Think global, act local, as the saying goes. In the 2017 fall-semester sociology class Diversity in Higher Education, the approach was, in a sense, “learn national, do intensive research local.” In the course, students not only looked at racial issues at U.S. universities generally, but also collaborated on an ambitious research project to investigate race specifically on Bowdoin’s campus.
After analyzing forty-eight of the interviews they conducted with seniors, the students in the class were inspired to share their findings with the wider Bowdoin community.
While Sophie Cowen ’18 and Sydney Avitia-Jacques ’18 led the effort, they worked with their classmates to collaborate on a series of four articles in The Bowdoin Orient, published this spring. The series, Diversity Matters, focuses on issues such as racial segregation, college conversations about race, so-called “color blindness,” and others.
“We all cared about the material and put a lot of work into the project,” Cowen said. “We all knew how much information we had, and to leave that to rest with our final papers didn’t sit well with us. We said, ‘we have to keep moving with it.’”
Associate Professor of Sociology Ingrid Nelson’s Diversity in Higher Education course explores the role colleges and universities play in shaping racial politics in our country. Besides examining the function of higher education for students and society, Nelson teaches about issues such as inequality in college access, financing, campus experiences, and life outcomes of students.
Avitia-Jacques said she was motivated to publish the information after deciding that the college would benefit from hearing from a range of students about campus racial issues. “Lots of students spend much of their Bowdoin career pondering race and their racial experiences, but still feel in the dark about how students who are different from them think about race,” she said.
Additionally, she added that contributing to a commonly shared understanding of where students stood on these matters could help facilitate future discussions. “Some of the feedback from our peers was thanking us for giving them concrete things to talk about, so they’re not talking so abstractly or personally,” she explained. “It helps make discussions more concrete.”
Besides publishing some of their findings in the Orient, Cowen and Avitia-Jaques have met with several administrators and faculty to talk about their work. “We didn’t anticipate how many conversations would come out of these articles among students, staff and faculty, community members, alumni,” Cowen said.
Both Avitia-Jacques and Cowen graduated in May. Avitia-Jacques is working as a community organizer in Portland with the Maine People’s Alliance. Cowen will be working in New York City as an Avodah Service Corps Member focusing on work to help reform the criminal justice system.