with off-campus jobs and other constraints on their outside of class time have the opportunity to build new connections. This is also why I encourage students who are active on Twitter and other social media sites to #followfirstgenerationacademics.

At a time when some argue that we are sorting not just by race or class, but also by culture and politics, I mean to encourage you to develop diverse social networks not just because that variety has value to you. Diverse networks also become pathways for understanding and empathy, while also functioning as mechanisms that frustrate processes of social closure. I’m reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed. In the still relevant documentary People Like Us, Ehrenreich says that she would not want to be “stuck in an upper middle class ghetto with all my friends being the same sort of people. And smug about where we’ve gotten to or something. I feel deprived to live in a society that is so segregated by class.” Her point was both that a segregated life is boring, and also that if we don’t build connections between our various social spaces, we will misunderstand each other more and more.

So, make the most of the opportunity to build relationships with people you wouldn’t have had the opportunity to if you weren’t a student at the school you’re now a student at. But also practice sharing what you are learning with folks outside of college. Being able to communicate what you are learning with others, especially those off campus, is an important skill in itself, and it will also reaffirm the value of your education for both you and your community.

Comments

No man is an Island! The more friends the happier we become. Thanks Colby!

Very helpful advice in this particular post! It’s the little changes that make the largest changes. Thanks for sharing!

I totally agree with this. I love attending college and meeting new people. When I meet new people I feel as if I can learn something new from them.

Great take, Professor Norton. I'm a first generation college student and your point are especially valuable to my own perspective, given the fact that I do not have the ability to leverage my familial relationships and connections to advance professionally. The connections I have made in college have made a marked difference on the direction in which I have been traveling towards career success, and social success. I have learned more about myself, and others, from being immersed in this educational context. It truly is something that is invaluable.

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