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The Myth of Diversity

By Dangalira K. Mughogho

HARVARD University loves to boast about the "diversity" of its student body and especially, its international diversity. but despite Harvard's best efforts, there are only 36 international students in the class of '94. Considering that Americans residents overseas are counted as international students, the number of true "internationals" is even less. In addition, the distribution of foreign students is skewed towards the western world; Eastern Europe and Africa, for example, are poorly represented.

Concerted efforts need to be taken to ensure that a truly diverse group of foreign students--representing all areas of the world and a variety of economic backgrounds--come to study at Harvard. The case of Africa reveals the challenges involved with this task.

THE sort of student attracted to top-flight colleges such as Harvard is highly motivated, hard working and keen on getting the best education possible. These goals are characteristic of the middle class ethos, often ingrained through generations of professional university education.

The closer one's upbringing to this model, the more likely it is that one will attend college. Studies show the correlation between a person's parents attending college and the student's decision to do the same. Even in western society, the best colleges attract a fairly narrow cross-section of the population. Families enter a self-perpetuating cycle of college awareness, and hence enrollment.

In African society, access to higher education is limited to those people living in urban areas. The majority of the population--including those with the potential to do well at college--must worry about earning an income to support the family well before any thoughts of higher education.

The prospect of seeking an education abroad is effectively limited to the the members of the upwardly mobile, neocolonialist elite, a group that is quite unrepresentative of the society as a whole.

For this reason, recruitment officers at Harvard and other universities must make special efforts to attract students who have the potential to attend college, but ordinarily would not do so because of their background. In the case of international recruitment drives in the nonwestern societies, this effort becomes all-important. And these efforts require changing some of the standards of the American college admission process.

THE admissions proceses is a major obstacle to all college aspirants, arduous and nerve-wracking at the best of times, and calamitous at others. Because the process is naturally geared towards people who have been through the American educational system, those who have not done so are necessarily at a disadvantage.

The infamous Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) is a case in point. The SAT, as numerous educational experts have argued, is geared towards the experiences of middle-class students. The themes and concepts addressed in the verbal parts of the test, for example, reflect an upbringing in a suburban white community. In doing so, they place inner-city Black and Hispanic children at a disadvantage. This bias is doubly relevant in the case of foreign students who have not even experienced a Western upbringing.

The applications process itself is a truly daunting undertaking for anyone unfamiliar with the American system. The very idea of a liberal arts education is an American concept; in many other tertiary educational systems, students are channeled down narrowly defined paths that do not give much scope for experimentation. For people used to such systems, the liberal arts education represents a diversion whose benefits are often not immediately apparent.

Some of the questions asked on the application forms are also biased--most notably, questions of applicant's community service and extracurricular activities. In non-western societies, the idea of "service" is not well developed; many prospective students cannot afford such participation. Students could thus be eliminated on technicalities that are not directly related to their ability to do well at college.

ALTHOUGH the obstacles facing international admissions officers may seem insurmountable, the outlook is not entirely bleak. The better universities in the U.S. have need-blind admissions policies that enable many students to finish an undertaking that would otherwise be too expensive for them to consider.

Harvard has devised a more equitable application form for international applicants that takes into account educational experiences that differ from the American model. International admissions officers travel the world to visit schools and make people aware of the many possibilities for university education that exist. These officers should take special care to seek out students in the public education system, rather than in elite "international" schools.

The process is tedious and painstaking, and it will be some time before the results become evident. But with increasing awareness of the importance of bringing a truly diverse population to Harvard, the number of international students can only increase.

Dangalira K. Mughogho '94 is an international student from Malawi.

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