Creative Education, 2010, 2, 69-74
doi:10.4236/ce.2010.12011 Published Online September 2010 (
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. CE
The Elephant in the Room: Understanding
Barriers to Students’ Articulation of Diversity
Janice Gasker1, Heather A. Campbell LaBarre2
1Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, Kutztown, USA; 2Lehigh Valley Hospital, Allentown, USA
Received May 11th, 2010; revised July 13th, 2010; accepted July 20th, 2010.
A scholarship competition designed to foster classroom discussion and introspection about diversity had few partici-
pants despite its cash prize. This paper explores undergraduates view of the project via focus groups and reveals sur-
prising depth in students answers to the question of why students did not participate. Analysis uncovered emergent
themes related to emotional discomfort with diversity in general and self reflection in particular. Implications include
the conceptualization of diversity,” teaching methods, and instructors professional development.
Keywords: Undergraduate, Diversity, Higher Education, Cultural Competency
1. Introduction
Vast differences in race, gender, ethnicity and many
other variables increasingly characterize the face of the
university; this diversity is generally seen as both necessary
—due simply to demographics—and desirable—due to
its potential for enhancing intellectual, social and per-
sonal development of students [1]. Unfortunately, neither
the creation of a diverse student body nor education
about diversity is simple. In response to the challenge, a
social work program on a rapidly diversifying campus
developed a scholarship program—The Social Work
Prize: Celebrating Diversity to help undergraduates re-
inforce classroom learning and promote self reflection
about diversity and cultural competence. The contest
charged students to articulate some “celebration” of di-
versity in their own lives, and in return they could win a
cash prize. Given the cash prize, organizers were aston-
ished to find that few students applied for the prize.
Students did not wish to participate, even when a class-
room assignment corresponded exactly to the scholar-
ship’s specifications. Despite student input in tweaking
the prize and refining its marketing to students over a
five year period, each year fewer than ten of the 150-200
undergraduate students applied. Rate of participation
began to be seen as a possible bellwether of students’
comfort with the diversification of the campus and the
curriculum. Consequently, it is the purpose of this paper
to begin to identify the factors related to student partici-
pation in the prize in the hopes of identifying some edu-
cational characteristics of successful discussion of diver-
2. Literature Review
Issues in “diversity” in higher education curricula and
programming were reviewed. During the project, the
issue of students’ anxiety surrounding diversity became a
clear and significant theme. Consequently, anxiety and
its subsequent resistance in the process of teaching and
learning about diversity were examined as an iterative
inquiry during the interview period. In addition, the
effective pedagogy of diversity became a significant area
of literature review, in part to avoid inadequate discon-
firming evidence [2]. For the purposes of this paper,
“diversity” is understood as it is presented in the primary
textbook used by this group of students: “Diversity refers
to the vast range of differences among people, including
those related to race, ethnicity, cultural background,
place of origin, age, physical and mental ability, spiritu-
ality, values, sexual orientation, and gender” [3].
2.1. Benefits of Campus Diversity
The educational benefits of a diversified campus are now
under legal scrutiny, thus, researchers are beginning to
fully explore the benefits of a diversified campus. Out-
comes may be judged based on economics — graduation
rates and graduates’ income level [4], the analysis of
faculty opinions [5], specific education outcomes [6],
The Elephant in the Room: Understanding Barriers to Students’ Articulation of Diversity
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. CE
and student subjective assessments of interaction [7].
Methods for assessment of students’ perceptions vary,
including self reflection of personal beliefs and expecta-
tions upon entering college and in comparison to senior
year experiences. A meta-analysis conducted by Gurin,
et al. (2002) [7] concluded that whether the method was
retrospective or longitudinal, using different samples and
reporters, a wide variety of benefits to individuals and to
campuses occurred as a result of campus diversification.
