Wellesley hosts its first ethnic studies conference

Students and professors examine what ethnic studies expansion could mean for Wellesley

by Sara Rathod ’15, News Editor

This past weekend, students and professors gathered for a full day to deliberate the creation of ethnic studies programs at Wellesley. Professors from Wellesley and other universities across the country discussed the institutional politics of ethnic studies, how ethnic studies programs have been established at different institutions and what model would best suit a liberal arts college like Wellesley.

The conference was organized in conjunction with a movement to broaden ethnic studies course offerings at Wellesley. It also marks the inauguration of the Asian American Studies minor at Wellesley, which students were able to declare for the first time this fall.

Students hope that the Asian American Studies minor will be the first in a wave of reforms at Wellesley, including the introduction of a Chicana and Latina Studies minor.

“We’re also hoping to learn some of the lessons of the Asian American studies minor which took a very long time to implement,” Multicultural Affairs Coordinator (MAC) Safaya Fawzi ’14 stated.

The Committee for Curriculum and Academic Policy (CCAP) is working with students involved in the push for a Chicana and Latina Studies minor to map out a basic structure, following the same strategy that was used to create the Asian American Studies minor—by first consolidating courses that are already offered that would fit under the umbrella of a Chicana and Latina Studies minor.

At the request of students, the College is also considering the creation of an interdepartmental Ethnic and Diaspora Studies major. An open letter released last year addressed to top Wellesley administrators sparked the push for greater course offerings centered on the study of minority groups.

“Ethnic studies was never given as a gift to undergraduate and graduate students out of benevolence and academic thinking on the part of [administrators]. It was fought for by students,” said Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Elena Creef during one of the round table discussions. Creef’s denial of tenure in 2000 sparked a campuswide movement during which Wellesley Asian and Asian-American student organizations united with Latina students to demand greater support and course offerings.

Several speakers at the conference aided in the creation of similar programs at Williams College, the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Michigan. They shared with the audience their experiences trying to implement ethnic studies programs. Most were scholars in fields such as African American, Asian American, Native and Post Colonial as well as Chicano and Latino studies. All agreed that strong ethnic studies course offerings would be an asset to the College and the reform of ethnic studies at Wellesley would be made easier by the broad student and faculty support.

“It truly is about academic excellence,” said Heather Love, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “This is really where the cutting edge of intellectual work is happening.”

Irene Mata, assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, added that the expansion of ethnic studies would bring personal gratification to students whose backgrounds are rarely recognized in traditional curricula. Mata recalled her own experience reading her first book by a Chicana author: “Borderlands” by Gloria Anzaldúa.

“I read it and I cried,” she said. “I thought, ‘How is it possible for me as a Chicana to go through so many years of schooling without ever reading work written by a member of my own community?’”

However, the creation of ethnic studies programs often runs up against political and budgetary complications. UCLA, for instance, is currently facing large budget cuts, which have threatened some ethnic studies courses that have low enrollment.

“It takes a lot of money, and I think it requires a lot of long-term determination,” said Abel Valenzuela, Jr., chair of UCLA’s César E. Chávez Department for Chicana and Chicano Studies.

Despite the challenges, Valenzuela was hopeful that administrators, faculty and students with enough persistence could successfully cultivate a strong new program at Wellesley.

Although the expansion of ethnic studies comes at a time when the College is undergoing massive budget cuts to pay for Wellesley 2025, Fawzi believes that there is enough institutional support that the College will still be able to devote the resources to finance a strong ethnic studies program and hire new faculty members to support it.

“It’s a conversation that can still happen even if budget cuts are going on,” she said.

In the coming weeks, faculty members will meet with academic deans and students to discuss the conference and determine the best means to proceed with the creation of the Chicana and Latina Studies minor as well as the Ethnic and Diaspora Studies major.

Sara is a junior studying Political Science and Economics. Follow her on Twitter @SaraRathod.

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