One big mosaic: Embracing diversity


If your student is concerned that they won’t fit in at college, Holly Singh, executive director of the International Students and Scholars Center at Arizona State University, continues our diversity discovery series and shares his thoughts about living in a diverse world.

Can you share some of your experiences with diversity as someone who grew up in India and spent most of their adulthood in the U.S.?

I’ve learned that every culture teaches its values as absolute values. So unless you enter another culture, you get very comfortable and think the value system and thinking process that you have is absolute — that it’s the right way of doing things. But if you spend time in another culture, you realize that it’s relative, that different folks do different things in different ways. There’s no right and wrong, just different value systems. And while you can read that in a book, it’s very different to know it experientially. 

How can a student handle the fear of not being accepted by others because they feel they are different?

By learning to be comfortable with themselves. Some universities might have programs that help students work on becoming more comfortable with themselves and in their new environment, but sometimes it’s just a case of learning by doing. The more students get out there and interact with others, the more comfortable they’ll be with themselves. But it can be tough because they’re coming to a new environment. They’re trying to adjust academically, they’re trying to adjust culturally, they’re trying to find their own place in this new world. And not everyone is aware of what they need to do to be accepted, especially when they’re often still defining who they are. 

What’s the most important thing you would share with a new student adjusting to college?

I have two things: Having an open mind is important. Be open to new experiences and a new life. Also, if you’re struggling with something, you have to reach out.

How can parents encourage students to meet, talk to and become friends with students they meet who aren’t like them?

One of the first things is to encourage your student to have an open mind and be comfortable in taking the first step. We live in a culture where sometimes we’re hesitant to take the first step. Many international students come from backgrounds where they see themselves as guests in this country and they expect the domestic students to reach out first. Remind your student that they’re going to a diverse college and that they should make it a point to engage with the other students. 

What if a student wants to get to know an international student, but is afraid of saying the wrong thing and inadvertently offending them?

As Americans, we want to be respectful, but we also have an awareness of our own ignorance at times. Because of that awareness, we often decide we’d rather play it safe and not say anything so as not to risk offending anyone. But if we accidentally offend somebody, that in itself is an important point for conversation, and something for you and the other person to talk about. You have to become comfortable in being a bit uncomfortable.

Can you give us some conversation starters that a student can use to get to know someone who isn’t like them?

This can vary from culture to culture. Many cultures don’t have the idea of small talk. So first off, teaching your student about small talk is important. Some questions that can get a conversation going are: 

  • What’s your name and how do you spell it?

  • Do you have a nickname?

  • What city are you from?

  • What’s your major?

  • What year are you?

  • Is this your first time coming to the U.S.?

From these questions, you should find enough to start and maintain a conversation. 

How does attending a diverse college prepare students for the populations they will encounter and work with once they graduate?

One of the mottos in my office is “Inspiring global citizens.” The world has become smaller, and in this global citizenry it’s important to understand, learn about, adapt to and be comfortable with different cultures. By having conversations with people from different backgrounds, studying abroad and joining different international organizations students can grow that global mindset.