Cultural and Linguistic Diversity at FIT


With our increased awareness of the need to make campus life more welcoming for international students, I was delighted to learn that our Center for Excellence in Teaching had tackled this topic for its 2015-2016 student-faculty roundtable discussions.

These popular events, funded by the Student Faculty Corporation, have been taking place for the past seven years—always with a different theme. According to Elaine Maldonado, director of the CET, this year’s theme was suggested not only by our strategic plan—which this year is developing initiatives around this topic—but also by our students. It must be in the zeitgeist.

The basic ground rules and format are the same every year. Faculty participants are expected to invite at least three students; a list of questions are distributed at the table for discussion, and one student is selected to report out at the end of the event. Oh, and lunch is served.

So, late last month, about 35 students—most, but not all of them “international”—gathered around round tables in the Feldman Center Board Room along with 10 faculty members to discuss such questions as:

  • What has been your biggest challenge in an American classroom if you are an international student?
  • For native English speakers, have you ever been in a situation where everyone spoke a language other than English and if so, how did you feel?
  • How do you think cultural differences affect the way we learn?
  • How can teachers promote greater cultural understanding in their classes?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of having students from diverse backgrounds in the same class?

Plenty to talk about…plenty to think about. Professor Maldonado acted as facilitator and when she invited students to the podium to report on their “findings,” it was clear that this was a topic that resonated.

One of the most common “findings” among the students who spoke—and perhaps the most disturbing—was the complaint that because of their language difficulties, international students believe they are perceived by faculty and students as being less intelligent than their English-speaking peers and are simply not respected. This causes embarrassment, at the very least—and explains to some extent why they sometimes cling to each other in groups and fail to reach out for help.

Students also stressed cultural differences among learning styles and attitudes: in some countries, for instance, students are not expected to raise their hands in class. In another example, a student said that in China, directly quoting someone’s work is considered a compliment while it might be considered plagiarism here. In that context, a student from Italy maintained that faculty do not do enough to learn about the cultures of the students in their classes.

There were numerous suggestions about how to best remedy these problems. One of the most often mentioned was the adoption of a “buddy system,” which would pair an English-speaking student with an international student during class, keeping the two seated close together for easy consultation. As one faculty member commented after the lunch, “Usually I just think about how I can help them, but their peers are a great resource as well.”

It was a lively session—filled with useful and poignant insights. And most heartening, from my perspective, was that everyone agreed that exposure to other cultures was a very big advantage. Now, this was a self-selected group—those who attended possessed a sensitivity to and interest in intercultural exchange. Still, it was gratifying to hear about the Long Island student who spoke so enthusiastically about how much she learned from her international peers—the way they opened her to new information, new ideas, new perspectives. And her advice was succinct and on point: reach out to them, ask questions. “Be kind and patient,” she said. “That should be your first instinct.”

» Learn more about the Student-Faculty Roundtable Discussion at the Center for Excellence in Teaching website

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Another Successful Year for Design Entrepreneurs NYC

Although we awarded prizes to the winners of the Design Entrepreneurs NYC program weeks ago, I am still feeling the afterglow. This is the summertime program FIT inaugurated four years ago in collaboration with the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) to help emerging designers devise the strategies that allow their businesses to thrive. It is a kind of business boot camp—and an intensive one at that—one that draws some of the city’s most promising designers as well as a cadre of elite business leaders who act as mentors and judges. While all participants benefit from this program, two are selected at the end to receive cash prizes—and each year, I am delighted to say, we are able to offer more.

Our major supporter since the beginning has been GIII and its generous and far-sighted CEO Morris Goldfarb who this year helped us to raise a total of $150,000 for prize money. The EDC increased its contribution as well this year which allowed us to enrich the programming. Jeanette Nostra, former president of GIII, has been the dynamic “executive in residence” for the program from the beginning and has provided brilliant leadership.

