By Alex Jardon
Multicultural Education, Social Justice, Inclusion, and Diversity
For my research topic, I intend to learn more about how European universities define and foster inclusion and diversity. I am also interested to discover the emphasis placed on social justice, multiculturalism, and global literacy in the counseling field and higher education in general. How does the emphasis on multicultural education, social justice, inclusion, and diversity compare to the present emphasis that U.S. counselor education programs place on these values?
This Global Perspectives Program (GPP) experience has been an amazing opportunity to learn about education around the world, and I know it will foster personal and professional growth for years to come. I approached this experience with an open mind to notice as much as I could about diversity and culture at each location and how my own cultural lens affected the way I encountered such culture. I found myself noticing the broader cultural differences such as an emphasis on work life balance. In terms of education, a number of the facets of the European education system seemed unusual coming from a U.S. perspective. Factors such as the low cost of education and open admission policies did seem to facilitate inclusion and diversity, yet the lack of programs to help minorities succeed in college, as is often found in U.S. universities, seemed somewhat contradictive of that goal. Despite these major systemic differences, the educational systems all function well within their respective cultures, with some aspects that fit better in either context.
I found that the pace of European culture for work was much more comfortable for my personality. The culture of the United States often emphasizes productivity and working hard without a need for breaks. European culture seemed to place much more emphasis on work-life balance, such as by the inclusion of coffee breaks and complete lunch breaks. I have been guilty of working through meals despite lecturing others not to do this. So having opportunities to relax during the day was a welcomed change from my graduate student lifestyle. For as important as productivity may be, taking pride and pleasure in one’s work can be a crucial part of life as well. After this experience, I could envision myself working in Europe sometime in the future. I entered into the counseling field to make a difference in the world, so where that takes place is still to be determined.
When approaching this Global Perspectives Program, I knew that I wanted to take away what I learned internationally with the goal of improving higher education at institutions I encounter in the future. The theme for this GPP being “Higher Education as Public Good” seemed quite fitting to that goal of mine. Being in the field of counselor education, improving the human condition is such an important part of my personal and professional aspirations. The field of counseling places a strong emphasis on multiculturalism, social justice, and inclusion, yet the field of counseling itself is seen much less commonly in Europe than in the United States. So I knew that there would be differences simply in regards to the rarity of the counseling field in that region of the world. However, learning from different perspectives is a major aspiration of GPP, so the learning opportunity was accessible to me. At each stage of GPP, I looked for the meanings and emphasis placed on multiculturalism, and found a variety of answers that I was not expecting.
One of the main challenges I encountered with this goal of mine was the major systemic differences between the U.S. and European higher education systems. Taking what I learned from higher education abroad to improve education in the states seemed much more difficult than my original vision of simply taking parts of one and adapting it to the other. The systemic differences such as funding for education or admissions policies for example were changes that would be difficult to implement without massive systemic overhauls. In each setting, variables such as the cost of education, admissions policies, and services for minority students demonstrated both facilitating factors as well as detriments towards inclusion and diversity.
The Swiss higher education system comes to students at a very low cost whereas the U.S. system tends to be quite costly, often leading to large amounts of student loans. The price of tuition itself can be a facilitator or detriment to accessibility and inclusion for students. For as nice as it would be to reduce the cost of tuition in the U.S., that funding would need to be procured from somewhere, as it does in the form of higher taxes in Europe. The U.S. does offer community colleges, often specializing in vocational education, so that nearly any students to attend college at a lower cost than larger universities, yet the variety of degrees available is much more limited. The Swiss system seems to place fairly equal value on an academic track or vocational track in higher education whereas U.S. culture unfortunately tends to view vocational training as less desirable. For as progressive as it would be to add cultural value to vocational training in the U.S., the overarching culture is simply so different that changes would take much time and effort.
The Swiss higher educational system does appear to be much more inclusive in that many of the admission policies are open to any students with their comparable form of a high school diploma. Students can enter any major without having to take the general education courses that U.S. universities often require. Many U.S. universities have admission restrictions, so entering the university or into a specific major is not necessarily a guarantee. For as inclusive as the Swiss system seems to be in that regard, there is not necessarily a diverse student body as most vocational fields are primarily occupied by men. A representative at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich also spoke about how the relatively small population of Switzerland allows for students to follow any education track without over-saturation of job markets. The large population of the U.S. could allow for some fields to be inundated with too many qualified workers, so it is possible that admissions limitations create a protective factor against that.
Often U.S. universities have services available to encourage minorities to enter underrepresented fields and supports for minority and first time college students to succeed in in their studies. From what I learned in Switzerland, services such as these are much less common. At the University of Zurich, we learned about some efforts to increase the number of women in the vocational training programs, yet this did not seem to take up much of their resources. At ETH, they appeared to have more of an interest in upholding their high standards of education than in creating extra services to support minority students. On one hand, admission tends to be much more open in the Swiss system than the U.S., yet more services tend to be available to students in the states. Each of these could be seen as methods of fostering inclusion and diversity, but creating more inclusion in the U.S. educational system could still be limited by admissions requirements.
With the amazingly diverse population of the United States, inclusion and diversity could mean any aspects of a student’s culture such as gender identity, race/ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, religion, etc. From what I witnessed at many of the Swiss universities, a diverse student body often meant the inclusion of more women. Gender equity itself even had a different meaning in Switzerland than in the states. When discussing the fact that men in the U.S. often receive paternity leave from work after the arrival of a child, many of the Swiss said that this was a right only reserved for women in Switzerland.
Other aspects of an individual’s culture, such as racial inclusion, seemed much less discussed in the visits with Swiss universities. One explanation for this could be that the Swiss population may not be as racially diverse as the U.S., and international students often come from a neighboring country. Most international students in the U.S. come from far reaches of the globe because of the geographic location of the states. Another explanation that stood out to me was how the history of discrimination in the U.S. still affects inclusion and diversity today. Histories such as slavery and multiple civil rights movements have created tensions that Switzerland had a much different experience of. With a different history of discrimination, it is possible that the Swiss higher education system need not place as much emphasis on inclusion and diversity.
Age was another aspect that did not appear to arise much in our discussions. Much of the discussion about students revolved around traditional aged students. Only at University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI) did we see a video of students that included non-traditional students. In a lecture about Swiss résumés at ETH, I learned that Swiss jobs can have age requirements to them. Coming from a U.S. perspective, this was shocking; however, from a Swiss perspective, this is considered normal.
So all in all, the main goal I had for taking aspects I learned from the European Universities in order to improve education in the U.S. turned out to be more challenging than I expected, but it provided a great learning experience nonetheless. There were aspects of each educational system that seemed to work better than others, but with the benefits also came challenges in each system. For as appeasing as low cost tuition was in Europe, higher tax rates were needed in order to cover that funding. For as inclusive as European open admission was for students, the U.S. still seemed to offer more programs aimed at supporting minority students.
At a basic level, creating the perfect education system is not feasible because perfection itself is in the eye of the beholder. These education systems are dissimilar in many ways, yet each seems to function quite well nonetheless, within their respective cultural contexts. International education systems can learn from each other in order to continue improving. That is a major learning goal of GPP, yet improvements to education take time and still take place within the broader culture of a region. I hope that programs such as GPP can continue to foster learning and improvements to education so that we as educators do not operate in ways simply because that is how it has been done in the past. With as quickly as cultures change and the world is becoming globalized, we can learn from these diverse perspectives in order to improve education, increase inclusion, and create more public good as a result.