Freshman course on diversity established

Deb Spencer | Staff Reporter

The College of Arts & Sciences will be offering a one-credit, optional class for freshmen focused on diversity starting in the fall.

Created in response to the now-disbanded Mosaic Project’s final report, the course has recently been approved by the Arts & Sciences Curriculum Committee, which recommended a required one-credit diversity course for undergraduate and graduate students.

As of now, the course is not required. Developers hope to have 150 students enrolled in the pilot program next fall, and First Year Center plans to make it a requirement for all incoming freshmen in the future. Rather than using the structure of a traditional class, the course will be made up of experiences such as service projects and group discussions.

On the first day of classes in January, Provost Holden Thorp approached Associate Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Rebecca Wanzo to develop the course. Wanzo led a committee of faculty, staff and a student to do so. The committee then developed some initial themes for the course.

According to Katharine Pei, director of the First Year Center, the plan has developed throughout the year to become more focused, but will still incorporate components of the themes Wanzo described.

Pei explained that the course now has four key objectives for students on the topic of diverse identity: understanding identity categorization, gaining “stronger skills related to concepts related to diverse identities,” understanding structural inequalities in St. Louis, and understanding the importance of identity issues in professional and social contexts.

As of now, the First Year Center is in charge of assigning a summer reading book to all incoming freshmen. As part of the new programming, the chosen book will always focus on identity and on an individual or group experience of difference.

A development committee member, Associate Professor of Psychology Brian Carpenter, explained the course’s components. First, the course will expand the focus of the first year reading program book selected for that year. There will be a series of conversations and discussions that occur in the evenings early in the semester that focus on different themes and readings. The second component of the course will be a half-day of community service. The third component is a winter discussion on the book and a student presentation early in the spring semester, making the course a part of both semesters.

“I think this should prepare students for some of the important conversations they’re likely to have in many of their other courses while they’re at Wash. U., but also for courses, conversations and interactions that they’re likely to have in other areas of their life on campus, you know, in the residential halls, on their teams, in their clubs and organizations, all the extracurricular stuff,” Carpenter said. “This is a class that will expose students to a lot of the theories and ideas about diversity, and hopefully prepare people for those conversations the whole time they’re here on campus.”

Pei added that the course will not be held in a traditional classroom setting or meeting at a certain time every week. Rather, it will satisfy 15 contact hours through the different components, such as the discussions during Bear Beginnings and the community service projects at various times.

“Next fall will be an experiment,” Jennifer Smith, Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, said. “It will certainly be interesting to see how it goes and how students respond—it is an innovative course structure. We’ll know more once the course has been run and we’ve been able to assess its impact.”

Senior Michael Land has received diversity training through some of the extracurricular leadership training he has been through at Washington University and is excited to see the class come to fruition.

“Every time I’ve done those trainings and had those experiences, I’ve thought to myself, ‘Oh, it’s a shame that everybody doesn’t get to have this.’ All of us come from our own backgrounds, and a lot of them are homogenous in their own ways, like a lot of the people we’ve spent time with up until we’ve come to college. So I think some sort of diversity experience that everybody gets to do would be a good thing,” Land said.

Additional Reporting by Noa Yadidi

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.