It is gratifying to know that this program has already helped more than 100 businesses grow and thrive. These designers have shown their lines in New York and Paris fashion weeks, won important industry prizes or “best in show” recognition, and gained high profile press as well as celebrity clients. One was invited to create a line for The GAP; another was named design consultant to a major industry event production company, and yet another now has a Cadillac collaboration. Four were among this year’s10 CFDA/ Vogue Fashion Fund finalists—and one has sold her line of lingerie to a large company while remaining its creative director. All of them remain New York City stalwarts—contributing to the future of the New York creative industry.

This year’s top prize winner was the Brooklyn-based menswear brand CADET, cofounded by Brad Schmidt and FIT alumnus Raul Arevalo. They received $100,000 to invest in their company. The husband-wife team Haus Alkire were awarded the second place $50,000 Israel Goldgrub Award for their luxury women’s wear company. The award is named for the father of YM, Inc president, Michael Gold, who not only provided the gift but also acted as a judge. Prize money for the top winners has grown significantly since the program’s inception thanks to the industry’s faith in and commitment to DENYC. It’s a great program, and I look forward eagerly to celebrating its fifth anniversary next year.

Read More:
» Design Entrepreneurs NYC
» DENYC at FIT Newsroom

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Highlighting FIT’s Diversity: Call for Grants

DiversityCouncilLogoI am delighted to see the growing interest on campus about diversity in general, but also in the annual grants available through the Diversity Council. Creating a “purposefully diverse” campus is a key goal of the FIT Strategic Plan and the work of the Diversity Council is a big part of meeting that goal.

So it is gratifying to see that in just a few years, the Council’s grants have yielded a range of impressive projects, everything from dance performances to scholarly work on diversity and globalization to intriguing art pieces. Anyone who passed through the Pomerantz Center in early 2014 will recall the work of grant recipient Pansum Cheng, sculpture technologist in the Fine Arts department, who installed a fascinating sculpture, playfully entitled Miss Communication in the lobby. In fact, I posted about it last spring. The sculpture took months to build with the help of numerous FIT students, and required the stringing of fishing line between 2,400 empty cans attached to two temporary walls.

“It was born out of the experience of people not being able to align with each other in a common experience,” Cheng said of his installation. “Age, sex, background, and every experience can change the way you look at things.”

Miss Communication

Well said. And this year, diversity grants continue to change the way we look at things. One grant funds the Film and Media Screening Series, which is bringing to campus six notable filmmakers for in-person presentations of diverse voices in film and media. For instance, in October, Venezuelan director Mario Pagano presented his dramatic feature Backseat Fighter, set in the world of underground boxing. On November 10, director Jennie Livingston will present Paris Is Burning, her award-winning documentary on New York’s gay and transgender African-American and Latino ballroom culture of the 1980s. Another grant funds the upcoming “Women and Technology: Symposium” and “Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon,” which are designed to address the under-representation of young women in the “contemporary digital space.”

When I established the Diversity Council grant program, I knew the FIT community would respond with new, creative and unexpected ways of looking at diversity issues. And I have not been disappointed. As the due date for the next round of grant applications approaches, I look forward to hearing your ideas to promote diversity at FIT.

Grant proposals are due November 2, 2015 for Spring 2016 events. Proposals for Fall 2016 and Spring 2017 events are due March 1, 2016. To learn more about applying for Diversity Grants, visit the Diversity Council website.

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Claudia Rankine Visits FIT

ClaudiaRankinePoet, playwright, and social commentator Claudia Rankine shared a little inside information with the audience of students and faculty when she appeared in a packed Katie Murphy Amphitheater at FIT to give a talk entitled “The Creative Imagination and Race.”

As a high-school student, Ms. Rankine told the rapt audience, she had travelled from her home in the Bronx to take a class at FIT in pattern-making.

“I don’t think the actual dress was ever made,” Rankine said, adjusting the bright-red scarf she wore over a black dress. “But I did make the pattern.”

It’s good to know that FIT played a part, however modest, in the development of one of the most insightful and incisive of contemporary American writers and commentators. And it was intriguing to note that Ms. Rankine interest in visual arts plays a vital role in her most recent poetry collection, the best-selling Citizen: An American Lyric.

