By Nicole R. Rivera, Ed.D.
At some point in our lives, we’ve probably all had the unfortunate experience of being “on the outside,” regardless of whether it came from starting a new job, moving to a new community, or simply joining a new group. Being on the outside may lead to feelings of awkwardness and discomfort, but eventually—if we’re lucky—someone from the group takes time to welcome us with some local knowledge.
In an educational setting, many students find themselves “outside” when they are part of a minority group, when they have a disability, or when they’re merely new to town and transitioning into a community. Being on the outside at school creates that same sense of uneasiness found in later life, but may affect a student’s ability to cope with daily challenges and achieve their maximum potential.
Consider moving to any college around the country as a freshman. No matter where you go, there’s a unique culture built from decades of campus-specific knowledge and behaviors. Just this week, for instance, I had a discussion with a group of students about the culture of our campus. The students filled me in on the best and worst times to go to the dining hall, the nicknames of campus buildings, and even some of the local slang. All of these practices perpetuate a unique cultural education of their own. What’s more, they build community, foster common ideals, and generate a sense of ownership between pupils and their institution.
Lisa Delpit defines the culture of power by first noting the existence of a dominant group that understands the codes or rules for participating in any given group. Members of the dominant culture, she notes, may not even recognize this tacit knowledge because it’s just “the stuff they know.” As a result, they may be unintentionally keeping newcomers on the peripherals by failing to recognize what they need to know and how they can share it. In some cases, those on the outside of the group may even be blamed for their lack of knowledge and ostracized accordingly. To combat these concerns, Delpit advocates for explicit teaching of cultural rules and norms to provide open access to the environment.
This position accurately sums up what it means to engage in culturally-centered practices; having a level of awareness of one’s own knowledge, and then sharing that knowledge with others to engage them in the culture too. Recently, I completed an interview study with first year college students that exemplifies the process. Each of the students was recruited by the college’s Multi-Cultural Affairs program to participate in a summer transition program prior to entering the first year of college. The transition program introduced students to the culture of the institution prior to the academic year and facilitated strong social bonds within the group. My work followed the students through their first year to explore their transitions.
Participants of the study consistently talked about the value of gaining knowledge about the college. Through their summer experience the students gained “insider knowledge” through both direct teaching and observation. When they returned to school in the fall, they already belonged. Some even told stories about how they directed others around campus and gave advice, thus helping even more individuals move from “outside” to “inside.” In the end, students who were initially identified as “at risk” because of different factors instead became the campus’s cultural elites!
It is imperative that schools recognize the power structures within their systems. In doing so, mechanisms may be designed to effectively integrate new students and faculty, thus preventing isolation, discomfort, and detachment from the community.
Delpit, L. (2006). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: The New Press.