COLLEGE PARK -- NOW that I'm in graduate school at the University of Maryland, I maintain a more serious attitude about classes and homework than I did as an undergraduate.
For one thing, I pay the tuition bill this time, not Mom and Dad. I traded a full-time job and a regular paycheck for student loans and a long commute between my Baltimore City apartment and College Park. That should make it clear that I really want to be here.
Despite my new adult approach to my education, I still get more satisfaction in learning beyond my books. The rich diversity of the College Park campus pleasantly surprises me, and I repeatedly find that my true education comes from others in the university community.
I think of Marianne, a friend who is a first-generation Chinese immigrant and who understands, as I do, how difficult it is to be a wife and a student at the same time.
There's Peter, a classmate whose conservative views forced me to think hard about my own opinions, and David, an undergraduate co-worker whose liberal views inspired me to do just as much soul-searching.
I learned from my friend Roger that a white woman from the South can have more in common with a black man from the North than most people would expect.
Catherine, a lesbian classmate, taught me that differences in sexual orientation don't have to be barriers to friendships between women.
Trusting people over 30
I also have several schoolmates among the 18 percent of UMCP students who are returning students over age 30. Their experiences in the work world -- some before I was born in 1969 -- add depth to our class discussions and my studies.
Beyond my own friends and acquaintances, I see a lot to be proud of at UMCP. At Maryland, we have become a better institution academically because of our diversity. Diversity equals excellence. For instance:
* This fall, the university enrolled the most ethnically diverse and academically talented freshman class in its history. About 35 percent of the freshmen are people of color.
* UMCP ranks second of all universities in the nation in the number of African-American doctoral students it graduates each year. Also, the university is listed in the guide, "The 100 Best Colleges for African-American Students."
* The National Research Council this year ranked Maryland's graduate programs in the top third of 11 categories: chemistry; computer science; economics; electrical engineering; English language and literature; history; mathematics; mechanical engineering; physics; political science; and psychology.
* The university has been included for the third consecutive year in "The Guide to 101 of the Best Values in American Colleges and Universities," published annually by the Center for College Enrollment Studies.
* ARCO, a leading publisher of college guides, listed the University Honors Program as one of the nation's best in its recently published "Ivy League Programs at State School Prices."
In a year when the Susan Smith and O.J. Simpson trials have heightened racial tensions, the University of Maryland at College Park offers an environment where these issues can be discussed and studied. During the past four years, the university has embarked on a comprehensive campus-wide Diversity Initiative, designed to create unity through diversity. We are beginning to see the results of that initiative; just this year, the Ford Foundation and the Association of American Colleges and Universities selected the university as a national model for effective campus diversity.
Beyond the numbers
Although UMCP has made great strides with diversity, improvements still need to be made. Particularly, we need more minorities and women in tenured faculty positions. We need a student body whose numbers truly reflect the diversity of the state. And we need to go beyond the numbers and continue to improve the climate here so that all students, staff and faculty feel comfortable on this campus.
It's important to me that the message has come from the top down.
William E. Kirwan, president of the College Park campus, makes it clear in his words and actions that diversity and academic excellence are top priorities for him and the university. Some people may dismiss Dr. Kirwan as another administrator in the bureaucracy. But I think he is what makes the difference at this university. If the person at the top doesn't believe in change, then those under him would likely never see it.
I'm fortunate to be part of the University of Maryland at College Park at an exciting time in its history. We have seen promising changes here, and I know that more will come. I feel like I'm getting my money's worth when I pay those tuition bills each semester.
Julie Gammill Gibson grew up in Cary, N.C., and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has lived in Maryland for four years and is a master's student in the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland at College Park.