(Copied 4/3/06 from http://www.suntimes.com/output/otherviews/cst-edt-ref01b.html)

Don't overlook diversity when it's time to pick a college

April 1, 2006


At the University of Illinois at Chicago, like most universities around the country, we are nearing the end of our recruiting season for next year's new students. Applicants and parents are anxiously awaiting the legendary "big, fat envelope" to appear as acceptance letters begin hitting the mail.

For weeks now I have been in the thick of it with kids preparing to take the leap from high school to college. My recruiting pitch includes the strengths of our computer science department such as our world-renowned faculty, excellent teaching, advanced computing laboratories and the benefits of going to school in the center of Chicago.

Students ask a wide variety of questions such as, "Will I get to take CS [computer science] courses in my first semester?" and "Is vegetarian food available in the student dining halls?" (The answer to both questions is yes.) The most common question I hear from parents is, "Will my son/daughter be able to get a good job after graduation?" Happily, the answer to this question is also ''yes.''

One of the unspoken beauties of an urban university like UIC is that many of our students are the first in their families to crack into higher education, which makes the recruiting conversations with students and parents particularly rewarding. Often, these students are also first-generation Americans.

A few days ago I left a recruiting open house to lecture to my junior-level public speaking course for computer science majors to help develop the communication skills they'll need in the workplace. Students make speeches and presentations to the class, starting usually with non-technical subjects or personal experiences. I've taught this course a few times and have always enjoyed listening to students talk about their diverse backgrounds. For example, this semester I have students of seemingly every race and religion from Chicago, the suburbs and Downstate. The class also includes immigrants or first-generation Americans from Bosnia, China, England, India, Israel, Mexico, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey and Vietnam.

I am awestruck by the great multicultural salad bowl I have the privilege to teach in, and the wonderful opportunities it provides students and professors to learn from one another.

Interested in Google's China censoring controversy? Turn to the Chinese student on your left to get a first-hand report! Questions about the Danish cartoon riots? Discuss it with the first-generation Pakistani student on your right! Curious about various opinions regarding the Hamas election? Talk to the Israeli student in front of you, and then turn around and speak with the Syrian student behind you! Having trouble appreciating what you have? Listen to the hardscrabble story from your Bosnian classmate.

Regrettably, even our multicultural and diverse university does not strongly pitch diversity when recruiting students (though we certainly do to politicians and funding agencies). Perhaps this is because we sense that students and parents do not have diversity high on their priority list, or even on their list at all. However, the truth is that who you learn with is very critical to the quality and depth of your educational experience. Building friendships and learning with a diverse set of classmates makes for a very rich university experience. It may not always be comfortable or easy, but for the most part, I see very warm, positive relationships develop among our students. Perhaps it is easier to fit in and be yourself when everyone is different.

With increased economic globalization, we face many problems that can only be solved by having a better understanding of each other. With this in mind, I hope students and parents will consider the long-overlooked factor of student diversity as they finalize their college plans for next fall.

Pete Nelson is a professor and head of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.