Projected on a large screen as she spoke were a few of the many arresting images that appear in Citizen. For her talk here at FIT she selected an eclectic mix ranging from a pair of Nick Cave’s full-body Soundsuits to taxidermy artist Kate Clark’s Little Girl to Michael David Murphy’s photograph Jim Crow Rd., Flowery Branch.

In a soft, soothing voice, Ms. Rankine explained how each image came to be in the book as she wove each image into her poetic narrative of interpersonal racism in American life today.

Rankine’s embrace of visual art is perhaps as important to the success of Citizen as her mastery of poetic form. The images she projected as she spoke informed the poetic narrative just as the narrative informed the images, each underscoring the other in a way that caused the viewer to see the old, familiar world in new, unexpected and sometimes unsettling ways.

Rankine’s talk on the creative imagination was well-received here—even if she never did make that dress back in high school—and that makes sense. FIT prepares students for careers in the world of design, art, business and technology. Students and faculty alike at FIT embrace the creative imagination. We embrace the new, the unexpected and even the unsettling as we, like Rankine, take a good, hard look at the old, familiar ways of speaking to each other, and imagine something better.

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College Rankings Revisited

Two weeks ago, FIT was named as one of the top five fashion colleges in the world by The Business of Fashion—the popular daily digital newsletter that covers the world of fashion globally. For me, it is a confounding piece of news. On the one hand, I want to cheer and fist-pump—and on the other, I want to sigh and say, “Oh no…not another one of those rankings that so mislead the public.”

Followers of my blog know how I feel about college rankings. But before I go there, let me state the facts, at least in terms of this most recent finding and several others that have recently been released.

In The Business of Fashion, FIT ranked number 5 in its “best overall” category worldwide and number 3 worldwide in its “most influential” category. The Washington Monthly placed FIT at number 8 in the “Best Bang for the Buck” category for colleges in the Northeast while ranked us 5th in its list of the country’s most affordable bachelor’s programs in “entrepreneurship.” Earlier this year, ranked FIT 6th in its 2014 list of the top 50 fashion schools in the world. In another category of rankings,—the salary, benefits and compensation information company—reported that FIT alumni ranked second in the nation among community colleges in terms of median mid-career salaries (at $72,100) while our bachelor degree art majors came in second as well with a median mid-career salary of $91,800.

Like many college presidents, professors and higher education professionals, I view these rankings with skepticism. If you really think about them—and their criteria and sources of information—it is hard to understand why the public thinks they are useful. As I said in a blog last fall, their quantitative approach to educational institutions and questionable criteria invariably fail to capture the true zeitgeist and quality of a college. Nor can they predict if a college is the right fit for a particular student, no matter how highly it is ranked.

And that, for me, is the biggest issue. Each college and university has its own “special nature,” a nature, environment and mission far too complex to be portrayed through numerical algorithms. And each prospective student has his or her unique nature as well—a nature that is also too wonderfully complex—to be reduced to numerical algorithms. So it is difficult at best to see how a college’s numerical ranking can predict whether students A, B, or C would thrive there.

I grant you that selecting the “right” college for a student is a challenging job. Over the years, I have met countless prospective students and their parents as they tour our campus; I have talked to them about their questions and concerns—felt their confusion and excitement as well. It is hard not to be sympathetic. How much simpler it would be for them if FIT, or any college, could be captured in a survey! How much simpler if they could trust that being ranked number three or five would ensure happiness and success in their college years.

So it is hard to ignore the rankings and to pretend that they do not carry weight in my world, especially in that ephemeral realm of “reputation.” I know how important they are to so many of our constituents and smile with pleasure when I see the pride they take in FIT’s good showings. It is in that context in particular that I want to cheer and do my happy dance. I just hope that students and their families recognize that surveys are only one of many resources available to help them in their college selection—and that when they start looking, they research well and deeply to determine the many ways colleges do or do not match up with the student’s individual interests, talents, needs and ambitions.

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