Julian Mitsuo Sadur is descended from Russian Jews on his father’s side. His mother is Japanese and African-American. And though he was raised Jewish, when Julian plays right field for the Montgomery College baseball team, he models himself after the great Japanese player Ichiro Suzuki.
“Whenever I get frustrated, I try to remain calm,” the 19-year-old says. “A lot of American players always try to hit the ball as hard as they can, go for the home run, the big play, instead of laying back and letting the game come to them.”
By contrast, the Latin American players on the team bring “a different swagger, their style of play has so much flavor to it,” Julian says. When one pitcher from Colombia is playing well, “he’ll throw in some Spanish dance moves.”
These two approaches—Asian cool and Latin fire—symbolize the essence of Montgomery College, a two-year school with three campuses and more than 26,000 students. At George Washington University, where I teach, diversity is a goal we talk about constantly but seldom attain. Here it is a way of life, as familiar to students as eating lunch or texting friends.
Montgomery attracts a richly varied population by keeping schedules flexible and tuitions low (annual costs average $4,272, half the rate at Maryland’s four-year colleges). Two out of three students are nonwhite, one out of three is foreign born (from 170 countries), and one out of 10 is like Julian, a child of mixed-race parents.
His compact stature reflects his Japanese ancestry. His tightly curled, close-cropped hair comes from his African-American grandfather, who was stationed in Japan with the U.S. Navy after the Korean War. Julian attended Japanese school on Saturday and Hebrew school on Sunday, and never felt comfortable with either group while growing up near the college’s Rockville campus. But here he has found friends with similar backgrounds, combining Caribbean, Chinese and Caucasian bloodlines.
“A lot of us want a place to fit in, more than anything else,” Julian tells me as we chat with three other students in a college conference room one morning. “It takes a while to find a groove and really feel comfortable with yourself.”
Since there is no dominant culture at the college, most students eventually find a way to “fit in” and learn from each other.
Lorain Santo, 20, emigrated three years ago from Jamaica and recalls a sociology teacher who had students exchange stories about their traditional foods back home—a list that included horse meat, monkey brains and caterpillars.
“You could see people draw back and think: Whoa—you eat that?” she says with a throaty laugh. During her first semester, Lorain was stunned when students from the Ivory Coast and Nigeria showed pictures of their homelands. “My idea, when I think of Africa, is that it’s so many people and so many diseases and these deadly animals that are ready to kill you,” she says. “It never crossed my mind that it’s such a beautiful place.”
At 65, Yolanda Palis represents a different form of diversity at a school where the the average age is 26. One day she found herself lecturing a classmate on the subject of poverty. “This young woman was saying, ‘It’s all their fault, they’re not doing this, they’re not doing that,’” says Yolanda, who grew up the oldest of 12 in the Philippines and now works part time at the World Bank. “Hello! You need to know that to go hungry is not anyone’s fault, because I went hungry, I missed meals, not just for a day but for weeks. I told her, ‘Only if you’ve been hungry yourself, then you can say it’s somebody’s fault.’ ”
If Yolanda has a lot to teach her younger classmates, she also has a lot to learn from them. “I’ve learned to listen, really listen, because of the difference in technology and learning methods,” she says.
When she started college, Yolanda was “really afraid” of the Internet, but a young man in her writing class “would come and sit next to me and say, ‘Here, and here.’ ” Now she’s confident enough to take a distance-learning course taught completely online.
The lessons of diversity extend far beyond the classroom. When Julian started courting a Colombian woman, he learned that in her culture, young people “become friends first. You have to know someone’s entire family background before you begin to date, before you can ever get to the first kiss.”
This was not exactly the custom in his hometown of Rockville, but Julian appreciated getting to know his girlfriend’s parents and even her brothers. “Dating outside your comfort zone, you never know what might change your mind-set on things,” he says.
Like Julian, 19-year-old Matt Steadman comes from a mixed-race background—African-American father, Jamaican mother and some Chinese and British ancestors, as well. He and the other three agree that students from nontraditional backgrounds tend to stick together on campus because they share an outlook.
“I don’t mean to put down American students, it’s just different,” Matt says. “When people don’t have a background [like ours], I feel they don’t throw that much into their work. They didn’t have to fight for everything as much. As somebody from a different culture, you’ve got to fight to get a job, you’ve got to fight to not be alone by yourself. I feel it’s a struggle for anybody who’s not 100 percent pure American.”
But Lorain embraces that struggle. “I want to be shocked by other cultures,” she says. “I want to be able to say, ‘Wow, that really happened to you?’ ”
That phrase could serve as a motto for Montgomery College. Every day, students here teach each other. That’s why diversity matters.
Steve Roberts’ latest book, Our Haggadah (Harper, 2011), written with his wife, Cokie, was published this spring. Send him suggestions at email@example.com.