University of Charleston

University of Charleston

(Gazette-Mail Opinion Piece from President Roth on 8/27)
Read it on the GM website


Why Our Differences Make a Difference


It is far too common today for our differences to be magnified in ways that pull us apart.  This does not need to be so.

You may be surprised to learn that the most diverse college in the state of West Virginia is right here in Charleston.  How diverse can the University of Charleston (UC) be you may ask.  After all, Hoppy Kercheval recently shared in this newspaper that West Virginia ranks third among states in the nation in the percentage of white people – 89.8% according to the 2020 U.S. census.  Well, in our most recent academic year 25% of UC’s students were black, Hispanic, Asian, or reported as non-white another way.  About one quarter were low-income, and a similar percentage were first-generation college attendees.  And UC became the education home for students from over 40 states and 50 countries.

When we talk about diversity at UC, we proudly serve in fairly equal proportions traditional-age and adult learners; full-time students and adult learners engaged with us part-time; and those who study in-seat and online.  Across these groups our students are increasingly heterogeneous in their current and desired occupations, faiths, sexual orientations, and world views.

As such, UC is a community of learners with diverse backgrounds and experiences.  We strive to ensure that students of every background have the opportunities and resources they need to be successful.  We focus on embracing, celebrating, and learning from our university community’s diversity.  And we are committed to a culture of belonging that makes everyone feel welcomed, accepted, valued, and safe.

One of the remarkable things I often hear from our native West Virginia students is how surprised they are to be around people from so many different backgrounds and places, and even better, how positively this exposure is impacting them.  A recent video series (accessible on the University of Charleston’s YouTube channel) we call “What Do Students Really Think?” captures their impressions of UC’s diversity.  A few student quotes include:

  • “That’s what makes the University of Charleston so special – that you get to meet people from countries and places and backgrounds that you probably never thought you would have gotten to.”
  • “I have all sorts of different friends here which is really cool because you get to learn about people from different states and different countries.”
  • “I love to talk to people from around the world and learn something new every day.”
  • “It’s the next closest thing to being able to travel to meet people from other cultures.”
  • “We meet people from places we may never have a chance again to meet.”


As we think about the transformational potential of the college experience, our students’ thoughts and feelings indicate that their classmates’ differences make a very positive difference in their own lives.  Through their peers, horizons are broadened, assumptions questioned, perspectives refined, and boundaries stretched.  And in the process our out-of-state and country students gain a deep appreciation and affinity for the people, culture, and places in Charleston and West Virginia.

Of course, the diversity of our campus and online learning communities offer ample occasions for interactions and relationship building that in turn leads to increased awareness and understanding of differences.  Just as important is the mindset it manifests long after courses have ended and degrees have been earned – the genuine interest in learning about and from people unlike ourselves.  In fact, it does not take any of us much effort to identify diversity in the communities where we live and work, and to derive the exact same benefits.

At times we question whether our differences should be identified, discussed, and debated.  A friend recently shared this insightful quote attributed to Johnnetta Cole, President emeritus of Spelman College “We must celebrate our differences until our differences don’t make any more difference.”  When it comes to fundamental issues of equality and justice I could not agree more.  Yet there are ways that our differences, what makes each of us unique and special, are important not only to us and our families, but to others who can gain much by learning from those with dissimilar life experiences.  We will continue to share, celebrate, and revel in UC’s rich diversity so our differences help us grow in positive and productive ways that equip the next generation of leaders to build a better, more inclusive future.


Marty Roth is President at the University of Charleston.