A self-report study focused on both interpersonal and
skill-acquisition outcomes followed two cohorts totaling
1, 293 respondents of Asian-American, African- Ameri-
can, and Caucasian-Americans [8]. The first cohort
graduated in 1989 with a diversity composition of 3%
Asian-American, 1% Hispanic, 3% African-American,
and 94% Caucasian-American. The second cohort
graduated in 1994 with the minority population doubled
[8]. The cohorts were questioned on interracial student
interactions, and their alma mater’s contribution to skill
Results suggested that all groups benefited from the
increased diversity; however, Caucasians benefited most
[8]. It is most important to note that the study found a
diverse student body not only increased the likelihood of
same race interactions but an overall development of
skills and academic achievement for all groups [8]. This
study and others [9] support the Gurin et al. (2002) [7]
conclusion that the presence of diverse student combined
with student-student interaction reaps skill and academic
2.2. Pedagogy of Diversity
Another facet of the diversification experience on cam-
puses is education. While it seems self evident that edu-
cation alone will not diversify a campus, diversification
may also be necessary but insufficient. Resistance to
education related to diversity has been manifested in
both students and faculty, even in culturally sensitive
social work programs [10]. Within programs, students
may struggle with a firm definition of diversity, the im-
portance of increased awareness, and knowledge of di-
verse populations while faculty members struggle with
limited knowledge of diverse populations and unpre-
pared class agendas focused on the work related to di-
verse populations [10].
Consequently, it is clear that both institutions and in-
dividual educators bear responsibility for achieving the
benefits associated with the understanding of difference
among people. While the university’s task is diversifica-
tion of the student body, the educator’s challenge is to
create an environment of cultural sensitivity and cultural
competence to confront and overcome tension and resis-
tance. Utilizing the concept of critical pedagogy, Red-
mond (2010) [5] developed structured classroom discus-
sions as ‘safe space’ for articulation of taboo or emotional
topics. Modification of the classroom setting became
necessary when the avoidance of perceived taboo topics
resulted in tension within the classroom. The study iden-
tifies the instructor as a mediator to address issues in the
classroom regardless of personal discomfort [5].
Instructor characteristics and those of the educational
environment conducive to learning and skill building
include diversified classrooms as the forum for developing
sensitivity and skill building. Faculty members who are
comfortable with addressing tension-filled student issues
have been found to be instrumental to student develop-
ment. On the other hand, faculty discomfort in addressing
issues of diversity may strain the classroom setting by
avoiding a teachable moment. Faculty must work intro-
spectively to identify their own identity issues along with
knowledge of the populations they serve in their class-
rooms to create a safe learning environment where it is
possible to confront and discuss tensions. While faculty
members may identify that practices of open discussion
and forums for learning are present, underlying biases
may discourage the faculty member from engaging in
discussions focused on diversity. Garcia & Van Soest
(1997) [11] identified faculty members’ awareness of
personal comfort and recognition of their own diversity
is important to avoid issues of counter-transference. Stu-
dents may be influenced in a negative manner on the
subject of diversity if a faculty member presents a strong
point of view that is in contrast or attempting to correct
student discussion [11]. Encouraging students to be open
and verbalize both strengths and barriers is important to
course planning. Allowing students to develop course-
work may encourage independent learning and articula-
tion of educational needs and barriers. Clear, strengths
based objectives for class room structure in necessary
along with grading focused on learning and quality of
work, not political correctness [10]. Simply identifying
tensions and resistance are typical when covering issues
related to diversity and may inhibit questions by students.
Open discussions regarding why diversity is important
and student rationale for engaging in coursework may
identify tensions that can be addressed and overcome.
Creation of a supportive and proactive learning environ-
ment focused on recognition of student’s efforts to en-
gage in discussions is critical to developing self- recog-
nition and normalization of the learning process [12-16].
