University graduate reflects on campus diversity

Matt Jacobson

I remember coming to the University of Minnesota for a campus tour five years ago. After checking in at Williamson Hall, our group was assembled to view a video about the campus. Although I do not recall many details from this video, it was painstakingly clear that the University wanted to market one aspect above all: diversity. The video painted the picture of diversity through the multitude of racial and ethnic differences represented in and around campus. It followed the line of reasoning that from these racial and ethnic differences stem a diverse array of beliefs, ideas and viewpoints new to the potential incoming freshmen. Diversity, the video posited, was the hallmark of the University. Now on the cusp of my last semester as an undergraduate, that videoâÄôs primary message of promoting the diversity of people on campus has resurfaced once more. Though the racial and ethnic diversity found on campus signifies the notion of equal access to a premier academic institution, where a plethora of unique ideas and beliefs can be introduced and exchanged within a relatively welcoming environment, my four years here led me to realize that this is only the surface of diversity. My understanding of diversity has changed radically from this limited racial and ethnic perspective. Through various classes in biology, geography, honors seminars, extracurricular activities and discussions with peers and professors alike, IâÄôve discovered that the diversity in our world is inextricably bound to three related phenomena: life, language and landscapes. These three concepts serve as the foundation for the bountiful diversity found on our planet and underscore the importance of diversity in our world. When speaking of life, I am referring to the great biological diversity on Earth. This overwhelming diversity of life drives evolution, allows for relations of mutual dependence to form and contributes to the natural beauty of our world. In its ultimate form, language is a reflection of this biological diversity. Just as the millions of species on this planet fill specific niches and roles, languages also fill specific cultural niches. Perhaps most importantly, these languages provide diverse cultures a means to engage in unique relationships with the diversity of landscapes that are the stage of life. These landscapes may be the most fundamental aspects of diversity, for they are the foundations of life. Though the land shapes life in many ways, in some species, like our own, the land gives context and meaning for existence. These unique relationships with landscapes, life and other species contribute to culturally diverse ways of knowing. This inherent relationship between life, language and landscapes becomes readily apparent in the face of peril. Recent estimates suggest only 80 percent of life and 80 percent of languages are unknown to scholars and scientists, yet they are disappearing at an alarming rate. Much of this disappearance stems from a brutally hegemonic acquisition and exploitation of the worldâÄôs resources, meaning our landscapes are also threatened. Due to their interconnectedness, significant losses from one of these three foundations of diversity directly contribute to losses experienced by the other two. These losses are becoming increasingly evident in our world and threaten our existence. Standing on the edge of my undergraduate career, I have realized that the importance of diversity is far greater than the racial and ethnic differences portrayed in that video viewed by all potential University students. It is these differences that connect us all. Recognizing the value of this diversity and appreciating its role in shaping and sustaining our planet is of utmost importance. Though I am but a humble soon-to-be graduate, I implore all who are embarking on their academic journeys to explore these notions of diversity, develop a critical view of the role of diversity and to respect and appreciate the impacts of difference in contributing to the vitality of ourselves and our planet. Matt Jacobson is a University alumnus.