Counseling Center

University of Maryland

College Park, Maryland 20742



Situational Characteristics of Positive and Negative Experiences


With Same Race and Different Race Students


Velma Cotton, Warren Kelley, and William Sedlacek



Research Report #16-98



Funding provided by

The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators


The Ford Foundation


The study utilized intensive interviews with undergraduate students to determine the

characteristics of same and different race groups of students. In-depth interviews allowed the

authors to develop themes to describe the on campus conditions which contribute to the greater possibility of positive racial interactions amongst students. The four themes which emerged from the interviews were: 1) the impact of peer communication in academic environments, 2) the influence of campus employment, 3) enriching experiences of residential life, and 4) opportunities for social interaction. Implications  and recommendations for increasing positive cross cultural interactions are discussed.



 In what situations on campus do students have positive experiences with students of other races and ethnic groups?  Is it on the residence hall floor, as a member of a student organization, part of a class team project or, perhaps, participating on an intramural team?  Similarly where do students have negative experiences?  The purpose of this study was to examine situations and groups in the campus environment where students have positive experiences, both with others of the same race and others of different races. Our primary goal was to 1) better understand the situations in which students have positive and negative racial experiences, and possibly 2) uncover common characteristics of those situations in ways that will be helpful to the student affairs practitioners in assessing the campus environment and the opportunities existing on campus that can foster multiracial interaction among students.


Colleges and universities have experienced a significant increase in the enrollment of African American, Asian American, and Latino students within the past twenty years (Wilds & Wilson, 1998). While the increase in these students attending colleges provides the opportunity for an improved and richer  multicultural environment,  research suggests that such improvements are not as naturally occurring as one might think.   For example, students of color attending predominantly White institutions  frequently perceive the environment to be  hostile and less interracial while White students have less experiences with hostile interracial environments (Ancis, Sedlacek, & Mohr,  in press;Helm, Sedlacek, & Prieto, 1998; Loo & Rolison, 1986, Pascarella, Edison, Nora, Hagedorn, & Terenzini, 1996).

In addition to experiencing separate perceptions of the institution’s environment, students of color and White students hold different perspectives on the establishment of groups within a campus environment. Whereas White students tend to view groups composed solely of one ethnicity as racial segregation (Loo & Rolison, 1986, p.72), students of color perceive the same groups as a support mechanism, which is related to their retention (Sedlacek, 1998). Although it may seem likely that  students within a multicultural environment would have frequent interactions, these findings suggest that interaction among the different racial groups may not be a typical occurrence.

The contact hypothesis theory supports the assumption that close contact between members of different races provides a greater possibility for positive racial attitudes to develop and the lack of such contact fosters prejudice and ill will (Allport, 1954). Supporters of  contact hypothesis view racial segregation as a source of ignorance and ignorance as a building block for derogatory stereotypes and racial hostility. This view holds that intergroup contact is a desired outcome and is most successful under certain conditions.   These conditions include: the members having equal status, cooperative interdependence among group members, a strong degree of interaction and egalitarian norms (Allport, 1954; Cook, 1985; Gaertner, Dovidio &  Bachman , 1996). If stronger social bonds could be forged among races, they contend, racial attitudes would improve dramatically (Sigelman  &  Welch, 1993, Sherif, 1973). Therefore the more frequent contact that students have with others of different races, particularly under the conditions described, the more likely positive relationships should develop.

While the contact hypothesis and subsequent related work provides a theoretical basis for understanding the conditions that might foster positive interaction, less seems to be known about the conditions that actually exist in the wide variety of real-life interactions.   This study examined the circumstances of different race and same race interaction among University of Maryland students. In order to interpret the students college experiences within context, their off campus experiences were also examined.   Undergraduate students from each major racial group on campus (African American, Latino, Asian, White) were randomly selected and the critical incidents technique (Flanagan, 1954) was used to obtain the answers to a series of thirteen questions (see Appendix) requesting descriptions of specific experiences on and off the campus with various racial groups. Following the questioning phase, themes of the responses were identified and characteristics of negative and positive situations were analyzed. This method allowed the analysis of the characteristics of situations that provide supportive,  multicultural environments.


