Asian Leaders Council, Latinx Student Alliance host symposium on the potential of expanding ethnic studies at the University

The discussion featured faculty, student and administrative visions of what a future ethnic studies department would look like

ns-wearenotinvisibleevent-smarsh

University students, faculty and administrators gather in Alumni Hall to discuss the future of establishing an ethnic studies program at the University. 

Stratton Marsh | Cavalier Daily

Students, faculty and administrators met Tuesday evening in Alumni Hall to discuss the future of ethnic studies at the University during a symposium hosted by the Asian Leaders Council and Latinx Student Alliance. The symposium, titled “We Are Not Invisible: A Case For Ethnic Studies” fostered discussion among approximately 50 attendees about scholarship on topics such as race, ethnicity and the experience of indigenous populations.

Third-year College students Vilas Annavarapu and Kayla Dunn, who serve as ALC chair and former LSA president, respectively, were organizers of the event and have been engaged in discussion about the topic of ethnic studies in the University setting since last October.

In October 2018, the ALC released a report entitled “We Are Not Invisible: A Report for Academic Reform,” which discussed the lack of Asian-American representation in faculty and academic programs at the University. The report says that Asian-Americans and Pacific Islander-Americans have not experienced any progress since the University implemented the Asian/Pacific Islander American minor 13 years ago. Suggested in the report are solutions including hiring more faculty of color, providing more multicultural course offerings and creating an official department dedicated to American Studies.

The ALC report also referenced an open letter that had been released by LSA earlier in the same week, under the title “We are 6%” — in reference to Latinx representation within the demographic breakdown of the student population. The LSA letter described the University’s insufficient visibility and support of the Latinx community on Grounds, noting the lack of Spanish-translated resources and Latinx recruitment efforts, as well as the underrepresentation in Latinx faculty members and course matter. The letter also proposed a Latinx Studies major. A Latinx Studies minor currently exists within the American Studies program, but the ALC and LSA hope departmentalization of American Studies would bolster the future for ethnic studies. 

In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, Annavarapu said the symposium aimed to bring this discussion to the attention of a broader group of students and faculty throughout University community.

“I think there's a lot of optimism in making ethnic studies more of a reality,” Annavarapu said. “But the real goal of this conversation is to kind of allow different people to reflect and think about what that might look like.”

Dunn also said that fulfilling these goals involves a holistic effort in order to implement a diverse and interdisciplinary study of groups that have been historically underrepresented at the University.

“It's about shifting the culture here at U.Va.,” Dunn said. “You can't just create a department and hope it becomes sustainable — you have to make sure that the faculty and staff of that department are supported, and even outside of a single department, you want to make sure that multiculturalism and diversity is a staple in cornerstone of all of the University's departments.”

Tuesday’s event brought fellow students, faculty members and University administrators together to expand the dialogue into discussion about the realization of academic ethnic studies at the University. The symposium included a speaker panel that broke out into small group discussions between student and faculty attendees.

Second-year College student Jasmine Mao was also an organizer of the event and moderated the speaker panel, which featured University professors Sylvia Chong and Camilla Fojas, along with William and Mary professor Francis Tanglao Aguas and William and Mary juniors Patrick Canteros and Maggie Chu. 

Chong is the director of American Studies and the Asian Pacific American Studies minor, and Fojas is chair of the Media Studies department. Tanglao Aguas is a professor of theatre at William and Mary and the director and founder of the school’s Asian Pacific Islander American program, in which Canteros and Chu are both majors.

The panelists spoke on issues including the importance of ethnic studies and the need for faculty of color. The visiting students advocated for their model of ethnic studies, saying that not only has the APIA program supplemented their other coursework as double-majors, but that it has applied to their understandings of self and society. APIA at William and Mary is considered a structured interdisciplinary minor within a variety of structured interdisciplinary degree programs — a category that also includes Africana Studies, American Studies, Global Studies and International Relations. The school’s major program in APIA is considered a self-designed interdisciplinary major.

“Ethnic studies, it gives you that sort of language, and it's sort of like foundation that validates like your existence,” Canteros said. “I think without it, I wouldn't be comfortable in my own skin, if I didn't have ethnic studies, because I just wouldn't feel like I belong.”

Chu said that ethnic studies was meaningful to her in providing her with real world solutions to social problems of race and injustice in minority communities. 

“At the end of the day, ethnic studies is not just any goal,” Chu added. “I think the main goal is creating dialogue and discourse about how do we get rid of structural injustice? How do we support marginalized communities? And how do we continue on in this world without, you know, burning out? How do we sustain ourselves and sustain our communities?”

Mao said she hoped attendees would leave the symposium with a better understanding of the student experience is like for members of marginalized communities, and she said discourse like the small group discussion between students and faculty about academic experiences and ethnic studies was particularly impactful. 

First-year College student Isabella Ashton attended the symposium after hearing about it from a classmate earlier Tuesday, saying she was curious to see what the event would include.

“I think this was a good learning experience, opportunity to speak with other students from different backgrounds and professors who have far more experience in the world and in the realm of education than I do — and being able to collaborate and share ideas and

expand upon our own knowledge,” Ashton said. 

Mao said she believes that the responsibility and initiative in voicing these concerns and organizing the discourse in issues regarding ethnic studies ultimately falls largely on students without much institutional support in the planning and production of the event. The event was organized by the student leaders of ALC and LSA.

“What we're talking about, this could open up a whole can of worms about student self-governance and how that is a system that relies on unpaid student labor,” Mao said. “For something like this to be put on, this has often felt like the main priority, and academics was always pushed to the side.”

Dunn told The Cavalier Daily that the University administration has vocalized a commitment to departmentalizing American Studies but that they are still waiting to see whether this commitment will be followed through. 

Chong said during the panel that she hoped prioritizing ethnic studies within the potential American Studies department would lead to improvements such as hiring more faculty of color who are equipped to teach such topics and mentor a diverse student body, as well more universal awareness of the topics throughout the student body.

“This is sort of what happens to ethnic studies — that it's acknowledged as somewhat important, but it gets pushed down the priority list,” Chong said.

related stories