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Diversity research as service learning.


Service learning initiatives at urban commuter institutions with Ethnic Studies perspectives may take alternative forms, while still sharing the goal of making education meaningful for students by connecting theory, practice, and lived experiences both inside and outside traditional classroom spaces. Diversity research teams (DRTs) can have positive impacts on students, faculty, and institutions in ways that clearly and effectively reflect the goals and practices of service learning.


Service learning, broadly defined, enables students to address local community needs, while developing critical, reflective thinking and enhancing civic responsibility and community life (Rothman, 1998). Although this definition encompasses many practices in diverse educational contexts, service learning opportunities commonly involve students in communities that differ from those to which most students belong and that are located outside the university. Typical impacts of service learning programs include: raising social awareness, connecting students to diverse people and experiences, and providing practical experiences that move learning beyond narrow intellectual engagement and highlight the connections between learning and living (Boyle-Baise, 2002; Eyler & Giles, 1999). Although not always specified, many examples in the literature refer to impacts of service learning for predominantly white, relatively privileged students attending private residential institutions (e.g., Dunlap, 1998).

In contrast, our context is a public, urban, commuter university in which 35% of our undergraduate students are racial/ethnic minorities and an additional 8% are international students. Nine out of ten students work more than 10 hours per week, and roughly half work more than 30 hours per week. Living and working within diverse and differentially privileged contexts, our students have primary commitments outside the university that make the intersecting boundaries between school and community, education and work, and personal and societal relatively permeable. Our educational challenge, therefore, is not engaging beyond the educational institution, but connecting within the social and academic communities of the university. Service learning initiatives at urban commuter institutions may take non-traditional forms, such as diversity research teams (DRTs), that still share the goals and practices of service learning.

Diversity Research at UMass Boston

The crafting of DRTs at UMass Boston has represented one systematic effort to connect the university's urban public mission with the educational strengths and needs of our working-class student body, recognizing both the realities of inequality they face in the larger society and the lack of academic and social integration they experience at our under-resourced, commuter campus. With Ford Foundation support between 1997 and 1999, a Diversity Research Initiative supported 15 student/faculty DRTs through seminars with shared goals of building collaborative learning communities and conducting significant research on specific issues of diversity, using the university as our site of inquiry. Since that time, some faculty have continued the DRT model. DRTs are defined as teams whose aim is to collaboratively educate and empower students and faculty as investigators of campus diversity (Kingston-Mann, 1999). DRTs vary substantially. For example, DRTs can vary in how they are created (e.g. students volunteer or are invited), in their composition (e.g. racial and ethnic composition of students and faculty, majors and academic backgrounds of students and faculty, etc.), or in their specific research method. Students generally receive course credit for DRT participation. If offered as a regular course, faculty receive course credit; alternatively, faculty may supervise team students through an independent study or assistantship model. Based on our experiences, we have found that one of the strengths of DRTs for diverse students at urban commuter institutions is that the initial community-based focus of service is inside, rather than outside, the university.

However, the findings from the research can have implications for other universities and for connections between the university and outside communities, ultimately allowing DRTs to provide service benefits both inside and outside. The second author (PNK) was involved with the Diversity Research Initiative from its beginning, and sustained his own DRT, "Analyzing the Impact of Asian American Studies in the Curriculum: Making Meaning Over Time in the Lives of Alumni," for two additional years with various teams of undergraduate and graduate students (Kiang, 2000). The lead author (KLS) has used the DRT model in her Asian American Students' Experiences research project with integrated teams of undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students for the past two years. We refer to both projects in this article.

Building Community for Students and Faculty: Insiders and Outsiders

One of the strongest impacts of DRTs is in providing support and building community, particularly for students and faculty of color who frequently face challenges of isolation, segregation, and discrimination that affect their social, academic, and professional success (Altbach, et al, 2002). These dynamics are exacerbated at urban commuter institutions (Tinto, 1993; Kingston-Mann, 2001). DRTs represent interventions that foster achievement through collaborative support, as Naoki[1] explains:
 Every time I met my teammates in the school, I said first, "How is
 your research?" They also asked me, "How about yours?" ... I was
 really encouraged from my teammates because everybody were
 struggling and trying hard.

DRTs establish a context for connections that extend beyond the projects themselves. These connections are relatively rare at urban commuter institutions, and contribute added value through students educating each other, as Miwa [2] describes:
 My understandings of where each of us came from and what each cart
 and can't see have helped me figure out the ways to develop better
 friendships that led us [to have] a sense of community within the
 research team. My experiences in our diverse team have challenged
 my individual level of sensitivity and tolerance, and what I
 learned most about has been about myself. Each of research members
 accepted me and helped me reaffirm my identity.