            A qualitative research design, specifically the critical incident technique (Flanagan, 1954, Woosley, 1986) and use of an interview guide (Patton, 1980, Woosley, 1986)) were the chosen research methods. An interview guide was selected to give a framework to develop questions, sequence those questions and make decisions about which information to pursue in greater depth (Patton, 1990).


            Maximum variation sampling was utilized because “any common patterns that emerge from great variation are of particular interest, and value in capturing the core experiences …”(Patton, 1980, p.172). The University of Maryland has an undergraduate enrollment of approximately 24,000, including about 37% students of color(14% African American, 14% Asian American, 7% Latino, and 2 % other). Maryland has extensive and wide ranging diversity programs, including courses, workshops, and programs for students, faculty and staff. Thus, this campus environment provides some unique opportunities to study the implications of diversity. The participants were 75 undergraduate students randomly selected using computer system records, from the University of Maryland undergraduate student population. There were 43 female students and 32 male students. The age range for the sample was between 18 and 29. The mean age was 19. The study contained 19 Asians, 19 African Americans, 18 Latino and 19 White students.

Demographic and Background Information of Participants

Participants were asked to complete a brief background survey which asked their age, gender, GPA, years in college, racial composition of previous high school, permanent residential information, and information regarding social activity with different and same racial groups on and off the University campus information regarding on-campus organization involvement.

Background Information of Interviewers

The 21 interviewers were graduate students, 18 of whom were enrolled within a single counseling course at the University of Maryland. Three additional interviewers were hired in an effort  to balance out the interviewer’s racial /gender composition. The racial composition of the interviewers was 16 White , 3 African American, 1 Latino, and 1 Eastern Indian. There were 19 female and 2 male interviewers. The mean age of the interviewers was 33.


A training session was held where interviewers conducted practice interviews and an attempt was made to standardize procedures. The goal was to have each student interview four, different-race students. This was accomplished in most cases. There were five interviewers who were unable to complete all of their interviews.  Over a period of three months (March - May, 1998) the interviewers contacted the students, scheduled interviews, conducted the interviews, and translated responses to the 13 item questionnaire.

A semi-structured interview was developed for data collection. Bogdan and Biklen (1992) suggest that “with semi-structured interviews, you are confident of getting comparable data across subjects, but you lose the opportunity to understand how the subjects themselves structure the topic at hand” (p.97).  In order to allow students to respond in a manner that was both individual in nature and consistent with the interview guide framework, the interviewers were encouraged to use their sense of judgement to make decisions about when and how to employ probes that would either digress or expand the interview guide.

Interview questions were designed to obtain rich information regarding specific incidents with same race or different race groups of college students. Questions were designed around the conceptualization of  elements involved in contact hypothesis  (Allport, 1954; Cook, 1985; Gaertner et al. 1996; Gaertner, Rust, Dovidio, Bachman, & Anastasio, 1994). Areas addressed included: a) descriptions of positive and negative experiences with peers, significant others and college professors of different and same races while on and off campus b) degree of time spent in those interactions, and c) location of these activities. These students were specifically questioned about their extent of interaction and level of contact with those students who were of different races than themselves. A detailed interview guide was given to each of the interviewers.


An inductive approach to analyzing data was employed (Hycner; 1985, Witkin; 1995) to help draw meaning from the content of the interviews. Each interview was tape-recorded, and verbal responses were written during the interview.  The responses were compiled to assess any identifiable themes.  The content of each interview was diagnosed to derive specific themes.  Themes were analyzed according to the general areas of the interview guide. For example, “description of positive or negative experiences with people of the same race” (taken from the interview guide) provided a heading so that units of meaning taken from the interviews could be explored thematically. Themes were derived for each of the units and analytic notes were utilized throughout the process. As themes emerged for each participant’s responses, a chart was developed for each student and compared across cases for overall similarities and differences. The final themes emerged through rewriting, reflecting, reviewing taped descriptions, and comparing interpretations with another researcher who had become knowledgeable of the written questionnaires. The use of another researcher provided inter-rater reliability and accountability of the data source and interpretations.



