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U of U and NSU to Exchande Ideas – and Students – to Gain Perspective on Diversity

September 16, 2002 — University of Utah assistant professor Janet M. Shaw and Norfolk State University (NSU) associate professor Kara A. Witzke teach diversity classes at their public universities. Ironically both classes lack just that: diversity.

According to last fall’s enrollment figures, 92.6 percent of the University of Utah’s 27,203 students were Caucasian; 6.8 percent were Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans; and 0.6 percent were African American. At historically black NSU, 89 percent of the 6,721 students were African American; eight percent were Caucasian, with another three percent Hispanic, American Indian, Asian American and foreign international students.

A member of the U’s department of Exercise and Sport Science, Shaw is in her fourth year teaching “Physical Activity Promotion in the Community,” a course that studies how culture influences behavior, including the lack of or endorsement of physical activity. “Students’ feedback has been constant: ‘We would better understand the study of diversity if we had more diverse people in our class,'” she notes.

Shaw points to a 1996 Surgeon General’s Report that indicates ethnic minorities are less likely to engage in physical activities as are adults and individuals from lower socio-economic status. “I can’t imagine it’s gotten any better in the last few years,” she says, adding that it’s difficult for her students even to imagine other people not being physically active, because they are.

In an effort to help students more fully understand what’s behind the statistics and how cultural influences can promote or deter physical activity and exercise, Shaw and Witzke will take turns visiting the other’s university with two of their students. In coming weeks, real-time videoconference discussions between the two classes will explore issues of race, diversity and discrimination based upon age, obesity, gender, socioeconomic status and sexual preference.

“I don’t know how we could have the discussions on these fairly difficult issues without some kind of contact between the two groups. Our U students, who are all exercise and sport science majors, are a lot like the NSU students, who are mostly future teachers and coaches. Our students work a lot. Their students work a lot. And both groups have family obligations. Maybe the students will find that they’re more similar than they thought,” Shaw says.

“Traditionally, we’ve taught our students about the field of physical education and the opportunities within it,” explains Witzke, an associate professor of physical education and exercise at NSU. “But we were neglecting the bigger concept of how we prepare teachers for a global environment. We discuss skin color issues and how certain cultures, like European immigrants, are able to integrate much more easily into the U.S. based on skin color alone and do not have the traditional struggles that Asians, Hispanic, Native and African Americans have had. One of the big questions we discuss is ‘What does an American look like?'”

Shaw’s class is a service-learning course, which means U students spend three hours a week promoting physical activity at community and senior citizens’ centers and at elementary and intermediate schools.

Witzke, whose “Principles of Physical Education” class fills a liberal education requirement, admits that prior to joining the faculty at NSU she had not had much experience in the African American community. “So it was a bit of a cultural plunge for me,” she says.

Shaw and Witzke, former graduate school classmates, hope that by the end of the course the 45 U and 20 NSU students will use their knowledge of diversity to better promote physical activity in needful and underserved populations.

This week Witzke and two NSU students, Nicholas Brown and Shayla Rivera, will attend University of Utah classes, participate in discussion groups, observe student teaching activities, meet with U Vice President for Diversity Karen Dace and experience some of the local culture, including Temple Square and the nearby ski resorts. “They will be able to go back to classmates and tell them what the U’s like and the kinds of things they talked about,” Shaw says.

Next week Shaw and two University students, Aubrey Perry and Jeff Huffman will travel to NSU to participate in a diversity forum and, likewise, observe the “Principles of Physical Education” class activities in Norfolk, Virginia.