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On the Beauty of Human Universality

We all have a ticket on the same ride.

Key points

  • Diversity is a hallmark of the human experience. Appreciating diversity in all its forms is a beautiful thing.
  • Human universality, diversity's often-underappreciated sibling, is similarly a beautiful part of life.
  • Encouraging others to appreciate both diversity as well as our shared human nature can go a long way toward helping our world.

The concept of diversity is huge in the modern world—especially on college campuses. Across a broad array of institutions, there is diversity across varied dimensions.

  • People come from different geographical regions, states, and nations.
  • We come from different cultural backgrounds.
  • We often have dramatically different interests from one another.
  • We often differ in basic behavioral traits—some of us are super outgoing—some of us prefer to keep largely to ourselves.
  • Some of us like Led Zeppelin and some of us prefer the sounds of Harry Styles.

This is a beautiful thing, and the older you get, the more you appreciate the extraordinary diversity that captures the human experience.

This said, I think it's important to think about diversity’s often-under-rated sibling: Universality.

While appreciating diversity in all its forms is a wonderful part of the human experience, I’d say that appreciating the nature of human universality is every bit as important.

I do a lot of things in my work as a professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz. On several occasions, starting in 2018, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to teach a basic science class at Chongqing University of Education in Central China. The students were all from China—mostly from the central part of the country. The class was taught in English, and, for the most part, the students in the program, who were learning English at the time, rose to the challenge.

Before I made it to China, I had several preconceptions as to what things would be like. I thought that the city of Chongqing, which I’d never heard of prior, would somehow be at a different level relative to New York standards. I thought that students and colleagues would be relatively reserved. I had all kinds of ideas—yet, at the same time, I have to admit that, in many ways, I had no idea what I was in for.

I unwittingly had a New York-centric view of the world—and in retrospect, I was quite naïve.

On the plane ride to Chongqing, I read that this is the most populated city in the world, with about 36 million people. I figured that this was some kind of typo. That is like four times as big as New York City—and, as someone who grew up in the NYC metro area, I learned, of course, that there is no city like New York in the world. (That is what it’s like growing up in the New York area.)

I couldn’t even fathom what a city four times the size of New York even meant.

Boy, was I in for a surprise.

After I landed at the airport in Chongqing and was picked up by the shuttle that had been sent from the university, we rounded a bend and I saw a city skyline that fully rivaled that of Manhattan. I was dumbfounded. The streets, bridges, vehicles, etc. were all fully modern—and while I expected to see more traditional infrastructure, instead I found a higher proportion of Audis and BMWs than we see in the Hudson Valley.

We continued to drive and came around the next bend. There was another, totally separate skyline, that similarly rivaled that of Manhattan Island.

Glenn Geher
Source: Glenn Geher

By the time I got to my hotel, I’d passed about 5 skylines that each independently looked like the New York City skyline. This was not the China that I’d expected.

The next day, I met the students. And while the cultural differences were obvious and apparent (language differences, food differences, etc.), what surprised me most about the people I met had nothing to do with the differences at all. Rather, what surprised me most pertained to similarities.

Cultural differences aside, these students were no different from SUNY New Paltz students (whom I've taught regularly for more than two decades). Some were distracted and on their phones the whole time, sitting at the back of the class. Some were talking during my lectures, clearly about their plans for Friday night—not about the content of the course at all. Some were incredibly serious students, pausing and asking probing, thoughtful questions throughout the class. And some were extremely extraverted and confident, asking me, in front of the entire class, to please slow down and to enunciate more clearly!

I got to spend time with students outside the classroom, too. They talked about music and food and clothes and family and friendships and romantic relationships and video games and partying at the KTV clubs on the weekends. (In Chongqing, a KTV club is pretty much a fun nightclub for young adults).

Getting to know the students of Chongqing got me thinking: These might as well be New Paltz students. They have the same hopes, fears, interests, and dreams.

People truly are the same all over.

What a delightful and in-my-face education I got regarding the universal nature of the human experience.

Glenn Geher
Source: Glenn Geher

Bottom Line

In dealing with others in this world, make sure to embrace diversity. In so many pockets of the modern world, diversity thrives and it is a beautiful thing. But at the same time, never forget that, at the end of the day, we’re all human and we all have a ticket on the same ride.


*NOTE: This piece is adapted from a speech I recently gave for Fall Convocation Ceremony at the State University of New York at New Paltz. Given by Professor of Psychology, Glenn Geher (official YouTube video here). Thanks to Richard Winters and Shelly Wright for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this content.

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