Four themes emerged from the data:  a) peer communication in academic environments, b) campus employment interaction, c) experiences of residential life, and d) opportunities for social interaction.

Peer Communication in Academic Environments     

            Students described academic environments as an opportunity to engage in rich dialogue with peers and faculty members of different ethnic and racial backgrounds. Although classes may have presented challenges for interaction (e.g., large size), students generally appeared to embrace a safe classroom environment that encouraged discussion. These experiences included small group classroom discussions; discussions regarding race, ethnicity and gender issues; interactive classroom activities; and study groups. In general, students most frequently reflected academic situations that allowed them to engage in enriching activities that fostered knowledge of the subject matter as well as allowed them to get to know other students.

            The small group classroom discussions seemed especially conducive to fostering experiences with different races.  Discussion groups of about 25 students were a required component of many 150-300 plus classrooms. For those students, the sessions became opportunities to have positive experiences with those that were different than them. Amy, an Asian freshman student noted:

I took an African American history class last semester and that means that like 98% of the class were African American and it was a great experience. I learned a lot about them (African Americans students) . . . you know you interact with them (African American students) a lot in classes and discussion groups. That was a good experience for me.   Helpful, easy to get along with ….no conflicts. I count the discussion classes a lot more because you interact more personally with them (African American students).

For Amy, her experiences within a freshman elective class was an enriching opportunity to learn about others in a small discussion group of twenty people rather than the 150 within her large lecture class.

For some of the participants, classroom interaction becomes a way for students to come out of their protective environments and learn about others. If properly facilitated by the instructor, in most cases a teaching assistant, a small group discussion became a safe environment to dialogue about stereotypes, prejudices, differences, and similarities between cultures.  Similar to Amy, David was also the only member of his racial group (Latino) in a discussion group.  But unlike, Amy, he had always lived in predominantly white neighborhoods and had never had much interaction with other, non-white races. David explained the significance of an in class situation:

In my Black Drama Class, we had a very interesting discussion about how perpetuation of stereotypes, and stereotypes in general that whites have of blacks and that Americans have of Africans. And it was very interesting to see how people of different races have different points of view. I think that people of different races just because of small cultural differences between the races have different opinions and they are subject to differences in upbringing and stuff….. I think that the variety of opinions of the discussion that was brought to this group enriched it. I mean obviously the class is going to be predisposed to racial discussions, but I just think that diversity in the class does add a lot of variety and opens not only White people’s eyes to minority views but also minority’s eyes to White’s views.

            Although most students reported positive interactions within classroom situations, some students reported negative incidents where improper classroom management may have led to uncomfortable classroom disorder.

For Sherry, an African American senior, heated classroom debates were usually welcomed forms of communication, yet she became surprised when her Foundations of Education instructor stated that minorities should not be in the same high school with White students and children with special needs should be in separate schools.

It became a really racial debate. You could feel the hostility in the room. Lots of yelling, lots of arguing. People started crying. I thought there was going to be a fight. It was just bad. I think he (the teacher) could have taken it in a different way. Unless that’s what he wanted. People could get stirred up. I mean that was just my opinion. It was kind of scary that people still felt that way especially because people want to be teachers. He felt so strong about that ….  I wonder if he could feel that way and teach. I think sometimes you have to keep your prejudices inside and deal with it at another time. Especially if you are going to be a teacher.

Students also mentioned how classroom experiences often have conflicting results.  It may have been valuable to hear different opinions yet the impact of the comments may only have served to confirm how far apart college students may still be on controversial issues. An example of this was when  Carlos in describing his first freshman discussion group (he is now a senior).

We got into a discussion about language .. about making English …. English as the only language. Because, you know proposition 209, which was very near and dear to my heart (he is from Los Angeles)…. .there was a lot of attitude in the class that these people (Mexicans) had no business speaking any other language than English. I remember one Polish young man who said that his grandfather learned to speak English so why would this be a problem for Mexicans? People had a very negative outlook on people who speak another language. My take from a lot of the negativity was  (that) if you weren’t White than it doesn’t make a difference.. (It) was sad.

