Researchers at the University of Exeter and the University of Washington have found that ‘ethnic spaces’ at US universities make students from underrepresented minority groups feel a greater sense of belonging and engagement with their university.
Ethnic spaces exist in many US universities and are designated social or cultural facilities specifically for ‘students of colour’.
At the University of Washington (UW), for example, the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center opened in 1968 and has grown to what is now believed to be the largest college cultural centre in the United States. Its purpose is to “serve and empower historically marginalised and underrepresented students by providing educational and cultural opportunities for holistic development.”
Of the top 26 universities on US News and World Report’s undergraduate rankings for 2020, 18 have a space for minority students.
The paper, The Symbolic Value of Ethnic Spaces, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, looks at the value that university students of various ethnicities place on ethnic spaces.
A sense of belonging
Researchers asked almost a thousand students on the University of Washington’s Seattle campus – of which 205 came from underrepresented minority groups, namely African American, Latinx and Native American – to read about plans for their university to add either a new ethnic space or a general space.
Results showed that reading about a new ethnic space increased feelings of belonging, support and engagement among underrepresented minority students, whether they intended to use it or not.
For white students, reading about ethnic spaces increased perceptions that the university valued underrepresented minority students.
However, these white students felt lower senses of belonging, support and campus engagement than white students who read about a general student space. As the research did not examine the cause of this difference, it is unclear whether the general student centre boosted their senses of belonging, support and engagement, whether the ethnic space reduced them, or both.
They are more than just gathering places – they show students from underrepresented ethnic groups that they are welcome
“This work is important because we know that students from ethnic minority groups can feel less belonging in institutions where they are underrepresented,” said Dr Teri Kirby, senior lecturer at the University of Exeter and lead author of the study.
“We need to understand how to make underrepresented minority students feel more welcome. Our research suggests that ethnic spaces are one good way to achieve this.
“This suggests the importance of these spaces is partly about the signal they send. They are more than just gathering places – they show students from underrepresented ethnic groups that they are welcome at the university.”
Co-author Professor Sapna Cheryan, of University of Washington, added:
“Creating physical spaces for underrepresented minority students (and supporting those that already exist) is one powerful way to reduce academic disparities by signalling to underrepresented students that they are valued by the broader university.”
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