Minority Convocations Lend Cultural Flavor to Celebration
PHOENIX — When Alejandro Contreras graduated last month from Arizona State University, he was thinking about his migrant-worker parents’ mud-caked shoes.
“You see our shoes?” Contreras remembers his tired mother saying after returning from a long day in the lettuce fields. “They are all muddy when we come home. Look at us. We don’t want you to be killing yourselves to make a living.”
The image of those shoes is why Contreras sought a college degree. It’s also why he skipped the university’s official commencement, when thousands of other students crammed the basketball arena, finishing their university experience by tossing mortarboards into the air.
Instead, Contreras participated in the smaller but more personal Hispanic convocation one of three Arizona State convocations aimed at minority students. The Hispanic, Black and American Indian convocations offer students an opportunity to express cultural pride.
At the bilingual Hispanic convocation, Mariachi music replaced the usual Pomp and Circumstance, while students at both the Black and Native American convocations filed in to the sound of drums. An African Yoruba tribal chief performed a rite-of-passage ceremony at the Black and African convocation, and many of the students taking part in the American Indian convocation wore traditional regalia.
University officials and students say that although the minority convocations are growing in popularity, everyone on campus does not embrace them. Some dismiss them as racially divisive events that foster separatism rather than unity.
That message was clear to the students who organized last month’s Black and African convocation at Neeb Hall when posters publicizing the event were repeatedly torn down, defaced and stuffed into garbage cans.
“It was very deliberate and obvious,” says event coordinator Rhonesha Blache, a 21-year-old psychology student from south Phoenix.
Minority convocations, which are open to all students but are geared toward various minority groups, are growing in popularity primarily because the number of graduating minority students also is on the rise.
Minority student enrollment at Arizona State’s main campus in Tempe increased almost 70 percent in the past decade, to 8,536 from 5,031. At the same time, the number of minority undergraduate degrees doubled and minority graduate degrees tripled.
Not all minority students choose to participate in the ethnic convocations.
The Hispanic convocation, the largest of the three, drew about half of the 400 Hispanics receiving bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees this semester. About half of the 175 Black students and half of the 107 American Indian students took part in their convocations.
The minority students who do choose to participate say the convocations provide not only an opportunity to celebrate their achievements and their culture, but also acknowledge some of the unique struggles they have faced.
“We are not just getting a degree,” Blache says. “We are celebrating a unique accomplishment in a country and [at] an institution that has not always allowed us to succeed.”
Many of the minority students receiving degrees are the first in their families to earn a college diploma. The ethnic convocations, students and university officials say, help inspire family members and friends to strive for higher education.
“Basically, I’ve set a new standard for my family,” says Blache, the first in her family to receive a four-year college degree. She expected approximately 40 family members would watch her cross the stage during the Black and African convocation.
Jacob Hess, 25, a White Mountain Apache, was among the approximately 50 students participating in the Native American convocation. It brought together members of several tribes, but Hess says the group is united by a sense of history.
“Indians have been suppressed, our culture denied and our language killed,” Hess says. “This is a chance to take back a little of our culture.”
Still, the motives behind the convocations organized by minority students are sometimes misunderstood, says Jesus Trevino, who as director of Arizona State’s Intergroup Relations Center is in charge of breaking down barriers among student groups.
“I’m often asked, ‘Why is it that we have a Hispanic convocation and not a White convocation?'” Trevino says, answering that it’s for the same reason there isn’t a heterosexual convocation. “We have a White convocation, we just don’t call it that.”
The convocations geared toward Latino, Black and American Indian students help fill a particular need, Trevino says.
“From a social-psychological perspective, White students see themselves as individuals while ethnic minorities, because their numbers are small, they see themselves as a group,” he says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com