Classrooms were not the only academic related areas conducive to fostering multi cultural communication. Many of the interviews revealed that students engaged in a number of outside classroom activities stemming from their academic studies. Nina, a White female from New England, described how the Indian mother of a classmate cooked her native food following an interview she needed to complete for a family studies assignment. She had never been to the home of her friend (a Middle Eastern student). At the end of her interview project she found it really nice to be able to talk about similarities and differences in cultures by getting to know the family.  Nina said, “Like I hadn’t been to one of their houses”….. her mother cooked us all the Indian food and stuff like that.”

 The interviews suggested that the rigors of academic life encourage study groups and academic achievement, yet can also influence the growth and respect of other cultures and ethnicities. Melissa explained it well when she described her experiences with a microbiology study group:

Every time I have a study group I tend to study with people of different races … I don’t know if that helps ….it just happens that they are not Asian….  Just that we (her study group) not only could  together, we could also talk about other things. Like we could get into personal experiences, make each other laugh, just get through stresses. It’s just that I really felt comfortable with them. I learned more about them like their backgrounds and how they are different from me. Not just race wise but class wise.

Melissa, an Asian student, described a group that was White, African American, and Middle Eastern. More frequently than not, students described groups of people that were very racially diverse.  In addition some students also found study groups to be a method of decreasing racially influenced stereotypes of campus organizations. For Mark, an African American male, a study group in a fraternity house was an eye opening experience.

I was studying for stats (statics) and I didn’t know anything about frats. But what I did know was negative. It became positive because I learned what they were all about. I mean …. I got some stereotypes …. they are labeled as people who like to play and they are all about being Caucasian or just not diverse. I thought it was cool ….. what the frat is all about and what they do in the fraternity.

            Mark clearly felt as though his three-hour experience with seven White fraternity members was a catalyst for changing his perception about a specific group, in this case fraternity members. So for some students, academic enrichment also means opportunities for individual growth through interaction with others.

Campus Employment Interaction

On and off campus employment opportunities were frequently mentioned as opportunities to learn about other races in an environment that sponsored growth, accomplishment, and responsibility. In several cases, the experience of striving to achieve common goals in the work setting became the impetus for increased interaction with different racial group

Allen explained this experience in the America Reads program (a community service initiative):

The make-up  (of the employees) across the board… very diverse. Sharing a common commitment on everybody’s part, their enjoyment of working with kids and seeing that affecting a lot of people. We were all in that program for the same reason.  I guess at the same time while working with mentors of a wide variety of backgrounds, I worked with a lot of different kids who had varied circumstances in their lives.

Erica, a White junior, expressed her enjoyment with working in Campus Recreation Services.

…it’s just a huge range of all kinds of different kinds of people, means we have people from all types of  backgrounds. When I first came here (to college) I stayed basically in a middle class type of society. But here, I just love it. You get to meet all kinds of people. Its very enjoyable meeting people from all over. I think what was positive was I came from a school with very few minorities and (no) different religions. And just being exposed to everything ….. I love to learn about different cultures.

No only do students working on campus experience exchanges of culture, they also are awarded opportunities to affect other students through program development. Lori, a Lispanic female, felt that being a Resident Assistant was as beneficial for herself as the students she advised.

I work for Resident Life so for the most part we’re all women because we work for a women’s dorm. And we (are) all of different nationalities. …. Also have differences in culture where we can contribute different things to different programs. I guess we can get to know about each other’s culture as well. And give them an opportunity to learn about my culture. It’s really positive when they are open to hearing about me and it helps me be more open minded to knowing about their culture. Our staff development meetings have a time where we can get to know something about each other; differences in families, different holiday’s, learn about Christian things, Jewish things, Muslim Holidays, and stuff like that.

