In the days following World War II, when the New Community College of Baltimore was founded, nobody thought very much about cultural diversity. After all, most of the faculty and students were white and male.
Today, however, it's a much different story at the two-year public college. Minorities represent more than 80 percent of the more than 6,000 students at the New Community College of Baltimore -- blacks, women, Asians, Hispanics, Africans, West Indians and others.
The community college, with campuses on Liberty Heights Avenue in West Baltimore and at the Inner Harbor, is a microcosm of the city's ethnic diversity, and as a result has a successful track record in integrating the races and cultures found in Baltimore.
That leadership role was recognized last month when the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges awarded NCCB a $50,000 grant to promote intercultural awareness and understanding among students, faculty and staffs throughout Maryland's 17 community colleges.
The award, known as the AACJ/Beacon College Project Grant, designates NCCB the lead, or "beacon" institution working with six other area community colleges (Catonsville, Essex, Dundalk, Harford, Montgomery and Prince George's) to improve sensitivity about cultural diversity. The two-year project begins this fall.
Why the emphasis on cultural awareness?
"Our national survival depends on it," responded Dr. Elizabeth B. Warbasse, professor of history at NCCB and the project director for the Beacon College Project Grant. "By 2000, two-thirds of the work force will be what is today called a minority. The concept of the white middle-class male as the standard in the workplace will be a thing of the past."
The grant, however, doesn't signal a shift away from the traditional role of community colleges in educating students.
"We'll keep on teaching math and English," Ms. Warbasse said. "But economists keep warning about the U.S.'s declining economy, saying we aren't making it -- that we're in a world market and have to make some painful adjustments. If we don't jerk ourselves out of our old patterns, we'll be like the ancient Romans, divided in class conflict and unable to meet our global responsibilities."
How does intercultural awareness help change patterns of behavior?
"Conflict resolution is critically important," said Dr. Richard Bucher, professor of sociology and the program liaison at NCCB for the grant project. "On a humanistic level, it's important to learn how to penetrate labels and see people as people. In a way, the study of cultural diversity puts a finger on things that are common to all of us -- how we're alike."
Also, as the world shrinks due to computer links and closer ties to foreign businesses, an understanding of cultural differences becomes even more critical, Mr. Bucher said.
"For students to succeed in a global marketplace, colleges need to infuse the curriculum with an intercultural perspective," he continued. "It's important that students be interculturally literate, as well as math literate, computer literate and language literate."
Yet, the administrators say, it's an area not many colleges have addressed.
"We haven't focused on the human element," Ms. Warbasse said. "How do you get on with, trust and work with someone who is not like yourself?"
To achieve the grant's goals, NCCB will sponsor workshops and video conferences on intercultural conflicts and differences, create new curricula, and develop a library of books, periodicals and other material that can be used by colleges throughout Maryland.
Some of the goals spelled out by the Beacon grant reach out beyond the campuses of Maryland's community colleges.
"One example is in the field of health," Ms. Warbasse said. "We could develop a video or a set of instructions to be used in the classroom that shows how members of different cultures react -- and the problems they face -- when they arrive in a hospital emergency room, or to childbirth."
In addition, some of the Beacon grant money will be used to sponsor workshops in the community. An example: Members of the project team will work with businesses and hospitals to develop programs to promote racial diversity.