Guest Post: Why Not Tap into Our Greatest Asset?

The following is a guest post from Arthur Lewin, Associate Professor, Department of Black and Hispanic Studies at Baruch College. He can be reached at

Why not tap into our great strength and distinction, our diversity? From 2001 to 2009 Baruch College has been ranked number one in the nation, in terms of student body diversity, by U.S. News and World Report. Early in each semester why not schedule a Cultural Exchange Day? I have, and it has proved quite a learning tool. . .

For Cultural Exchange Day each student is asked to bring in at least one item, of any kind, that represents their nation of origin, religion, ethnic group or any other aspect of what they consider to be their culture. During the session each student is required to talk with at least a dozen of their fellow students carefully making note of each other’s (1) name (2) culture (3) item that they brought to class and (4) its significance. (Stack up some of the chairs, and rearrange the others, to provide room to walk around.)

I have found that oftentimes students, who normally do not talk at all, become the center of attention as they briskly discuss, display and explain a wide array of fascinating artifacts from dozens of countries around the world. Some even come dressed in their traditional garb. Knots will periodically form and disperse around elaborate, or particularly intriguing, items and their presenters. This exercise is not just an ice breaker, but also an eye opener to the richly varied ways humanity has adapted, survived and thrived in every corner of the globe.

Cultural Exchange Day can be held in any course. If you like a focused approach, require that the items brought in be relevant to the subject matter of the course be it music, history, religion, business, or whatever. With this approach, in particular, observations made during Cultural Exchange Day tend to resonate later in the term. Since cultural diversity is our great strength and truly unique distinction, why not tap into it in this and in other ways?

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7 Responses to Guest Post: Why Not Tap into Our Greatest Asset?

  1. Kenneth L. Marcus says:

    Nice idea.

  2. Kyra Gaunt says:

    Perfect reminder too of our WSAS Diversity & Internationalization forum taking place Mon Sept 14th from 12:30 – 5pm (stop by or stay the whole time).

    Please let us know if you plan on attending even if for only a short while or stay for the the whole event.

    This is as much, if not more, of a forum than a debate about what diversity really means to Baruch’s students, staff and faculty and how we might capitalize on our internationalization in the classroom and beyond.

    Refreshments will be provided and once again you can stay for 1/2 hour or the whole thing.

    Baruch Debates Diversity & Internationalization Mon Sept 14th
    12:30 – 5pm in Newman Conference Center Rm 750

    PLEASE RSVP by email to

  3. Elisabeth Gareis says:

    I’m reminded of “Thai Night” or “Chinese Fest” at my alma mater, the University of Georgia. Every month, a festival was staged during which a culture was showcased, with performances on stage, an array of ethnic food, and opportunities to interact. Showcasing creates a pleasant atmosphere and some, albeit short-term interaction. We also had weekly International Coffee Hours, Fridays at noon. Local organizations (churches, charities, etc.) furnished the food and drink, and a mix of international and domestic students gathered and interacted informally.

    Showcasing and informal get-togethers are positive and have a place in diversity programs, but they don’t promote the meaningful, long-term interaction that has shown to reduce prejudice and lead to intercultural mindsets and cross-cultural effectiveness.

    The Cultural Exchange Day incorporates interaction and, if done at the beginning of the semester, may lay the groundwork for more interaction further down the road. It is a nice icebreaker. Arthur, you probably build on it during the semester. How do you keep the momentum going?

    In the end, I think we need programs that allow for more long-term interaction; we need to provide opportunities for students to meet regularly so that meaningful relationships can be formed. Such meetings may have the purpose to discuss issues of diversity, or to work on projects together (the proverbial common goal), or to collaborate on tasks outside the classroom in the community, or even to visit each other at home for some true cross-cultural immersion.

    It might be interesting also to ask the students what they think would lead to a greater fulfillment of our diversity promise . . . through an essay or speech contest maybe, or a survey sponsored by the president or provost? Such a survey could be conducted by students face-to-face across cultures and be evaluated by diverse student groups (i.e., diversity in action).

  4. Arthur Lewin says:

    Elisabeth, you are quite right. This one exercise cannot, by itself, foster and maintain cross-cultural awareness and interaction. The multicultural forum that Kyra mentions above, to be held this Monday afternoon is another. And then there are also the activities you have suggested.

    Cultural Exchange Day I see as just one way of promoting meaningful discussion in the classroom. Another method that I use is to, whenever possible, structure an interactive project to cover a lesson.

    For example, next week in the Black Economic Development class we will cover the topics of Reparations and Affirmative Action. Rather than lecture about these subjects, we have scheduled a debate for each of them in which two students will be pro and two students con, for a total of eight participants. I have given out some background info on these topics, but the debaters will be doing additional research to sharpen their arguments and to handle questions thrown at them by the class.

    Yes, the debates will be spirited. And that is exactly what we want, probing, factual discussions of Reparations and Affirmative Action. Students vote by secret ballot before and after each debate. The winning side will be the side which has gained votes at the expense of its opponents. We usually have an exciting, provocative exchange in which a majority of the students actively participate.

  5. Elisabeth Gareis says:

    The secret ballot idea is splendid!

  6. Arhtur Lewin says:

    Elisabeth, yes, you are right. This one exercise by itself cannot foster the kind of cross-cultural awareness and communication that is badly needed. Activities such as The WSAS Diversity & Internationalization forum taking place Mon Sept 14th from 12:30 – 5pm on the 7th floor in the library present other opportunities.

    By the way, I don’t view Cultural Exchange Day as ONLY a means to promote diversity, but ALSO as an integral tool in fostering communication, discussion and participation in the classroom. I try and substitute interactive sessions for straight lectures whenever possible.

    For example, this week in my Black Economic Development class we will cover the topics of Reparations and Affirmative Action. There will be formal debates, pro vs. con, between teams of stdents on each topic. I have distributed some background material, but debate participants will do additional research to better present their cases and answer questions from the class.

    Yes, things will get animated, nothing wrong with that, and the discussion is bound to be an informed one. And all the key points I could have raised in a lecture will be covered in an exciting, interactive manner. All are welcome, Wednesday Sept. 17 2:30 Room 4-216.

  7. Ken says:

    Diversity is one of our greatest assets. The key to me seems to be in exhibiting that diversity without rancor

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