Success in the Classroom: Leading a Diverse Student Body 

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There is more responsibility than ever for college faculty to deliver outstanding instruction in the classroom. According to the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE), today’s universities lean on strong teaching skills from their instructors, including adjunct instructors, and research shows a direct correlation between classroom management skills and higher retention rates and increased on-time graduation rates. With less than half of students who enter four-year colleges finishing within six years, they assert that faculty cannot be allowed to simply just be the expert in their field in the classroom. College instructors must continue to develop important teaching skills in order to both create a better learning environment and a stronger sense of belonging in their classrooms among classmates. 

With the rise of globalization and as instructors work to increase their teaching skills to create this necessary sense of belonging among classmates, instructors have an obligation to strategically improve their professional cross-cultural competency skills. Adler and Aycan remind readers that every facet of human life is increasingly more global and diverse. College campuses, too, are seeing a rise in diversity within their student bodies. This increase in diversity comes with unique challenges because cross-cultural agility (the ability to flex when faced with novelty) is extremely unnatural to humans, says Caligiuri. As a matter of fact, Steele shared a recent study that over 63% of college students felt afraid to speak up about things they felt might seem controversial due to differences with others on campus, even though over 87% felt that free expression should be encouraged and welcome on their campus. And Mittelmeier et al., found that cross-cultural relationships in the classroom are beneficial and desired by all students. Adler and Aycan further confirm that when humans fail to understand how to interact with each other, it leads to misunderstanding and divisiveness.  

The research of Coffé and Geys provides useful definitions of bonding vs. bridging organizations, defining bonding organizations as bringing similar individuals together for the purpose of “getting by” and bridging organizations as bringing diverse individuals together with the outcome of “getting ahead.” They present the importance of diversity as an asset and encourage organizations to create intentionality around becoming a bridging type for the common good of society. To achieve classroom success, academic institutions of higher learning should absolutely be known as bridging organizations, and this should be a goal for instructors within individual classrooms in order to foster that important culture of belongingness. As Roth assesses our current state of affairs within academic institutions as a “culture war,” he encourages college leadership to work to create a culture of peace. Well-known cultural agility author and speaker, noted above, Paula Caligiuri, identified important personal competencies beneficial for those looking to foster this culture of peace including tolerance of ambiguity, curiosity, resilience, cultural humility, relationship building, and perspective taking. She further identifies task-management competencies of adaptation, minimization, and integration. These competencies can be useful professional development tools for instructors to sharpen their cross-cultural agility.  

A tolerance for ambiguity allows one to keep an open mind and easily provide adequate support to a variety of cultures. This competency is instinctively higher in some individuals than in others. Cabrera and Unruh demonstrate that some people naturally have a higher capacity for global leadership than others, however, the skill can be developed within anyone. They encourage individuals to become global by developing a global mindset, global entrepreneurship, and global citizenship. Caligiuri asks individuals to assess their personal tolerance for ambiguity and then increase their tolerance via mindfulness, reduction of black-and-white thinking, and slow their judgment and opinion formation. She further encourages intentionally creating personal experiences that will build tolerance of novelty and ambiguity in order to increase this competency. An instructor with this competency will feel comfortable connecting with every student equally in a diverse classroom. 

Curiosity is a desire to intentionally seek out and understand differences. The research of Ross shows that individuals naturally form unconscious judgments, or bias, in order to make sense of the world around them. This bias is a natural part of humanity that provides protection and a sense of order. Bias has value, however, it is the reason individuals are drawn to comfort in “bonding” relationships (with people who are like them) rather than engaging in deliberate exploration of the unknown. To build this competency, Caligiuri asks individuals to assess their natural level of curiosity and to push their limit by researching things from a different cultural perspective, creating goals to learn about other cultures, actively seeking to understand reasons for unique behaviors they see, and actively seeking to fully understand cultural challenges they face. An instructor with this competency will seek out, inquire about, and celebrate the individual differences in students in a diverse classroom. 