Experiences of Residential Life

In numerous cases, students indicated that living in the residence halls provided extensive opportunities for interactions with different races in a nonthreatening environment.  Organized activities as well as spontaneous gatherings were the impetus for enriching experiences among students. Monica and Nicole, an African American junior and a White senior respectively, found their residential experiences to provide concrete opportunities for multi cultural interaction with others. Nicole explained the significance of her experience in the residence hall:

I live on campus with three girls that are of Caribbean descent. At first I thought that it would be strange. I thought that there might be a little tension at first but there wasn’t any at all. It was interesting because I’ve had a lot of insight into African American culture… And knowing that it is slightly different than the background that I’ve had. I don’t know …. I feel like I am more comfortable around African American people now. I’ve met a lot of their friends and I hang out with them as well.

            Nicole had not spent much time outside of her racial group prior to attending the University of Maryland. Similar to Nicole, Monica also had few encounters with different races prior to residing in the residence halls. That experience changed during her freshman year, as Monica explained:

I lived in Easton Hall and my floor consisted of people who had different backgrounds. Nothing in particular happened.  Just that I was able to interact with people of different races. Because I went to a high school that was predominantly black so there weren’t many other races there at the school.  So I think that was the most rewarding part of being on that floor.  Going to the floor meetings and stuff really allowed me to meet the people.

Freshman residential living appeared to be a crucial environment for sharing multi cultural experiences. In remembering her freshman year, Andrea, an African American senior recalled her best positive experience with people of different races:

The best positive experience would be when I bought my friend a Grease tape; you know the movie Grease? She’s also Black. We were watching it and all these other girls ended up coming in. I mean everybody on our floor. It was just a lot of fun.  A lot of people ended up missing it so we ended up rewinding it and ordered pizza and popcorn and everything. That was really nice. It was the first and only time. We never got together like that again after that. We were just all getting along and enjoyed it. We ended up talking a lot and learning about each other. We had never had any other chances to learn about each other in a non-threatening situation. I mean it was really nice to get to know everybody. It wasn’t preplanned I think that was also why I enjoyed it.

Although primarily positive, experiences with people of different races within or near residential housing can become negative when factors like alcohol abuse are added to the experience. As a Alex, a White freshmen describes in this experience:

A couple of friends of mine (four White males) and I had a run in with I think six Black guys that were getting loud. We were threatened by physical violence by them. I think we sort of talked to them and said “Hey listen weve both been drinking, we’re both a little juiced so”…I mean the drinking might have had something to do with it. You know tempers flare when you’re under the influence.

Opportunities for Social Interaction

The participants’ responses suggest that social activities were frequent opportunities for positive and negative interactions among racial groups.  These activities would include on-campus sponsored events like cultural organization parties and large-scale, campus wide events within the Stamp Student Union and around campus. Informal activities such as watching movies, meals, impromptu discussions with peers, religious observances and the like were also common.  Physical activities (e.g., recreational sports) were also mentioned.

In several cases social activities referred to University sponsored events. Often these events included large crowds of people over 300 people. The University’s McKeldin Mall is a popular outdoor gathering place for many of the events and was often used in reference to describing larger campus sponsored activities. An example is Craig’s description of a spring concert:

I believe it was a spring concert on the mall but it had different types of groups come and perform. It was like a diverse setting where different types of groups came and performed. The audience was really diverse. What usually happens when you go to a club or something is that you see the same types of people.

            For Craig, the event became a daylong affair after spending about five hours with a racially mixed group of twenty male friends. Similar to many participants, Craig was influenced to attend the event by the numerous flyers posted about campus. As he reflected back upon his experiences, he said that it (going with such a racially mixed group) would normally not have happened in that way. As a freshman (he was a sophomore when he took the survey) he was eager to get involved in everything and went to great lengths to meet different people. However, as time went on he became more selective about event attendance but still maintained diverse friendships.

Similar to Craig, Karen, an African American freshman who attended a predominantly African American High School, also utilized campus events to socialize with racially diverse people. In describing one such event she illustrated how the campus event seemed to unite people:

This one (the campus event) …the BSU (Black Student Union) was part of it but there were like other groups involved. Asian, Hispanic….. and just having a good time together. Step show parties, different areas where you could taste foods of different cultures and do things of different cultures. It was positive because it was different organizations coming together.