In an attempt to create awareness to barriers sur-
rounding the development of culturally competent skills,
Messing (2004) [17] details specific tasks assigned to the
classroom to identify bias and pejorative language. In a
classroom structured activity, undergraduate students in a
multicultural social work course were encouraged to de-
The Elephant in the Room: Understanding Barriers to Students’ Articulation of Diversity
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. CE
velop an understanding of culturally competent practices
through class discussion. Messing (2004) [17] developed
a method to encourage peer feedback and discussion
regarding the use of appropriate, disrespectful, or nega-
tive language. To develop culturally competent, non-
biased language, students were asked to “choose a char-
acteristic or a population with more than one characteris-
tic” and respond to several reflective questions. The
questions elicited responses based on the student’s be-
liefs, current knowledge, and issues or level of discom-
fort. The student submissions were integrated into a
document of statements pulled from each paper with
modifications made to each statement to protect the con-
fidentially of each student as the statements are read
aloud in class. The class is encouraged to rate each
statement (as appropriate, disrespectful, or offensive)
then process the statement. The peer discussion encour-
ages students to be aware of biases and respond to pejo-
rative statements in a safe environment. Messing’s activity
elicited positive responses from students, stating the
activity encouraged awareness to personal biases and the
importance of professional, culturally competent skill.
Awareness of personal bias is only the beginning of
understanding diversity and developing cultural compe-
tence. Mills and Ballentyne (2010) [18] caution that ex-
pectations of change in student attitudes and functioning
should not be too high: a single experience or even a
short course is not likely to carry the students through a
process of change. They suggest that the process moves
from “self awareness / self-reflectiveness” to “openness”
and finally to a “commitment to social justice”. Like-
wise, in a study of 200 undergraduates, Gasker and Va-
feas (2003) [19] found that a course on poverty which
aimed to move students toward a structural explanation
for poverty (i.e. away from blaming the victims of poverty)
was valuable, but that “curriculum-wide effort to provide
this material to students may be beneficial”.
2.3. Literature Review Summary
It appears that the diversification of campuses is benefi-
cial to all concerned, particularly Caucasian students.
Simply increasing numbers of underrepresented groups
does in fact appear to facilitate the understanding of dif-
ference and the development of skills necessary for
improving interpersonal interaction. On the other hand,
simply increasing numbers does not seem to be sufficient
for developing the comfort level required by social work
education to lay the ground-work for developing cultural
competency. Effective teaching and learning seems to
take place over time in situations where educators and
students feel safe enough to risk vulnerability. Identifying
the factors associated with creating this atmosphere of
safety is a subject worthy of study.
3. Methods
Undergraduate students in three sections of a foundation
level social work course and one section of a senior
seminar course were offered the opportunity to partici-
pants in focus groups. Using a convenience sample, par-
ticipants were chosen from “major only” courses that had
a diversity assignment component. That is, all partici-
pants had been required to complete an assignment based
on a diverse population. The assignment developed in
relation to Council of Social Work Education standards,
met submission criteria for The Social Work Prize:
Celebrating Diversity.
One week prior to the focus groups, a graduate social
work student (chosen as interviewer to reduce interview
bias) engaged the classes with a brief discussion of the
purpose of the groups. Confidentiality and informed
consent were reviewed as necessary components of the
focus groups. The focus groups, conducted during sche-
duled class time and time-limited to 30 minutes, would
not impact the students’ class participation grade.
During the initial classroom visit, potential partici-
pants were encouraged to ask questions or provide feed-
back to the interviewer regarding the purpose of the focus
groups or the research project. On the day the focus
groups were to be conducted, the interviewer re-entered
all sections of undergraduate classes to restate the pur-
pose and location of focus groups. Prior to the instructors’
entrance, the interviewer disclosed the location of the
focus group and exited the classroom. As the students
entered the focus group room, the interviewer provided
each participant with a brief, written description of the
study. The interviewer encouraged any questions prior to
the participants signing informed consent and completing
the demographic questionnaire. The interviewer assured
confidentiality and requested permission of all partici-
pants to audio record.
All data were recorded and transcribed prior to analysis.
Atlas. ti provided a means for analysis, which was con-
ducted through grounded theory’s open coding methods
[20]. Reliability was checked via independent coding and
differences were resolved via discussion. Member
checking was conducted with the focus groups in infor-
mal discussion following analysis.
4. Findings
Of the four focus groups, nineteen students (seventeen
females) participated. Three females identified as racial
minorities — one Black and two Hispanic — while one
male independently identified himself as gay, which be-
came an important part of that group’s discussion.