Cultural resilience is the ability to recover quickly in the face of unexpected cultural complexities. Hofstede et al., remind readers that culture differences exist within every people group and these differences are hard-wired and programmed as convictions. Caligiuri asks individuals to assess their resilience by analyzing their approach to challenges and their ability to manage and grow through obstacles. She recommends intentional stretching of resilience by practicing stress management techniques. An instructor with this competency will feel comfortable in an unpredictable diverse classroom environment and be willing to risk making mistakes as they progress through course content and discussion. 

Cultural humility is the ability to recognize that instinctual cultural ideals are not the same in every person and we all have something to learn from each other. Barbierri, et al., ( discovered how difficult it is to build trust with individuals from other cultures and recognized the need for all stakeholders to be part of the process at all times, lest intended outcomes completely fail. Caligiuri asks individuals to assess their humility by identifying their ability to receive feedback and learn new things from those with a different perspective and encourages building cultural humility by practicing asking for help, acknowledging mistakes, and choosing to learn something from someone younger than them. An instructor with this competency can more quickly discover and operate through potential cultural challenges in a diverse classroom. 

Relationship building involves intentionally seeking out relationships with others. Individuals want to know that they are valued and that someone has the desire to spend time with them and get to know them. Flory et al ( found that simply expressing interest in diversifying and displaying value for diversity more than doubles the candidates for a particular initiative. Caligiuri asks individuals to assess their relationship building across cultures by identifying their success in this area at work, at the gym, or in the neighborhood and encourages building cross-cultural relationships by starting early, focusing on similarities, and meeting regularly. She also reminds readers to be mindful of cultural differences in relationship building such as greetings, conversational distance, conversational touching, silence, and self-disclosure. An instructor with this competency will be able to use relationship building to increase understanding and trust in a diverse classroom. 

Perspective taking involves the ability to see situations through the perspective of the other. Rosser, et al., ( found that individuals, when paired with long-term mentors from another culture, not only developed a strong understanding of the other culture, but also gained a stronger understanding of how to implement that perspective into their own work, leading to positive outcomes. Caligiuri asks individuals to assess their perspective-taking by identifying if others have complimented their ability to work on a diverse team and assess their ability to understand the feelings of someone different from them. She encourages building perspective-taking by intentionally forming alternate explanations during the creative process, thinking like an anthropologist, and debating yourself to practice forming alternate opinions. An instructor with this competency will have greater success in building social connections and will better understand their own cross-cultural credibility in a diverse classroom. 

As classroom instructors assess and increase their cross-cultural agility, it is useful to also establish what Caligiuri identifies as task-management competencies. In each setting, the individual needs to make the decision to adapt to another culture via cultural adaptation, minimize another culture via cultural minimization, or integrate with another culture via cultural integration. She asserts that true cultural agility recognizes which methodology is most appropriate in a given situation to best serve the group and the desired outcomes. She reminds leaders that using the wrong methodology can create unnecessary difficulty and encourages careful assessment and implementation. Instructors can effectively utilize these options to best serve their diverse students and keep class discussions on topic. 

As colleges work to serve their diverse student body by creating meaningful social connectedness, while also maintaining successful academic instruction, they must take notice of the high impact of faculty. Faculty members have long-term, sustained interaction with students and have the best opportunities for building the sense of belonging students crave. This in turn builds retention and higher graduation rates. Colleges should take the time to invest in regular professional development activities with their instructors not only in delivering academic content but also in developing necessary cultural agility competencies. Because it is unnatural to humans, building cultural agility is not easy but it is necessary for this important work of educating future leaders. 

Dr. Sarah Hummel is the founder and president of Seapointe College, an institution dedicated to biblical leadership for community care, strategically situated in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia with a strong commitment to diversity, discipleship, resilience, followership, and communal learning. Over the past 15 years, Dr. Hummel has cultivated a distinguished legacy in the field of education, mentoring, and instilling of personal values and sound decision-making skills in thousands of individuals from diverse backgrounds and many organizations within the Hampton Roads community.

Dr. Hummel’s passion lies in nurturing the next generation of multicultural leaders through a holistic approach that encompasses formal education, mentorship, and active engagement with the community. She holds a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Regent University, complemented by a doctorate in strategic leadership, with an emphasis in ecclesial leadership, also from Regent.


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