A freshman seminar takes students on a journey across the diverse culture that is Bethel's campus.

There has never existed a Bethel College that didn't welcome diversity.

Bethel's founding fathers named their institution the Bethel College of the Mennonite Church of North America because they intended it to serve a wide constituency. According to the minutes of the first Board of Directors meeting, that encompassed more than Mennonites.

Those minutes stated that Bethel College would seek to pay the debt of gratitude to other denominations by opening wide the doors of the institution, so that all may have an opportunity to partake of whatsoever advantages may be offered by it.

It's hard to know exactly what board members had in mind when they approved the above statement. Bethel's founders were without exception white and male, almost all Mennonite and, though some certainly had cosmopolitan experience, firmly rooted in rural/ small-town culture.

Where it has led, as Bethel enters its 125th year, is to increasing numbers of African-American, Hispanic, urban and/or non-Mennonite students arriving on the Bethel campus with the hope of making it their home for the next several years.

And that motivated Bethel faculty, through the Educational Policies Committee, to create a new class for freshmen that ran for the first time in the spring 2012 semester and was unusual in at least two ways. First, it was in seminar format, which students don't normally experience until they are seniors, if not graduate students. Second, it was designed to fulfill a cross-cultural learning requirement by treating the campus community as the culture.

As a seminar, the class laid the burden on the students to shape and drive discussions, goals and outcomes, but there were two faculty guides - Brad Born '84, vice president for academic affairs, and George Rogers III '69, who currently sits on the Bethel board and just retired from a position with Whitewing Construction in Newton.

However, both Brad and George credit Russ Graber '74 - who teaches in the athletic training department and has been a longtime track and field coach at Bethel - with being the true force behind what was called the Diversity Seminar.

We're always asking: 'How can we better serve our students?' Brad says. These conversations have been around for a long time. Russ has had a lot of them. And the broader questions of diversity have existed in different forms.

On a practical level, he adds, we didn't have enough General Education classes for freshmen in the spring 2012 semester. That made it an opportune time to propose a new class that focused on our campus diversity as cross-cultural learning.

As a member of the EPC, Russ was able to help bring the class to birth. He was also the one who first approached George about team-teaching the Diversity Seminar. He came to me with something along the lines of 'We're thinking of doing this class for first-time freshmen that looks at race,' George remembers. That was the only thing at first, but we added gender and some other -isms. You can't look at just one. It's not so much a matter of race as of people - culture issues, why people don't get along.

Russ looked at me, George adds, as someone who has credibility with, understanding of and connection to the football program. Football, undeniably, is the single biggest factor in making Bethel's student body the most racially diverse of the Mennonite Church USA colleges.

George and Brad relied on faculty, particularly the Liberal Education Advisers that all freshmen have, to direct students to the class. They ended up with 22, eight women and 16 men, all freshmen except Nicole Eitzen, a sophomore from Xalapa, Mexico, who is designing her own major with a focus on communication and culture.

And those two things - communication and culture - were pretty much what the class boiled down to. A major text for the Diversity Seminar was Foreign to Familiar - A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold- Climate Cultures (McDougal Publishing, 2000) by Sarah Lanier, who writes that the population of the entire world can roughly be divided into two parts. The two groups represented are 'hot-climate' (relationship-based) cultures and 'cold-climate' (taskoriented) cultures.

A lot of the positive response to the class came from engaging the hot/cold-climate culture model, Brad says.

One of the most valuable things about the class was seeing everybody's perspective - Kansas, Las Vegas, California, Texas, says Jesús Chavarría. I'm from San Antonio, with a different view from friends from California who are Hispanic as well. We talked about cold-climate and hot-climate cultures and you can tell right away who's from what. The cold-climate ones are goal-oriented, don't talk as much, keep more to themselves, listen more. The hot-climate ones are more group-oriented and talk more. We needed the mix, because without it, the whole class would have been chaos.

I learned that people express themselves in different ways, adds Laura Jensen, Everest. I'd have conflicts with people but the book taught me that they weren't being rude, it was just how they were raised.