Large-scale university sponsored activities were of course not the only opportunities that students utilized to interact with others. David, an 18 year old Latino freshman described a decision his friends made to attend a movie at the University theater:

A friend of ours just called some people up and wanted to do something during the weekend. We hung out, got tickets and after the movies we went to a local diner. Just had a good time and ….really something that we take for granted at times.

            David’s friends were two Asian Americans, two African Americans, and one White student. Not only was the movie fun to see but he also learned more about his peers. Participants, like David, consistently provided detail descriptions of existing events offered on a frequent basis (daily movie offerings, sporting events, sharing meals). Anthony’s experience with sharing a meal, however, was different than David’s story.

One time I was eating lunch with two guys from my floor and they were both white and we were talking about (I have a full scholarship) Affirmative Action and they were saying how sometimes minorities get preference for those. And I was saying that there are some white people on my floor who also have full scholarships…. and one of them said it’s good to know that a white man can still get a scholarship like that.  …It wasn’t intended to be offensive but I kind of believe in Affirmative Action.     

Although some participants recalled large events as opportunities to meet different races, smaller student organization sponsored events appeared to offer relaxed and familiar atmospheres for interaction with students of a similar race.  Brandon, an African American student, discussed several positive experiences with different races but also reflected how relaxed he felt attending an event sponsored by the Black Student Union. The Black History event, “The Cabaret,” given in the campus cultural center, allowed him to just “enjoy sitting back and listening to the poetry.” Being with a “whole bunch of people who shared similar interest” was a positive experience with people of his own race. Alicia, an Asian student, found the Asian Student Union to be a very comforting place. Alicia recalled wanting to find an opportunity to get to know other Asian students during her freshman year (she is a sophomore):

It was my first semester at the university and it was the first club I joined. And it was Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Filipino. ….that group compared to the other groups was more open to each other …. compared to the other groups that were more cliquish. The members are really open to you and help you out.

Even though she only attended three meetings, she “got lazy and didn’t attend anymore,” Alicia, like many other respondents found having ethnically oriented organizations to be very welcome resources, especially during the first tumultuous year in college.

Although many student organizations are academic in focus, students like Amanda enjoyed the socially supportive atmosphere they offered as well.  In describing her first visit to the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, she remembered that “they (the students) actually told me what classes to take….. like core…... I guess it was kind of nice to actually speak my language and pretty much my customs and stuff..” In contrast to that organization, Amanda, a Latina female experienced feelings of rejection with a similar engineering organization of different races:

It was nothing bad, just kind of feeling uncomfortable. I don’t know what I was doing there, but I remember I went to their lounge probably the first or second time and when I went in everyone started looking at me and they were not at all friend (ly), maybe because they were all white. Usually, and I know people who go in there, (people) think they are nice. I mean they asked me what did I want. You don’t need a reason to go in there. Sometimes I just go in and just sit down. I was surprised they asked. I was there for about two or three minutes. I didn’t go there for a while.

The feeling of discomfort in a group of races unlike themselves was not only found in experiences of students of color. White students indicated experiences where they felt unwelcome within environments on and off campus. One example occurred when Megan, an 18-year-old White student, attended a student organization sponsored concert:

We were both late….. When people started looking at us …. I mean giving us bad looks. I just felt uncomfortable in a bad way because people were giving me looks. I only stayed for an hour because I wasnt having as good of a time as I thought I would. I think that they (the students) were just surprised to see white girls going to see this type of music.

In many cases students found opportunities to meet others by joining organized physical activities. Not only did these events provide exercise but also were opportunities to learn about other racial groups. Allen’s experiences with playing intramural volleyball seemed to typify these interactions. As Allen explained:

…. it (playing volleyball) is really just the whole experience a seasonal thing with different people. Getting different perspectives on individuals and I guess their interest in the game, approaches in playing the sport. One kid lived in Japan when he was younger and had a different perspective on how the sport is played. Basically it made the whole sport more interesting….and gave different perspectives….

