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Students Get Competitive Advantage by Appreciating Cultural Uniqueness

Spring/Summer 2017

Working outside her culture of origin is something Tiffin University President Lillian Schumacher learned at a young age. And, it has been an advantage throughout her life and professional career. She wants graduates of Tiffin University to share that same benefit to enhance both personal relationships and professional experiences in an emerging global marketplace.

Born south of Pittsburgh to Syrian immigrant parents, Schumacher learned early how to bridge an old-world culture at home with Midwestern Pennsylvania culture in the community. “I’ve always had that understanding of culture and how we were part of a melting pot,” she said.

Or so she thought. Then, when she was 13 years old, her father relocated for a job with the U.S. State Department to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. “I thought my life was over,” Schumacher recalled. “I had to cover my hair and body. I couldn’t drive because I was a woman. I had to live by their rules, not by my rules.”

dr. schumacher in green jacket

Her cultural exposure broadened with three years spent at an American high school in Greece and at Cyprus. For college, she traveled between the United States and Saudi Arabia while earning a degree in economics at Allegheny College. At that point, her family relocated to Tucson, Az., and Schumacher went on to earn three advanced degrees from Bowling Green State University.

Looking back, she sees advantages of spending a good part of the 1980s outside the United States. “It was uncomfortable, but that kind of discomfort leads to so much learning. There’s huge richness in being exposed to different beliefs, values and practices. It had a lot of influence on how I understand the world, myself and the bigger picture.”

To Schumacher, that means dropping judgment of and developing more comfort with people who look and think differently. “I’m less likely to make assumptions and I am probably a better listener,” she said. “Being exposed to different cultures improves one’s ability to understand and appreciate the values of others. I believe that improves the ability to communicate and negotiate.”

Cognizant of advantages from a global openness, Schumacher wants to bring that wealth to the extended Tiffin community. And so, in November, she launched a multi-year initiative known as “Celebrating Cultural Uniqueness.”

She’s quick to point out this isn’t “diversity awareness” or an international studies program but a multi-year initiative that will build global and cultural appreciation into the DNA of the University. “Global” isn’t limited to ethnicity or race, she notes. It could be differences in gender, religion, region, financial situation, sexual orientation, physical ability or other elements that shape a person’s worldview.

“We’re trying to build comfort with and appreciation for cultural differences into our curriculum, not just offer an experience,” explained Schumacher. “We want to go deeper than a trip abroad or to the inner city. We want every student to experience this initiative in the classroom.” Shifting the cultural paradigm will give Tiffin University graduates an immediate competitive advantage in the global marketplace of work and relationships.

“We already have a very diverse student body, and a diverse culture,” Schumacher pointed out. More than 40 percent of the student population identifies as culturally unique. “We have a great laboratory for learning from each other. I want to take something we already do well and make it better. I want to showcase it as a competitive advantage.”

And that competitive advantage is powerful. It’s defined as:

Tiffin University graduates, regardless of their area of specialty, are innovative problem solvers who can leverage diversity of any type to work effectively with people who are different from them and produce innovative ideas.

This isn’t just a “nice-to-do,” but recognition of real-world requirements. For example, Schumacher said, “Maybe you have an accounting degree and work in legal affairs. You interact with people from different parts of the world who think very differently from you. If we teach you to work with people who are different, the more productive you will be.”

Among the early steps is redesigning general education courses. “We’re examining classes that all students must take and determining how to build in competencies that support the mission statement,” said Schumacher. “And, we’re looking to build in measurement so we know we’re accomplishing that goal.” She recognizes this as a process and projects that the 2018 freshman class will graduate with an enhanced set of cultural competencies.

The faculty are driving change to the general education requirements. “They have to look at curriculum and pick it apart. In some classes, we’re already doing some of these exercises; and those classes will remain as they are. Other classes may change or be eliminated.”

A cross-disciplinary steering committee of 18 has been creating a framework for change and has reached out to representatives of the entire Tiffin University community.

Kristina Collins, assistant professor of management, conducted several focus groups to fill in initiative tactics. “We talked to every constituency that would be affected, including students, faculty, staff, alumni, major employers and local community leaders,” she said. “Students were full of ideas and among the most excited about the opportunities.”

Among the first differences students might see in the classroom are discussions of world issues and their effect on society. Instructors will deliberately mix student groups for projects. “We tend to gravitate to people who are like us for teamwork,” said Collins. “We’re encouraging instructors to mix international and domestic students, inclusive of lower and upper class members. With diversity, we can learn more from each other.”

“I hope this will result in an increased comfort level and ability to meet people where they are,” she said. “Then, for example, if negotiating a business contract in another country, a graduate would have the behavior skill set to understand the cultural norms of their business counterpart; and negotiation would be more effectively secured.”

Change goes beyond academics to auxiliary programs as well. “We want to change our culture in formal and informal ways,” said Reginald Wilkinson, a member of the University’s Board of Trustees. “We’re identifying core competencies for students to be exposed to these efforts and examining how Celebrating Cultural Uniqueness is integrated into lesson plans and course curricula. We want this initiative to have legs of its own,” he said. “We want it to naturally evolve. We want to do this in a democratic way. We want input from faculty and staff and others.”

Rahat Ahmed, director of corporate and foundation relations, moved from Bangladesh to the United States as an international student 32 years ago. She knows what it’s like to be an international student and move to a country with different norms and customs. “Cultural uniqueness doesn’t stop with the color of our skin,” she said. “It can be gender, orientation, rural/urban background.”

She believes a shift in cultural mindset starts with some self-awareness of uniqueness, then respecting your own heritages and culture. “That leads to developing critical thinking skills which support students’ ability to be more innovative.”

Sharon Perry-Fantini, Ph.D., assistant vice president for equity, access & opportunity/Title IX coordinator and associate professor of management, sees the new initiative building upon previous diversity efforts and transforming them into a global mindset.

“It’s exciting to see that Tiffin is expanding on something that we’ve already been doing well instead of throwing it away and starting over,” she said. “Companies want to foster inclusive environments where people can work together,” she says. “That must be done to achieve organizational success and support the world we live in. Changing the workplace begins with education. At Tiffin, we’re providing a landscape so this can happen.”