Gustavo Palacios, also from San Antonio, says, Learning about the different communication styles between the Southern or hot-climate cultures and cold-climate cultures, how everything is different in the way people express themselves - that was probably the biggest help, because I went through culture shock [coming to Bethel]. This helped me start to understand how people communicate.

Recognizing and coming to value different communication styles and patterns could be as maddening as it was exhilarating, however.

The class decided that the major project would be a convocation presentation near the end of the spring semester. And they had to do it, with observation but no assistance from the two faculty.

In the beginning, I honestly didn't think we could do it, says Lina Adame, Newton. I'm an optimist, and I wanted us to succeed, but when we first started, I said, there's no way we are going to be able to do this. We argued about everything, we could never agree on anything. It took two weeks to even be comfortable talking about racism and sexism with each other - how can we talk to the whole campus if we can't talk to each other?

One class period, we realized we had to somehow work with each other and respect where each one came from, so we just went around the circle and said something we didn't think the class knew about us that other people or cultures might think was offensive. It was the first time we really opened up to each other.

I came from a small town, says Serenity Seiler, who is from Hanston, population about 200, and I thought Bethel was pretty culturally diverse but I was surprised by other people's stories. The racism that people have experienced I'd heard about, but didn't think happened any more.

This was the first class I've been in at Bethel that's been this diverse, says Nicole Eitzen. It's interesting how people from different places think of things in different ways. The convo helped us focus on one goal.

Planning the convo turned out to be one of the most valuable parts of the class for her. She learned much, she says, from how we dealt with conflict. We had a lot of discussions and people got upset. Because of the seminar format, we really had to listen to everyone's point of view, and some were very different.

As soon as we knew the convo presentation would be the big project, Brad says, George and I knew that for it to be meaningful, they had to do it. The tensest times came a couple of weeks before, when one student said: 'I don't think we can solve this as students - we need the teachers.' But we wouldn't, and they did it. These 18-year-olds solved the conflict productively.

They did better than faculty would have, George adds.

They all had to depend on the other students to be successful, Brad continues. Some personalities would have preferred we make the assignments.

Instead, they had to self-select, to appoint each other and trust each other.

To see what they achieved in class was good. To watch them step out and present to their peers was something else again.

They did it in a real way, says George, but they were sensitive and not offensive.

Other class members agreed with Ajai Brown of Oklahoma City: I liked the convo at the end - I felt like it was a good opportunity to put everything together and present it to the school.

The rest of the Bethel community who came to that April 30 convocation seemed to feel similarly.

About half of it was short presentations by Diversity Seminar students as individuals or pairs. The other half was devoted to a video the students made in which they talked to other students, not in the class, about their perceptions of racism and sexism on the Bethel campus. There was also some time for questionand- answer.

I heard one faculty member comment afterward: 'The students made everyone just uncomfortable enough to make us think about the issues,' Brad says. That's tough for 18-year-olds to do with their peers.

After that day of the convo, the school changed, says Christian Brown, Las Vegas. People were sitting in different places. People were thinking about their groups and who they really hang out with - going outside their comfort zones. That was a start in showing that coming together is a big thing.

Leland Brown, Galveston Island, Texas, adds, The way it turned out, the way people were talking to us afterward, showed they loved it and really took it to heart.

By talking about issues of race and privilege on campus, George says, we hope to get students to understand cultural issues and to root out problems that exist. But we also hope they will learn that just because some [things and people] are different from each other, that doesn't make them bad.

I would really, really like to have upperclassmen engage in this kind of education, this cross-cultural learning, says Gustavo. I would like to see more people with seniority want to fix the problems, not simply by joining the class but by educating the incoming freshmen on what to expect and how to communicate in this community. If I would have known those things when I stepped foot on campus, things would have been so much easier.

He adds, I want to fix these problems. I want to build bridges to different communities - like [new multicultural student adviser] Caleb Lázaro, talks about. I told him: 'I want to build bridges with you.' I can't stress enough how big a factor communication is and how [important it is to know that] one person perceives differently the way another person expresses themselves.

In many ways, Bethel is a welcoming place, says Brad, and committed to welcoming diversity, but that's not always the perception of someone from the other side. If we really want to be welcoming and if we want students to come here, be successful and feel like a part of this place, the only way is to listen and to work at it.