Qualitative analysis of focus group feedback identified
The Elephant in the Room: Understanding Barriers to Students’ Articulation of Diversity
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. CE
four possible barriers to participation in The Social Work
Prize: Celebrating Diversity. Student emotional reaction
to a perception of white privilege, and limited self reflec-
tion of personal areas of diversity were identified. Other
identified barriers could be described as limited knowledge
of diversity and a perceived or real inability to appropri-
ately articulate issues related to diversity. Logistic issues
of understanding of the submission, review, and award-
ing of the prize were also identified as potential barriers.
4.1. Emotional Reactions to White Privilege
“White privilege” is a category that was not named by
students but emerged from the analysis of data. Primarily,
the feeling was manifest in a pervasive discomfort re-
lated to various types of diversity, particularly those with
which the students had no personal experience. Analysis
revealed that students completed their class diversity
assignments with a focus on populations familiar to the
student. For unfamiliar areas of diversity, discomfort was
expressed consistently in the focus groups. Participants
seemed to feel that a barrier to submitting a diversity
prize for public scrutiny was something like benefiting
from the adversity of others. This seemed to be the case
despite the scholarship’s title “Celebrating Diversity”
and its charge, to “explain some way you can celebrate
diversity in your life.” One student felt that asking a per-
son of a different race or culture to discuss their experience
would feel like “gawking” or staring at someone’s “mis-
fortune.” Another student felt if there were an event to
present submissions to the prize, people would look at
her as if she “did not belong there” due to her (Caucasian)
4.2. Self Reflection
The ability to apply classroom knowledge related to
diversity to their own situations emerged as the second
potential barrier to participation in the prize. Students
who did not apply for the prize in all groups stated that
they felt they had “no diversity.” Primarily, focus group
participants discussed not feeling “diverse” based on
racial identification. To them, Caucasian did not “count”
as diverse. Students struggled to identify areas in per-
sonal diversity and stated initial ideas for submission to
the prize would not be “diverse enough” for the prize.
Somehow, although the prize instructions did not ask
them to focus on their own aspects of diversity, they
seemed to view “being diverse” as an entrance qualifica-
tion. One student stated multiple times during the focus
group that she did not feel “diverse” simply because she
was Caucasian.
4.3. Limited Knowledge of Diversity
In addition to limited comfort or ability to self-identify as
an individual with different characteristics, students also
identified feeling uncomfortable with defining, identifying,
or articulating diversity in a classroom or public setting.
Students feared being regarded as ineffective or inappro-
priate is they could not identify their own diversity and
avoided interaction with cultures dissimilar from their
own. The focus group participants primarily viewed
diversity as an emphasis on race, neither cultural or ethnic
identification nor any other characteristic. One student
articulated the understanding that diversity is not only
associated with race, but her class project on diversity
did not embrace the conceptualization.
One student related an experience in which she at-
tempted to make an entry to the prize competition, but,
per the student’s report, her proposed diversity project
was identified as “not diverse” by a faculty member. The
student stated no other efforts were made to participate in
the diversity prize after the interaction. The student ver-
balized feeling embarrassed and worried she might not
belong in a helping profession if she could not identify
diversity to faculty members.
4.4. Logistic Knowledge of the Application
When asked specifically to identify factors associated
with participation or nonparticipation in the Prize, stu-
dents identified communication of the availability of the
prize as a possible barrier. While this may be a coping
mechanism to avoid more serious issues, it was discussed
fully in the groups and was assumed to be as valid as any
other response in analysis. The focus group participants
suggested that they were unaware that they could submit
their class assignments as entries for the Prize. The focus
groups discussed miscommunications regarding how
projects were submitted, which faculty members were
involved in judging the prize, and the benefits of partici-
All students inquired about the amount of money the
prize generated for the student. The amount of money
was a pivotal point for some students. Without knowing
the dollar amount, the students reported that they were
unsure if developing a submission would be worth their
time and effort. Students were unaware of how the win-
ner of the prize was honored. Discussions regarding fears
of presenting the submissions in front of multiple faculty
members or a large community of people were identified
as barriers for students who struggled to feel comfortable
in defining and articulating diversity.
