Let’s think about the upside of diversity


(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of a series of seven essays on diversity penned by Trine University students)

Good morning ladies and gentlemen and shuvo shokal in bengali.

My name is Ayasha Faria, a junior chemical engineering major at Trine university. I am originally from Bangladesh, a small country right next to India, hence the bengali. I came to the U.S. in 2014 as a chemistry major at a college in Fort Wayne area and transferred to Trine last year fall.

I come from a small town, about twice the area of Angola but with 2 million people in it. Driving down the streets, a person may pass a mosque, then drive a couple more blocks and pass a church or a temple. In public places, you could see there were signs in two different languages, Bengali and English. I was no stranger to different cultures, which made my transition to the U.S. a little easier than I had expected.

Upon coming to Trine, I have seen how the world converges at a small area. I know diversity can mean a lot of things, but I will refer to it as an environment with a variety of racial, religious and cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic classes, sexual orientation, political beliefs and even difference in opinions. To put it simply, diversity can be living in a community with people who are different from me.

I come from a culturally diverse place, which gave birth to the bengali proverb “Thirteen festivals in twelve months,” that indicates the abundance of festivity in the country. Being exposed to something different from what I had been used to seeing at home helped me accept the fact that we are all different, yet we are all capable of doing exceptional things.

Diversity can sometimes bring moments of discomfort, a greater perceived interpersonal conflict, more self-concern, less cohesion and so many other problems.

Most of the problems arise due to mistrust and more within-culture conversations and language problems.

By being exposed to different people and cultures, someone can learn more about a particular group, gaining insight into how and why things work as they do and possibly a way to change them for the better.

Now how does that help promote productivity?

The thing is, if we are to build teams capable of innovating, discovering or revolutionizing, diversity is helpful. Being around people who are different from us make us more creative, industrious, helps us develop ideas and provoke thoughts within us.

Last year for homecoming our organization MSO painted a sidewalk. The design was a brainchild of a very few individuals, but to implement the idea, I remember there were way more than just a few who helped us with the project. The main element of the design was a globe with pictures of flags from all the countries being represented at Trine on it. So, when we got down to drawing the outlines of the flags, which were basic rectangles, we were uncertain about how to free hand draw them and yet manage to make them look perfect, because none of us were artistic enough. The only equipment we had at that moment was a piece of paper where the actual design was drawn and a pencil. I remember one of the international students pointed to the paper we were holding and went “how about we use that as a template? One of you hold it down and another of us can sketch an outline.” The result was a stellar piece of art which ended up winning first prize in the sidewalk painting competition.

People who are different from one another bring unique experiences and information to complete the task at hand.

I come from an engineering background, and working in group projects I have found out when people are brought together to solve problems in groups, they bring different perspectives and opinions. We brainstorm about so many different ideas which probably wouldn’t have been possible if we were to work on our own. I admit it takes much longer to come to a consensus, but since our aim was to reach a common goal, we ended up working a little bit harder to come to an agreement.

Usually in a homogeneous group it doesn’t take that long to agree with one another. On the other hand, members in a heterogeneous group realize that they are socially different from one another; their anticipation changes, they can foretell different opinion and perspectives. Whether they like it or not, they must put in a little extra effort (and time) to come into terms with each other.

In 2006 three professors from Stanford University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Columbia University performed an experiment to find out the impact of racial diversity on small decision-making groups where sharing information was a requirement for success. The subjects were undergraduate business students at the University of Illinois. Those students were put in groups of three, some consisting of white members only, others consisted of both whites and non-whites.

The groups were asked to perform a murder mystery exercise. All group members shared a common set of information, but the members were each given important clues that only he or she knew, and the key was to share the information each group collectively possessed to figure out the murderer. Turned out the racially diverse group outperformed the other groups.

Why did this happen? The best explanation I’ve heard was on this podcast the other day.

Imagine you’re at a potluck dinner and you’ve brought some fries. They’re a bit dry, so you go to get some ketchup from the fridge. You open the fridge and you find no ketchup. That’s OK, there is still mustard and mayo and you go ahead and use those instead.

Now, imagine that you go to the fridge and it’s empty. This is the first time you’ve not found ketchup in the fridge. You’ve never heard of ketchup being kept anywhere else. So, you deduce there’s nothing else you can put on the fries. Now as I have seen it, people in the USA keep their ketchup in the fridge, whereas we Bangladeshi, not as a rule, but generally, keep our ketchup in the cupboard. If we had Bangladeshi and Americans at that potluck dinner, they may have found the ketchup quicker and joined the party.

The same applied to this experiment. Everyone has their own way of viewing a problem, shaped by the individual experiences that they have had. When tackling an issue, rather than everyone contributing to the same thoughts and conclusions, it is always better to have multiple interpretations and approaches.

When presented with a challenge, knowing how to approach the problem is the difference between thinking more of the same and thinking something extraordinary. Diversity helps us see problems anew and consider ideas that may go unnoticed. So, when you are struggling to find solution, always remember that the ketchup is not just kept in the fridge. Diversity brings more efficient problem solving into the team. Take a new direction and look in the cupboard.

Aysha Faria, of Bangladesh, is a student at Trine University and a member of the school’s Multicultural Student Organization. She presented this essay at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in its recent annual Diversity Sunday observance.

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