Allen’s experience, as one Asian sophomore expressed, was an example of how different types of students can get a “chance to just hang out with each other and become friends instead of roommates.”   Even though positive experiences involving physical activity were cited, several students reflected how frequently sporting events among different racial groups could become confrontational. Mark, described it best when he said:

We were playing a game (basketball) during my sophomore year. I’m not sure how it came about but we just keep getting at each other back and forth. I think it was just being stupid and taking my aggressions out on the person, but I don’t remember exactly what happened. It was just a confrontation.

Many of the participants like Mark, a White junior, often revealed that the competition would always appear to be one racial group against another. As in Mark’s case, three African American players were competing against three White players.

On and off campus social events were frequently cited as opportunities for multi cultural interaction.  Students referenced the positive social atmosphere of parties with their own racial group yet also indicated a lack of receptiveness at parties where they were in the minority. An example of this experience was Amy’s experience with fraternity party attendance.

….I just felt really, really, out of place. Like I don’t know how to explain it but the crowd at the party was 100% white and I just felt out of place. The fact that I felt really excluded and not just a part of the culture. The cultures were just really different. I would say that I really didn’t see people taking interest. I felt like there was almost an understanding that look we’re different – let’s just keep it at that….. the guys were just not very culturally aware and it was just shocking to me. Well, something interesting I found was that most of the parties you go to there is not a lot of racial mix.


Interpretation of this study must emphasize that the findings may be unique to University of Maryland or other large universities. Another limitation to this study may have been the level of training received by the interviewers. Although the interviewers were encouraged to utilize the interview form as a guide and encourage student reflections, interviewers mentioned in their evaluations that they were concerned about the time needed to conduct the interviews. Throughout the interview period, support was provided through utilizing class time, phone/email contact, and other means of communication.  Although the above means of support were sufficient for many interviewers, training may have been improved through offering more “in class” training sessions

Although additional interviewers were hired, the gender and racial identity of the graduate student interviewers may have affected the level of responses from the students.  The study was unable to assess whether same-race and different-race interviewer/participant combinations might have affected the responses.  For example, the majority of the interviewers were White.  Because they were discussing a sensitive topic (racial contact), students of color may have been hesitant to discuss issues of race with someone who did not have similar racial characteristics.  Conversely, some interviewers may not have been as comfortable speaking with such a diverse student population.


This study began with the objectives to: 1) better understand the situations in which students have positive and negative racial experiences, and  2) uncover any common characteristics of those situations in ways that will be helpful to the student affairs practitioner.

Some overall observations:

The situations described by the students vary from structured environments with significant University oversight (e.g., work) to unstructured situations in which they are free to choose with whom and how they will associate.  Student affairs professionals should recognize the different characteristics of these situations and adapt strategies accordingly.

For example, the more structured academic and work environments provide a particularly fertile opportunity to foster interaction.  Research has shown that is not sufficient to simply put people who are different together and things will improve.  As reported earlier, it is most  successful when the members have equal status, are interdependent, and provided ample opportunity to interact.  Both the classroom and work setting provide the opportunity for faculty and administrators alike to positively affect these interactions.  The classroom should be considered a pro-active opportunity for different-race peer learning and dialogue. “Rather than leaving cross-racial interactions among students to chance, educators should make peer groups a deliberate and positive part of the educational process in colleges and universities.” (Hurtado, et al, 1998, p 292).  The work environment is also a prime opportunity to purposefully create cross-racial work teams that can foster better understanding.

Less structured environments, on the other hand,  provide both positive opportunities and negative risks.  There seems to be natural tendency to want to interact with people whom we consider similar.  When groups of different race students encounter each other in certain situations there seems to be a greater potential for problems.   Aggravating factors include alcohol and physical competition.  While we promote physical activities, we need to be sensitive to situations in which groups of different race students are competing and the ease to which comments or behaviors can cross the line and create negative conflict.

