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‘Ethnic Spaces’ Can Help Minority Students Feel Welcome on Campus

A new study suggests that “ethnic spaces” at universities in the U.S. help students from underrepresented minority groups feel a greater sense of belonging and engagement with their campus.

“This suggests the importance of these spaces is partly about the signal they send,” said lead author Dr. Teri Kirby, senior lecturer at the University of Exeter in the U.K. “They are more than just gathering places — they show students from underrepresented ethnic groups that they are welcome at the university.”

Many universities already have designated facilities, such as social areas and cultural centers, specifically for minority students. But at some institutions, such spaces have fallen victim to budget cuts or controversy.

Researchers from the University of Washington (UW) and the University of Exeter, wanted to investigate the value that college students of many races place on those facilities.

For the study, 965 students (205 minority/760 white) from the UW campus in Seattle read about plans for their university to add either a new ethnic space or a general space. Among minority students, reading about plans for an ethnic space led to stronger feelings of belonging, support and engagement in the university.

“This work is important because we know that students from ethnic minority groups can feel less belonging in institutions where they are underrepresented,” said Kirby. “We need to understand how to make underrepresented students of color feel more welcome. Our research suggests that ethnic spaces are one good way to achieve this.”

Among the top 26 universities on US News and World Report’s undergraduate rankings for 2020, 18 mention having a space for underrepresented students of color.

At UW, for example, the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center opened in 1968. Over the years, it has been renovated and expanded and is now believed to be the largest college cultural center in the United States. The 26,000-square-foot building provides meeting spaces, a computer lab, a dance studio and other programming.

However, other research has shown that organizations and institutions can increase people’s sense of belonging through materials, policies and programs that are not wholly based on one’s ethnicity, just as well as a set physical space.

Study coauthor Dr. Sapna Cheryan, a UW psychology professor, previously led a study about the ways computer science classrooms often appear unwelcoming to many women, potentially turning them away from the field.

In the current study, researchers asked 205 African American, Latinx and Native American students at UW as well as 760 white students to read about plans for either an ethnic or a general student space, like a student union building.

The research was divided into four separate studies, each presenting students with slightly different versions of plans for ethnic spaces or general student spaces.

The findings reveal that reading about a new ethnic space increased feelings of belonging among underrepresented students of color regardless of whether they intended to use it.

For white students, reading about ethnic spaces increased perceptions that the university valued underrepresented students. However, these white students felt a lower sense of belonging, support and campus engagement than white students who read about a general student space.

The current research did not look at the cause of this difference, so it is unclear whether the general student center boosted their senses of belonging, support and engagement, whether the ethnic space reduced them, or both.

Overall, the research underscores how even the idea of a space for students of color can boost their feelings of inclusion.

The study is published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Source: University of Washington


‘Ethnic Spaces’ Can Help Minority Students Feel Welcome on Campus

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). ‘Ethnic Spaces’ Can Help Minority Students Feel Welcome on Campus. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/04/29/ethnic-spaces-can-help-minority-students-feel-welcome-on-campus/156082.html
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 29 Apr 2020 (Originally: 29 Apr 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 29 Apr 2020
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