4.5. Student Suggestions
Following the open-ended interview questions, students
were asked specifically how the prize might be improved.
Student suggestions to make the prize more accessible
The Elephant in the Room: Understanding Barriers to Students’ Articulation of Diversity
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. CE
included creating a clearly designed brochure with
attractive coloring. Students wanted to know the cash
amount and which faculty members were involved in the
project selection process. Clear articulation of what the
entries were to include and clear definition of diversity
provided with the application were identified as addi-
tional student suggestions. One focus group suggested a
website with frequently asked questions regarding the
competition. The group stated that limited understanding
of the purpose of the prize may be a barrier to participa-
tion. Students felt the program should more clearly pre-
sent purpose of the prize to encourage and motivate people
to participate. Opening the prize to the entire university
was identified as a method to generate more participation
and engagement in the project.
5. Limitations
Limitations include the limited student participation in
focus groups. More student feedback may have generated
more diverse focus groups, more potential barriers and
support for peer identified issues. The focus groups were
conducted with a single researcher and audio recorded.
After the focus groups were conducted, it was identified
the tape or recorder had malfunctioned throughout the
focus groups. Although extensive notes were taken, at
times during the focus groups audio was lost.
Replication of the study would benefit from multiple
focus groups with a larger amount of students matched to
the institution’s level of diversification. More than one
group facilitator would benefit the project and provide
additional observation in focus groups as well as note-
taking support. Ensuring the adequacy of audio equip-
ment will benefit the transcription of the data.
6. Discussion
Student voices clearly revealed a complex set of circum-
stances that come together to provide a barrier to their
participation in this learning exercise. The diversification
of college campuses has created a myriad of opportunities
as well as emotional discomfort. For the focus group
participants, these pressures ironically co-exist with un-
comfortable feelings related to their own status as mem-
bers of the majority “privileged” group. In addition, par-
ticipants revealed a limited ability to self-reflect on their
own elements of diversity and seemed to lack a cogent
definition of the concept itself. These factors together
contributed to the lack of participation in the project.
Other barriers were identified explicitly by the stu-
dents themselves. These include a focus on the aesthetic
value of the brochure advertising the prize along with the
need for clear, directive language, submission expecta-
tions and disclosure of the cash prize amount as potential
barriers to participation in the prize. Creating a brochure
that demands the attention of a student and clearly states
expectations of each submission as well as a clear defini-
tion of diversity was identified as a method to generate
more participation. Students also expressed an interest in
the level of cash prize as something that would dictate
their participation. It is interesting to note, however, that
this same cohort of students also produced a
well-reasoned, well-attended protest of a campus event
identified as “racist” (for no remuneration). It appears
that emotional barriers are at least as powerful to stu-
dents as logistic ones. Consequently, the development of
a similar “diversity prize” may serve as an effective
bellwether of student experiences with difference.
Perhaps most importantly, it appears from the litera-
ture and was suggested by at least one focus group that
faculty need to recognize their own learning needs. Self-
reflection around one’s own diverse characteristics is
necessary to develop the comfort level needed to seize
teaching opportunities as they occur. Resistance in the
classroom can be identified by feelings of guilt from
perceived white privilege, limited self awareness, and
competency issues of articulating diversity in a profes-
sional and unbiased manner. The literature indicates
support for the focus group findings. A faculty effort to
manage personal judgment of student responses encour-
ages the engagement of students in the learning process
Encouraging the learning process through class par-
ticipation and activities across the curriculum can reduce
anxiety regarding diversity and develop a forum of open
discussion, but this requires faculty who are aware of
personal and professional views. Through the utilization
of critical theory and throughout the literature, faculty
members are called on, then, encouraged to engage in
introspective activities related to personal views and bar-
riers regarding diversity. Finally, a program-wide, stan-
dardized definition of diversity may also be helpful to
achieve uniformity and comfort with the concept. Indeed,
the creation of a “program approved” definition may
facilitate faculty professional growth. To achieve cultural
competency, programs, faculty and students all need to
be open to vulnerability and change.
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