DRTs are also important training grounds for graduate students and future faculty, in fostering support for their own success and as opportunities to mentor others, as Julie [3] reflects:
 As a first year graduate student in a new school, the team provided
 me with a community and support system I did not expect. I learned
 a tremendous amount about mentoring and being mentored ... about
 balance, keeping people accountable, and sharing knowledge and
 resources. It was cool to be in a position where I can impact
 someone's personal and educational growth.

For faculty, DRTs facilitate community-building in ways similar to the "enclaves" that Singleton, Burack, and Hirsch (1997a) describe in their analysis of how faculty involved with community service overcome institutional marginalization. Just as ethnic enclaves provide members with physical space, a shared language, and a socioeconomic support system that serve as alternatives to the dominant society, DRTs create a supportive "enclave" for faculty, in relation not only to their students, but also to colleagues who share similar commitments. Diversity research necessarily foregrounds issues of equity and access, and catalyzes connections to like-minded faculty and students. Participation in our own DRTs, for example, led to connections with other Asian American faculty and staff and with colleagues in other areas such as Africana Studies, Latino Studies, Student Affairs, the Center for the Improvement of Teaching, Institutional Research, and Institutional Advancement. In turn, these connections have strengthened our individual and programmatic leadership across multiple domains on campus and beyond. Furthermore, DRTs connect scholarship, service, and teaching. Frequently, the service mission of institutions is left to the adhoc initiative of individual faculty (Singleton, Burack, & I-Hirsch, 1997b) and service activities are not as highly valued as scholarship or teaching in the evaluation of faculty for tenure and promotion (Boyer, 1990; Lynton, 1995). In addition, some faculty-particularly those with heavy instructional loads--may find it difficult to balance or integrate teaching and scholarship. DRTs facilitate the integration of service and outreach with the teaching of research methodology and field-specific content, and with the possibility of scholarly production (Kiang, 2002).

In relation to institutional culture, the power of DRTs comes, in part, from being simultaneously "inside" and "outside." Singleton et al (1997a), suggest that the marginalization of "service enclaves" may actually be what enables their work to be creative and flexible. If service learning commitments become institutionalized, how can they retain their programmatic integrity and transformative purpose? Given our Asian American Studies affiliations and sensibilities, we articulate these questions because they resonate for Ethnic Studies programs as well, and intersect with larger commitments we share to transform the institution's academic culture: how the curriculum is defined and represented, the definition of scholarship, the practice and methods of research, expectations for pedagogy, the empowerment of diverse students, and the engagement with communities. Our own DRTs have taken a critical stance, examining both the rewards and challenges of inclusion and diversity on campus and frequently exposing contradictions between institutional mission and daily practice. Furthermore, not unlike Ethnic Studies programs, our team members have had to address issues related to interpersonal and institutional racism and stereotyping in the process and presentation of our research. However, by being part of the institution's structure, curriculum, and pedagogy, DRTs can also have inside impact--a goal that service learning practitioners have continually sought over the years (Liu, 1996).

Educational and Service Impacts--Transformative Education

DRTs have had impact on curriculum and pedagogy both by modeling innovative practice and by producing relevant research findings. DRTs are excellent vehicles for students to experience collaborative learning communities, engage in campus issues, and practice methods of research. One outcome emerging from the Asian American Studies alumni DRT model, for example, was a new course within the university's curriculum titled, "Applied Research in Asian American Studies." This option now allows for faculty/student collaboration on specific research and development projects designed by program faculty, often in response to specific applied research requests from constituencies on campus as well as from external policy-makers and community organizations. Currently, the second phase of the Asian American Students' Experience project is being conducted in conjunction with this Applied Research course. Students can also enroll through a psychology research course that enables cross-disciplinary collaborations. The impact of diversity research on institutional pedagogical practice is further evident in the ways that other courses in the university, ranging from American Studies to Marketing, have incorporated diversity research methods of engaging students in university-based critical research projects. This semester, for example, an Anthropology course on immigration is examining what support systems and culturally competent services are available (or not) for immigrant students on campus. A Journalism course is requiring students to conduct research about each of the university's Ethnic Studies programs and produce appropriate materials about them.

DRTs can also affect curriculum and pedagogical reform through the impact of their findings. For example, our Asian American Studies colleague, Lin Zhan's diversity research project, "Learning Needs of Asian American Students in the College of Nursing," uncovered several urgent issues regarding race, culture, and language for students. Similarly, a DRT from the College of Public & Community Service conducted a project to examine how students, faculty, and staff made meaning of the diversity-related competencies required in their curriculum. The results of both of these DRTs led to college-wide processes of curriculum revision during the following year. These DRTs enhanced the important work of curriculum revision in their respective colleges by contributing significant data that would otherwise not be available and by bringing important student constituencies into the process who would otherwise have much less voice or role (Center for Improvement of Teaching, 1999).

