MU has a culturally rich and diverse population

Thursday, July 29, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Nguyen Thi Minh Ha, left, and Thuong Nguyen, right, graduate students studying public administration, look over donated bed sheets with help from volunteer Diane Driver at the International Friends Center. About 12 to 13 percent of MU students are culturally diverse.

MU has 3,000 ethnic minority students and another 2,000 international students, according to Pablo Bueno Mendoza, assistant director of student life.

That means 12to 13 percent of MU students are culturally and racially diverse.

In addition, 85 percent of students come from environments where they make up 80 percent or more of the population, Mendoza said. Many may lack exposure to different cultures before they arrive at MU.

“When you have people coming from places where they make up 80 percent of the population, it becomes difficult to sometimes relate to other people who have vastly different experiences from yourself,” Mendoza said.

Even students from Chicago believe St. Louis and Kansas City are small, Mendoza said. This may be offensive to students who come from those cities, both of which have populations of 2 million or more.

It is common, Mendoza said, for students from urban areas to look down on those from rural communities. Students from St. Louis might treat those from Kansas City with disdain, and vice-versa.

“We’ve run into issues where St. Louis students consider Kansas City students ‘hicks,' Mendoza said. "That’s kind of a mind-blowing thing when Kansas City is actually the larger city than St. Louis, but there’s this perception that they’re more country because they’re farther west."

In the case of international students, Mendoza said, some Americans assume they can't speak English.

This happens, even though when a TOEFL or language-proficiency exam shows they’re highly accomplished at communicating in English, Mendoza said.

"They may have accent prejudices with regard to individuals so it’s really interesting that way," he said.

MU has resources to help freshmen deal with culture shock. Mendoza said residence hall staff have cultural diversity training, and multicultural centers hold orientations for new students to prepare them for college life.

“So for instance, I do an Asian-American and a Hispanic-American orientation to help students expect what will happen in a predominantly white institution," Mendoza said. 

The Black Culture Center and Academic Retention Services conduct orientations for African-American students on how to adjust to MU’s predominantly white culture.

If conflicts arise, Mendoza recommends staff, including residence hall coordinators and community and peer advisers, become involved immediately.

“If it’s something between a majority student and an ethnic minority student, they normally bring in me or Nathan Stephens (of the Black Culture Center)," Mendoza said.

"If it involves an international student, they usually bring David Currey (assistant director of the International Center).”

The MU Asian Affairs Center has staff who speak Korean, Chinese, Thai and Japanese and are happy to aid communication among students.

In addition, there are smaller organizations to help bridge any barriers — at least 30 black organizations and 12 to 15 groups for Asian and Hispanic students.

The MU Counseling Center is another resource.

Marcus Mayes, 25, and Kristen Andrews, 19, both experienced firsthand the benefits of the Black Culture Center. Both are black students at MU who have experienced the clash of different cultures and races.

Mayes, a second-year graduate student studying public administration, said the black-white ratio is similar to where he’s from in Sand Springs, Okla. Yet, there were still instances where he felt slightly intimidated by his new environment in his freshman year.

“For me, it really wasn’t that much of a culture shock ... It was more when you go sit in a class with 500 people, and it’s like ‘I’m the only one in here!’ " Mayes said. "That can be pretty intimidating.”

For Kristen Andrews, a psychology student from O’Fallon, Ill., the revelation came when interacting with people from different cities across America.

“When we had people from Chicago come down, they’re a smidge louder than the people where I’m from," she said. "That was kind of a shock for me, like ‘Why are they so loud?’ Other than that you’ve just got to get accustomed to it."

Mayes and Andrews had some advice on how best to approach the potential culture shock you might experience.

Andrews said she believes the way to overcome fear or prejudice of other students is to start a conversation or attend a multicultural event and be open to new experiences.

“That way the people won’t seem so scary," she said.

MU also has resources for parents, but Mendoza encourages them to simply let go of their son or daughter.

“You’ve had them for 18, 19 years," he said. "It’s time for them to start having a life of their own. Some of the experiences will be challenging, other experiences will be full of joy. Let them have fun. I think they’re in safe hands."


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