As a student who attended and graduated from Sacramento State, a designated Asian American Native American Pacific Islander-serving institution and Hispanic-serving institution, I felt surrounded by diversity. I am a proud graduate of ethnic studies at Sacramento State, which has shaped me in ways that are difficult to justly explain. In short, ethnic studies heightened my consciousness and fueled a passion for social justice.
However, I have been critiqued as an ethnic studies major countless times. There is a common misconception on what is taught in ethnic studies and has been called un-American by many criticizers. Yet, as a student who openly claims an identity as an ethnic studies major, I believe that classes dedicated to learning about the identities of others are necessary, especially in the United States considering our diverse landscape.
Currently, I am in the process of completing a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania in higher education. My transition to a predominantly White institution has been a learning experience that I am becoming increasingly appreciative of. I have built relationships with amazing peers, staff and faculty who possess similar ideals and experiences as myself.
In contrast, I have faced microaggressions and heard what I would describe as blatantly racist comments both in and outside of the classroom. Many students of color within my program, including myself, have built a community amongst ourselves, much of it built on sharing our feelings of marginalization and frustration since we have been in our program and together we have created spaces of support with people we know who care.
This fall semester, institutions across higher education have seen an increased visibility of student activism on their campuses, much of it sparked by the movement at the University of Missouri. The examples of student activism at colleges and universities across the country have brought an increased attention to the ways that faculty and administrators are addressing diversity concerns and racist incidents on their campuses. Students have come together in solidarity to express demands and share experiences of marginalization. However, student activism addressing racist incidents and demanding more faculty and administrators of color has a historical presence within higher education in the United States. Even my own undergraduate major, ethnic studies, is a product of student activism in the late 1960s at San Francisco State University.
Using a historical lens to parallel examples of student activism within higher education shows that students of color have continually fought to be heard within their own institutions. The concerns and demands of students of color today are not coming from a sudden burst of racialized experiences. Rather, the frustration that is being expressed today is rooted in historical marginalization that seems to be woven into the fabrics of many American higher education institutions.
In order to make substantial changes in how administrators and faculty are addressing racism and diversity concerns on their campuses, there are several questions that need to be addressed. For one, how are future higher education professionals being prepared to handle challenging issues on their campus relating to racism, sexism, homophobia and so on? Are the skills to engage in difficult situations around sensitive topics being taught to future administrators and faculty? Are there conversations and courses centered around confronting privileges unique to one’s identity?
There are certainly classes dedicated to learning about diversity being offered as an option for many programs specializing in higher education. However, learning about diversity and the identities of others should not be offered as an option. Learning about diversity should be a requirement across all programs relating to higher education. It’s problematic when students are marginalized on their campus and experience blatant racism, yet are unable to find support within an institution because their administrators and faculty do not know how to effectively respond. The identities of a student should not lead to feelings of exclusion within their institutions.
The landscape of higher education will continue to shift to reflect the continually changing demographics of the United States. There has been an increase in students of color between 1976 and 2012 and as our institutions continue to diversify, we need to learn how to be intentional in fostering inclusive learning environments to support students of all identities. However, this will be difficult to accomplish if there are future leaders of higher education that are not being challenged to reflect on their own privileges and various identities.
I find it problematic that students within my own program are not required to learn about diversity. I imagine that there are others across higher education that share similar feelings. It is very possible to complete a program in higher education without engaging in a conversation around race, which is troubling.
If future educators, administrators and faculty members are not being challenged to have these difficult conversations, we will continue to have issues around diversity. Students of color will continue to feel disempowered on their own campuses if leaders within their institutions are not becoming culturally aware of challenges and privileges systemically placed upon different identities. One of the first steps to empowering and supporting students across the board is learning about diversity.
As an ethnic studies major, I feel that I have been exposed to challenging conversations around topics such as race, learned more about my own identities and become more open to the identities of others. However, I know that there is more for me to learn when it comes to diversity.
I want to be an advocate for minority students, however, I am encouraging higher education programs to revisit their required courses and curriculum. We need to be intentional in including diversity within our higher education programs. In order to fully support and invest in our students, we need to raise our levels of consciousness.