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Living King's Dream:
The Student Support Network, A 21st-Century Concept

Nasha London-Vargas
Workplace Institute

Students live in a diverse world. The university will need to provide students with the opportunities to rehearse what they will encounter in their everyday lives before and after graduation. Students, including all students of color and White students, need hands-on experience in college to practice working together. We can get along if we change the perceptions of who we are and how we can solve problems. Racial and ethnic conflict must become less relevant social forces, as an exchange for what is a fundamental human engagement. Students must learn to share responsibility for their environment. Martin Luther King's dream to "transform the dangling discord of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood[and to] be able to work together, to pray together, and that we will one day live in a nation where we will not be judged by the color of our skin but by the content of our character," has to be put into practice in every fabric of the university.

The proliferation of cultural backgrounds on college campuses brings to the surface a variety of values, work ethics, and norms of behavior. How colleges define issues of diversity will impact all social lifelife on the streets and life at work. Educational institutions have a social obligation and a unique opportunity to prepare their students for everyday experiences as well as to prepare them for vocations. University activities must shift their emphasis from just recruitment to enabling students to meet on common grounds of mutual effort and benefit. But how might the university prepare students for the everyday life that is integrated and that fulfills King's dream?

The university and the community should be used as a laboratory in which students can conduct and participate in real-life work. College and universities have several domains for working and learning, which are often segregated from one another: the classroom, residence halls, community service departments, and campus life organizations. Students must engage in community projects that utilize student life outside of the classroom to consciously and purposely bring students from diverse cultural backgrounds into activities that compel them to experience each other as persons. Students should also experience educational institutions as environments in which they engage one another daily. The real world is the university.

Since there will be changes in the social and cultural composition of the workforce, the university should become the site where opportunities are offered relevant to the kinds of social transformations expected in the next century. If these universities are able to offer some sort of continuity between contexts of vocation, students and educational institutions might continue to be in a life-long relationship of learning and re-tooling. The work lives of today's students will include continued training, education, and development; therefore, students will need to see the relevance of a college education. Students need to practice how to utilize resources, develop resources, and solve social and technical problems in their communities.

As educators, we also need to create opportunities for all students (especially minority students) to involve them in the life of the university as they speak to each other about concerns specific to their own group and to the student population as a whole. We can offer all students the opportunity to empower themselves as associates in situations that bring them closer to the American creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal." Why not have students develop healthy work habits in a relatively risk-free environment, but not responsibility-free environment? It is in integrated work groups on college campuses that students might find truth in the American dream. For society, the experiments would not be a high risk; we could begin to eliminate the current enormous social, political, and economic costs by institutionally responding to the necessity of mediating the issues of diversity. At the university level, the usual investments in student programs (work-study) might increase slightly, but the effectiveness of these programs would increase.

To the contrary, if we do not utilize the university and all its potential to develop workers for the next century, the quality of life of our citizens will suffer. The quality of life at work and in communities is what the university must have as an essential mission. Education must be liberal in action. We can encourage healthier intergroup relations by placing students in situations in which they will encounter one another as peers and workers on a daily basis. Developing a student support network, which utilizes work-study and volunteer activities, is fundamental for initiating student engagement with the university and the surrounding community. Within this network, students assume leadership roles, and are encouraged to propose, develop, and facilitate programs and activities. This organizational design is conducive for students to add value to their work, and to become more familiar with one another (culturally, ethnically, and racially).

We all know that working together is an old idea that brings about community: barn-raising, knitting circles, and small groups that work together for short periods at conferences to share and receive information. A student support network socializes students by becoming a mirror of citizenship. The student support network has the capacity to deliver experiences that make connections between the practical conduct of life at work. Students within the student support network are allowed to experiment with the appropriate skills and knowledge to respond well to diversity issues which may interfere with work. Students also benefit from mutual support while building on- and off-campus communities. Such support is instrumental for students to learn what community efforts entail and to experience the joys of being citizens together.

Diversity must be an essential business of the university and its minority affairs efforts for the next century. A fundamental mission of the university must include opportunities for students to practice what they must know to engage in ethnic and cultural diversity in the neighborhood and in the workplace. It is becoming clear that today's students are already in a diverse world, but many institutions of learning are unaware of these demographic changes or they are not sure what measures to take in managing the diversity on their campuses. Many minority affairs offices on college and university campuses continue to strive towards implementing Martin Luther King's dream of inclusion; yet their mission statements do not fully represent the demographics of today's campuses. There is no longer, if there ever was, a culturally homogeneous Black, Asian, Native American, or Latino(a) group. The issue of living and working together is still a primary social problem; in fact, it is essential for a healthy society.

In the 21st Century, no one will be an island unto himself. The workforce of the year 2000 will consist primarily of minorities, women, older age groups, immigrants, and an increasing gap between workers with advanced education and those workers who can barely read or write. Demographers argue that the workforce of the future will greatly differ from the workforce of the past in that, until recently, White males made up the dominant work group and Blacks and Latinos were the only visible ethnic groups. The new workforce will reflect a wide variety of Asian cultures, a mixture of Middle Eastern and Arab cultures; women, Latinos, and Blacks will represent the fastest growing minority groups in the United States. Students today reflect much of the demographics. Graduates will work in a different milieu than many students in previous decades in the United States. Leaders will be required to be more attentive to previously ignored issues of difference. Thus, our students will need opportunities to rehearse what they will encounter at work.

As gatekeepers, we have the social responsibility within the minority community to shepherd all minority students through a process where there are adequate opportunities for counseling, advising, academic assistance, employment, and space and time for gathering together to dialogue and develop citizenship. We should also make it our duty to create a safe place on campus for all students to freely explore and experience who they are in relation to one another. Through a student support network, minority and nonminority students will be able to co-create a learning and living environment that supports and promotes tolerance and acceptance of their differences.

As we move into the 21st Century, we will need all levels of society to respond to issues of diversity. The work activity of the student should become the model in which students can shape, define, refine, and continue to discover ways to explore their notions of race relations, leadership, team work, citizenship, and community building.

If you are interested in discussing these ideas further, please e-mail me at nachey@email.msn.com or nachey@msn.com.

 


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