Judging students by their college creates stereotypes

In the late eighteenth century, a “stereotype” was a metal printing plate used commonly for printing newspapers that duplicated an original printing surface.

Similar to its original meaning and purpose, today a “stereotype” is a quick, fixed and oversimplified image of a group of people, replicated across the group without understanding their individual facets or complexity.

Stereotypes have also latched onto one key part of a college student’s identity: his or her major.

“Especially in a big place like the University, where there are so many people, the natural inclination is to simplify the world,” said Bruce Elliott-Litchfield, assistant dean of the College of Engineering.

“And I understand that. We all need to systematize the world so we can manage it, and not be overwhelmed by the complexity. But the fact is, these are 40,000 different individuals that all have really special gifts and traits, and will go out and do 40,000 different things.”

Elliott-Litchfield says the College of Engineering faces stereotypes of only having students with strong Math and Science skills.

“The college is very committed to getting a diverse group of students, and that includes not just students who are good at Math and Science,” Elliott-Litchfield said. “The Engineering galaxy is very big, and our students go in all different directions. Some want to build rural footbridges for people in poverty, and others want to be on the next launch to Mars.”

The College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) also battles stereotypes because of the college’s history and tradition.

“Stereotypically, a lot of people would think of ACES as having a large component of farm kids, which historically we did many years ago, but that’s a very small minority today,” said Richard Vogen, director of planning and resource development for the College of ACES. “The majority of our students come from urban areas … and they study all kinds of things, everything from molecular biology, to economics, to food science, to nutrition, to environmental sciences of various sorts.”

Ben Bascom, third-year Ph.D student in English, described some of the burdening stereotypes English majors have to overcome.

“The stereotypes would definitely be that English majors are dashingly good looking, ridiculously smart and politically aware, and I think that they’re all completely true,” Bascom said. “But seriously, I think that there’s a stereotype that English majors wear glasses, and they have really cool shoes, like perhaps loafers.”

Frank Chu, second-year MBA student, listed some of the stereotypes of Business students. “I’d say we’re more practical and realistic … We try expanding our networks (at) different events. We’re always on a tight schedule since we need to spend more time job-hunting. There are also more times that we need to dress business-casual.”

When describing the stereotypes of Art students Nan Goggin, director of the School of Art & Design said that they were “probably the more avant garde students in your classes.” In terms of style, they use their clothing as self-expression.

Sometimes, these stereotypes can be slightly true.

“In some sense, it’s because that’s who walks through our door,” Goggin said. “So, it’s based in some reality, of course. At the same time, not everyone fits the stereotype, and I think that’s the frustration.”

While these beliefs exist, to only focus on the stereotypes trivializes the depth and richness of individuals.

“I think that unfortunately, in one respect, stereotypes exist for negative reasons; people (try) to put somebody down,” Elliott-Litchfield said. “So if you can stereotype them, then they can more easily be put in a box and be contained.”

Stereotypes can also be formed out of ignorance.

“People don’t realize the breadth of the college, and the different kinds of majors students are involved in,” Vogen said. “They go well beyond agriculture, and deal with a lot of society’s pressing issues.”

Though stereotypes can be harmful, they can be beneficial to a certain extent.

“People want to be in a group. It’s human to want to connect with somebody. So you try to find in some realm the people you can hang with, that you find a connection,” Goggin said. “One shouldn’t live by the stereotype, but it’s always good to find some identity with people and to find relationships. It’s a yin yang thing.”

With stereotypes being a complicated concept, it is difficult in trying to get an accurate description of college majors. However, Bascom was able to describe some of the qualities and traits of English students.

“I want to say that English majors are humanists. They are aware of the ethical implications of reading the world and interpreting the world. They try to be aware of their position as readers of whatever they’re doing, and how that might impact the world of politics.”

In Chu’s opinion, Business students are “competitive, intelligent, and want to be leaders.” Business students also have strong communication skills and critical thinking skills.

For ACES students, leadership is also strongly emphasized. In fact, ACES recently launched the campus Leadership Studies minor. ACES students are also open-minded to the opportunities around them.

“We like our students to have a well rounded global outlook, as well as having their specific disciplinary interests,” Vogen said.

Engineering students display qualities that go way beyond just Math and Science. Elliott-Litchfield said the three core qualities of Engineering students are creativity, the ability to problem solve and leadership.

“Being compassionate about the environment, concerned about how people are going to survive, interested in solving problems or wanting to be creative and come up with new ideas — those could all be equally important traits of students who become engineers,” Elliott-Litchfield said. “A lot of leaders in engineering have talked about the importance of creativity as a trait for both engineers who have been successful in the past, and what we need in the next generation of engineers.”

Goggin said that art students are more visual.

“They think about what they’re wearing and doing,” Goggin said. “They’ll select those baggy pants for a reason … It’s not about if it’s expensive; it’s about what it means.”

Along with being visually aware, art students combine creativity and intelligence.

“What I think is unique about art students is … they are more lateral thinkers. They tend to look for answers and problem solve not in the linear way,” Goggin said.

While stereotypes may make the enormity of any university campus seem more manageable, they never show the full picture of an individual. There’s always more to someone than meets the eye.