When she was in third-grader, African American/Black, Latina/o, Asian/Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Center Director Luz Burgos-López decided she no longer wanted to be part of the English-as-a-second-language program at her school. So she and a friend, despite failing a test to transfer out, showed up one day to the English-speaking classroom.
“The teacher said “‘You’re not on my list,’ and we said, ‘We know, but we go to school here,’” Burgos-López explained. She didn’t budge, though, and kept showing up each day to the class.
“We were told that we couldn’t move forward in English,” said Burgos-López, “but I was a rebel from day one. I learned very early on that I had to advocate and make space for myself.”
Today, Burgos-López oversees Vassar’s ALANA Center as its new director.
The ALANA Center is a space specifically for Vassar students who self-identify as a person-of-color. Built in 1993 next to the Powerhouse Theater, it is used as a meeting space for a dozen student racial and cultural affinity groups and is the launching pad for programs on campus dealing with issues of diversity and inclusivity.
Burgos-López is no third-grader now, but since she began last June she said she is still driven by the lessons she learned as a classroom outsider. A seat at the table can be yours, if you are willing to fight for it, according to Burgos-López.
“She’s an extraordinarily empowered woman. Very strong-headed, very loud,” said Jeremy Garza ’14 who worked with Burgos-López on Transitions, a program which aims to help freshmen from low-income backgrounds adjust to Vassar.
Indeed, this is how she described her position. Her job, along with being a mix of administrator, organizer and counselor, is to be a liaison between the student body and the College administration. “I’m really here as an advocate of all students,” she said.
Burgos-López, who was born in Puerto Rico and is a first-generation college student, knows firsthand the challenges of being a minority student at a small liberal arts college with a majority white and a majority higher-income student population.
As an undergraduate, she attended Wesleyan University and she described her time there as mixed. She noted, “It was a love-hate relationship.”
Wesleyan was not like her home of Hartford, Connecticut, and Burgos-López quickly discovered that many of the other students came from far more privileged backgrounds than she.
“As a low-income student it was very difficult to be in a space where people were like, ‘What private school did you go to?’” she said. The director added that before arriving to college, she hadn’t known that private schools existed.
By the time others began to learn a bit about where she came from, Burgos-López started receiving some unwelcome attention. Students made a point of asking her for her SAT scores or the grades she got in class. Others were more direct. As Burgos-López said, “[Some] people would make comments like ‘I can’t believe you survived, how did you even make it here?’”
Without ever going away entirely, the frequency of these comments gradually lessened. “But it baffled people, even professors, that I was there,” she said.
It was up to Burgos-López to carve out a space for herself there. Wesleyan did not have a building for underrepresented students like Vassar’s ALANA Center. What conversation there was about issues of race, class and culture had to be generated by the students.
A co-chair for Wesleyan’s Latino social group since her freshman year, she found the task of engendering conversations about race and culture daunting without the support of faculty. Her campus advocacy sometimes took priority over schoolwork. By the time she graduated in 2009, she had already decided what her next step would be.
“I always knew I wanted to do work with multiculturalism, self-advocacy, and social equity,” she said.
Before coming to Vassar, Burgos-López worked at Eastern Connecticut University with their intercultural and their women’s centers and University of Connecticut designing teaching leadership and social justice programs.
“Simply saying you are a diverse campus is not enough for me anymore,” she said. Rather what she said she liked seeing when she visited Vassar was a history of social justice. That and an outspoken student body.
She said, “I wanted to be challenged and I wanted to be in a space where students held me accountable, but I also wanted to hold students accountable and teach them as well.”
Having a building specifically devoted to multiculturalism clinched her decision to become the new Director.
“That there’s an ALANA Center at Vassar, I think, is a statement in and of itself, in terms of creating a space,” she said.
Besides hosting more than twenty student meetings a week, the ALANA Center also serves as a safe space for students of color. It has a kitchen, along with a TV and living room set-up. Here students can hang out or even nap on one of the coaches. “This year we’re trying to make this space more welcoming to students and to have a homey feel,” said ALANA Program Intern Susie Martinez ’15. “A lot of events involve us cooking.”
Garza shared how in his Vassar career the ALANA Center has given him and his peers an opportunity to be themselves.
“Me and my friends would hang out there a certain level of solidarity and safety as well. We can say whatever we want to say, outside the gaze of everyone else. There’s strength and there’s comfort in affinity groups,” he said.
Burgos-López, however, thought a safe space shouldn’t just begin and end at the doors of one single building.
“It’s beyond the ALANA Center, it’s the whole campus’ responsibility,” she said.
A broader role for the Center may now be possible, according to Garza. Burgos-López’s arrival to Vassar signals the start of some big changes to the college climate.
“I think she’s putting us in a position to advocate for larger budgets, to advocate for a larger presence on campus,” Said Garza “She knows how to play politics,” he also noted.
Back in her office, Burgos-López said she is keeping her door open. Whether it be for students in need of counseling or a quick check-in, she is always willing to chat. And she added once more, “If I’m here, interrupt me. That’s kind of how I see it.”