In the less structured environments, students do not seem to view the administration as the catalyst for bringing different students together, rather it seems that they see themselves as the initiators of positive contact.  For example, there was very little mentioning of explicit diversity programming as the vehicle of interaction.  Does this mean that such programming is not necessary? Of course not. It may imply, however, that administrators distinguish between the planning function, which may have a very intentional focus on assisting diversity goals, and how these events and activities are publicly presented.  So having an underlying strategy to promote diverse interaction sounds fine, but the students may simply want to participate in an interesting activity, and if they are able to have a pleasant experience with people they consider different, so much the better.



These observations lead to the following recommendations:

1.                                          Understand the power of the academic environment to provide the basis for improving students’ social development and positive interactions with others.  Initiate cooperative efforts with interested faculty to mutually uncover the best practices that have already worked in the classroom and find vehicles to inform and promote their use among other faculty.   Because so much of the students’ success revolves around their academic activity this is a prime place to look for opportunities to allow them to engage in growth promoting interaction.

2.         View the work environment as another key vehicle to promote better interaction.  There are built-in opportunities to cause different students to meet on a regular basis, especially in situations in which their mutual cooperation is necessary to get the best job done within the work environment. Conversely, administrators should be sensitive to, and take pro-active steps against the coalescing of students into same-race work teams and creating situations in which competition is facilitated between such groups.  Obviously, hiring a diverse student workforce is the first key.  For example, the University of Maryland, Division of Student Affairs employs about 2,000 students annually, of whom 40-45 percent are students of color, which reflects the make-up of the student body.

2.                  In the social  environment, actively think of ways to create opportunities for students to interact in safe, non-threatening environments, so that friendships can grow. For example, the University of Maryland’s  Department of Resident Life assigns rooms without regard to race, similar to most universities, thus assuring racially diverse roommates.  The department buttresses this room assignment policy with an active strategy of ongoing and vital diversity programming to foster opportunities for positive interaction.  An African American  student may not be likely to walk across campus to attend an event sponsored by the Jewish Student Union. But if an African American and Jewish student are rooming together, they are more likely to go see a movie or go get a meal.  This one-on-one development of understanding is extremely important. Does this mean we should reduce support for culturally specific programing? Of course not.  There is substantial basis to believe that enabling students to form into smaller groups that share like interests is very important. So whether it is a black organization or the German Studies Association, these organizations will likely have homogenous members.  We need to simply provide ample opportunities for non-homogeneous groups to form also.

3.                  Understand the nature of the different situations and not try to fit them all to the same model.  In more structured situations, pay attention to the factors that foster better intergroup contact, since these are more controllable.    In less structured environments seek to create environments which will more likely foster students who are different getting together on their own.  Make sure that diversity is a key aspect of programming efforts, but perhaps it is not as necessary (nor sometimes helpful) to publicize events as “diversity events.”

In summary, we see that there are ample opportunities to improve relations.  One observation is to realize that students are having positive interactions.  It seems that negative incidents capture much of our attention, and while it is legitimate to attend to these incidents, there are positive interactions occurring all over campus in daily interactions.  We should not lose sight of this rich ground for promoting better relations.  Also, we must understand the degree to which student affairs administrators, along with their colleagues, establish the environment and provide many of the situations that will guide interactions toward positive ends or not.




Interview Guide

Think of an occasion where you had a positive experience about being in a group with people of different races on the University of Maryland Campus.


Think of an occasion where you had a positive experience about being in a group with people of different races off the University of Maryland Campus.


Think of an occasion where you had a negative experience about being in a group of people of different races on the University of Maryland Campus.


Think of an experience where you had a negative experience about being in a group of people of different races off the University of Maryland Campus           


Descriptions of experiences


Exactly what aspect of the experience was positive or negative?


What lead you to become involved in the experience?


How many people were involved in the experience?


Would you be able to tell me the racial/ethnic background of the members involved in the experience?


Degree of time spent in the interaction


How long were you involved in the experience?


Location of the activities


Would be able to tell me where the experience occurred?










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