Our own DRTs also show how data from students and alumni can be gathered and then used institutionally. The first phase of the Asian American Students' Experience project presented findings to faculty and service staff who could then act on recommendations related to changing pedagogical practices, increasing access, and decreasing discrimination for Asian American students. For individual students, these institutional impacts embody the power of DRTs as transformative education and a means to individual empowerment, as Miwa, now a graduate student reflects:
 I believe that research is one powerful way to make our collective
 voice a stronger one. As a student who used to be one of the many
 disregarded students receiving some kind of message to give up
 future career through the struggles with academic achievement and
 isolation, being recruited and counted on my efforts have been
 such empowerment for myself. I know that the past experience of
 silence makes me see the meaningful values of research and
 motivates me to enjoy working on our research project. In this
 sense, our research on student needs has provided me opportunities
 to value my most hated and depressing experience and to consider
 that I actually "needed" that experience in my life.

The dissemination of findings from DRTs can also have impacts beyond the home university, as Stacy[1] recognizes:
 Maybe other universities will following in our foot steps and pay
 close attention to our research ... These findings are a way for
 professors, deans, department heads, students and President to know
 what needs to be done and how to do it.

Integrative Visions: Ethnic Studies, Diversity Research, and Service Learning

Recent higher education discourse has urged universities to become more "engaged" by responding to diverse demographic profiles of students, by connecting students' learning with real world research and practice, and by allocating resources to address the critical issues of communities (Kellogg Commission, 1999). Ironically, these are core commitments that Ethnic Studies programs have sustained, albeit from marginal positions, within universities throughout the past three decades. Similarly, references to Ethnic Studies praxis has been largely absent from the formal literature of service learning, just as Ethnic Studies practitioners typically have not participated in gatherings of the service learning movement. Indeed, traditional Western notions of democracy and civic participation undergird the very rationale for mainstream community service learning programs (Arches, et al, 1999; Battistoni & Hudson, 1997). But as populations of immigrants and students of color from diverse communities grow on our campuses, understandings of civic engagement and democratic values need to take on multiple meanings. Our own work suggests that Ethnic Studies perspectives--exploring racial and ethnic identities and cultural values in relation to multiple contexts of self, family, university, social groups, communities, homelands, diasporas, and local/global power relations--are essential for students of diverse backgrounds to engage meaningfully with both service learning and diversity research.

Moreover, we argue that under-resourced, urban, public institutions like our own are actually critical sites of confluence for service learning and diversity research, in part because our student populations are already so deeply grounded within their communities. While applying various methods of research and development, students also draw on their own cultural and linguistic competence, social networks, and lived experience. This process of envisioning service learning as diversity research has special meaning at our urban commuter university because the day-to-day realities facing our students and the severe resource constraints of the institution greatly limit opportunities to build community on campus. Through DRTs, students and faculty together pursue relevant questions, produce important resources, and present significant findings that often have continuing individual ,institutional, and long-term community impacts, as do any exemplary service learning commitments.


[1] An undergraduate member of Peter Kiang's DRT

[2] An undergraduate member of Karen Suyemoto's DRT

[3] A graduate member of Karen Suyemoto's DRT


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Kiang, P.N. (2000). Long-Term effects of diversity in the curriculum: Analyzing the impact of Asian American Studies in the lives of alumni from an urban commuter university," in Diversity on campus: Reports from the field, NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, 23-25.

Kingston-Mann, E. (1999). Building a diverse research initiative: An introduction. In Diversity Research at an Urban Commuter University. Boston: University of Massachusetts Boston.

Kingston-Mann, E. (2001). Three steps forward, one step back: Dilemmas of upward mobility, in Kingston-Mann and Sieber, T, eds. Achieving against the odds: How academics become teachers of diverse students. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Liu, G. (1996). Origins, evolution, and progress: Reflections on the community service movement in American higher education 1985-1995. Community service in higher education. Providence: Feinstein Institute. Fall. 5-17.

Lynton, E.A. (1995), Making the Case for Professional Service, Washington, D.C.: American Association for Higher Education.

Rothman, M. (1998). Service matters: Engaging higher education in the renewal of America's Communities and American Democracy. Providence: Campus Compact.

Singleton, S.E., Burack, C.A. & D.J. Hirsch (1997a), "Faculty Service Enclaves: A Summary Report," New England Resource Center for Higher Education, February.

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Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Karen L. Suyemoto, University of Massachusetts Boston

Peter Nien-chu Kiang, University of Massachusetts Boston

Suyemoto is Assistant Professor of Psychology and Asian American Studies. Nien-chu Kiang is Professor of Education and Director of the Asian American Studies Program.
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Author:Kiang, Peter Nien-chu
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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