How to: Foster diversity and classroom engagement through student organizations

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Foster diversity and classroom engagement through student organizations
With Scott Ruff, Associate Professor of Architecture
Student organizations can serve as an extension of the classroom in terms of incorporating diversity into learning environments.

In his role as an adviser to two student organizations, Scott Ruff aims to provide a cultural comfort zone for architecture students of diverse backgrounds.

“Through student organizations, students of multicultural backgrounds gain a voice within the school,” Ruff says. He advises the Multicultural Arts and Architecture Collective/National Organization of Minority Architecture Students, and the American Institute of Student Architects.

Student organizations in any school or major can help students effect change within an entire unit’s curriculum, Ruff says. Students get to introduce new ideas in the school through the various activities their organizations promote. And the organizations enable students of diverse backgrounds develop leadership roles that also help to instill confidence, pride and belonging to the university.

“These students have a place at the university, and they are no longer just ‘the other,’” Ruff says.

Many of the meetings I have with the student organizations are more like a seminar on diversity, social activism, architecture and multiculturalism. Meetings with the executive board are like the graduate section. The students are more informed in a broad range of concepts which they then practice and disseminate in other course work.
What are some challenges universities face that make student organizations relevant to fostering diversity?

Universities tend to look at statistics – such as the number of African-American or Hispanic students represented in a class – instead of looking at the culture as a whole, Ruff says.

“One person is not a culture,” he says. “To say you have one Native American person in a classroom does not achieve diversity.”

Ruff compares it to when a person says they have a black friend. You can’t base what you know about an entire community on one person.

“I think a common thing that occurs in the 21st century is that people know one person of another culture, but they don’t ever really get to know that culture,” he says. “And it only really happens if the university or school unit presents that idea of community.”
Broad definitions

Within these cultural categories, each group has its own complex relationship with race and culture. Several diverse and very different groups tend to be lumped into the category of Hispanic, such as Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Hondurans. Ruff has witnessed some institutions including people of European descent, from Spain within that category.


When schools and majors don’t have their own student organization in place, Ruff says they tend to rely on a single student for information on a diversity. “They get friendly with one student in the hallway or in a lecture course, as opposed to seeing an array of people in multiple leadership roles,” he says. The lone student may have little to no experience with engaging the complexities of multiculturalism.

Low retention

Sometimes when a student is failing a class, they don’t have a support group or network to rely on because they might not know where to find other individuals who have faced the same challenges they might be facing.

Some fields less diverse than others

Cultural diversity tends to be less prevalent in certain fields, which Ruff believes makes need for student organizations greater. In architecture, African-Americans account for 1.7% African-American Women .3% of educated and licensed architects. Latinos account for 5.6% .

To achieve diversity, it helps to place students from different cultural backgrounds in direct contact with a larger group, such as a culture-based student organization, Ruff says.

Providing a collective group of one identified culture can help foster a dialogue on that culture and its people.

By having organizations in place, the university and the school can then choose from a group of people who would be able to best represent a group in various committees within the school.
Outcomes from student organizations:

  1. Recruitment and community-building: Creating diverse cultural groups within schools and majors can help give more students a sense of belonging, and makes the institution more attractive to a diverse cross-section of prospective students. Ruff says. “You’re not necessarily going to recruit anyone if you can’t provide that person with a community, or somewhere they can find solace at the end of the day. Yes, you’ll get a few mavericks who want to be pioneers. But you’re not going to attract large groups,” Ruff says.

  2. Retention: Having a group of peers or mentors who can share anecdotal events of their own cultural experiences and challenges can help students identify problems before a crisis arises and they are forced to leave school. For example, if a student is failing a class, it might be because their high school wasn’t as strong as it needed to be in preparing students for college. As a result, that student might not realize that he or she needs tutorial help. An adviser or mentor who faced some of those same struggles in the past can step in to explain the situation. “In your old environment, you may have been the smartest person. But here, you may need to do some remedial work,” Ruff says.

  3. Curriculum development: By putting on symposiums and panel discussions through their organizations, students are able to bring in speakers they believe are important to their education. “This is where students are engaged and effecting learning. They are filling the gap of what they’re not getting in the classroom,” Ruff says.

  4. Creating a dialogue: Student organizations play a large role in helping the university engage questions of diversity within their own units, Ruff says.

Five tips for promoting diversity through organizations:

  1. Develop a student organization that is specific to cultural diversity.

  2. Mentor that group. “It’s one thing to just have the organization in place. But you also need strong mentorship by faculty who are engaged and interested in diversity as well,” Ruff says.

  3. Provide those groups with resources to develop programs. Allow the organization to sponsor a major lecture within the school to bring a speaker to the university.

  4. Ask the organizations to develop a curriculum that fills the gap of what they see is missing in their education. Mentors are teachers, the organization can be more powerful a than a class, in teaching students how to learn on their own. Also, teaching students how to communicate, teaching them to teach.

  5. Have them play a role in the vetting and hiring of new faculty and administration. Having students – especially those of diverse backgrounds – sit across from a perspective dean accomplishes a few things: First, it allows the person coming in see that the school values diversity. Second, it allows students to get a sense of who’s coming in and empowers them with the inclusion and governance process.

Project Pipeline

Ruff is curriculum director for this program, which includes a summer day camp at Tulane and a yearlong high school extracurricular activity, put on in partnership with the National Organization of Minority Architects.
About Scott Ruff

Scott Ruff has been teaching full time since 1997. Ruff believes architecture is a cultural practice, grounded and rooted within cultural morays, ethics and values. “It just doesn’t get produced if all those things aren’t in play,” he says.

Ruff teaches a course called Identity and Architecture that focuses on how contemporary culture, race and gender play a part in the development of architecture.

One purpose of the class is to help students understand who they are so they can engage others more effectively. “You’re able to avoid making huge cultural and social blunders because you are more conscious of your art, yourself and your audience,” he says.

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