Multicultural Celebrations

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It was a joy and privilege for me to attend our semesterly multicultural graduation celebration last week the day before FPU’s Fall Commencement ceremonies. Many of our departments host special celebrations prior to commencement. Last week I also attended those for the BA in Liberal Studies, the BS in Nursing, and the MA program in Kinesiology. Usually I am there just to lend support. If a Dean or Provost (or better the President) shows up, it shows a bit of importance to the event, and students and families sense that importance. But beyond the official necessity—academic achievement as reflected in students graduating is what we exist to accomplish. It is both a privilege and joy to celebrate with our graduates and families in a smaller setting than the larger Commencement ceremony.

We occasionally get questions about the multicultural celebration and the ethnic sashes that some of our students wear over their graduation gowns at the Commencement ceremonies. I have received a handful of these over the years, and I thought it might be a good time to provide a public answer. The questions are usually something like this: “Why would you single out specific groups for honor or sashes?” “If a few ethnic groups get specific recognition, why shouldn’t all groups?” And “Commencement is a time for everyone to come together; doesn’t singling out groups for recognition go against that common celebration?”

First let me say that it our intent and our purpose for student from all ethnic groups, from all regions, and of all religious commitments to graduate at the same high level. Despite continued lower graduation rates among some minority groups across the country, we have adopted the policy of seeking to achieve the same success with all groups. We are, by the way, required to report on our graduation rates by ethnicity by our regional accreditor and by the federal government. You can find our public report on our disclosure webpage. In current discussion this is one of the ways in which universities demonstrate their commitment to the public good, not just the private good of individuals. In some years minority achievement for retention has surpassed the overall retention rate of the student body. We are proud of our students and of the university’s achievement.

That achievement does not come easily however. A higher percentage of our students of color are “first generation” university students than the average of the student body or than the majority population. And across ethnic groups—minority or majority—first generation university students achieve at about 15% less, according to some studies, than second and third generation university students. There is a simple reason for this in all probability. Second and third generation students are informally better prepared for what they will encounter in the university setting. Their parents and other family members have been university students; students have heard stories throughout their lives about what it takes to achieve a college degree; the family may have known that they had to make special provisions for their son or daughter while they were in school. When that practical experience is missing, it seems that students are less ready, and less aware of what they must do to achieve a university degree. There is more to say here, and the research literature is illuminating, but I will leave it at that.

When I work with parents prior to students coming to the university, I attempt to address all of the kinds of things that they can do to assist their students to complete their degree. For those who have been in a university, this is a good refresher. For those who have not, this is new information that they need. This is true, once again, across ethnic groups and color. It is true for white families, African-American, Hispanic and Southeast Asian. And information is not all they need. They need experience–we try then to make up for that experience with all students.

One other way to help in that achievement is to celebrate who our students are, to welcome and embrace their identities, both their individuality and their ethnic heritage, and what they face in our current society. It is the case in American society, though we sometimes try to ignore it, that minority groups have been excluded, formally or informally, from social privileges and rights like higher education. To enter a place about which you have heard stories from friends and family of exclusion and deliberate denial of rights can seem like a foreign and threatening place. I have heard some of these stories from our students. They carry with them a burden that other students do not. We embrace those students by celebrating their overcoming of those historic and social barriers, their ability to carry those heavy burdens and to achieve academic success. Those in their families and communities who come after them will find it easier because of their struggle, discipline and achievement.

One of the best days of the academic year is Commencement. We celebrate the achievement of all of our graduates and we give special recognition through the wearing of a distinctive sash, and an extra celebration with graduates family and friend to those who have achieved in the face obstacles.

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