Last weekend, Nov 15-16, Vassar hosted the Consortium on Higher Education and Success (CHAS) Black and Latino Males Conference, which brought over 100 students from all over the country to discuss the issues and setbacks students of color face in colleges and universities as well as possible solutions.
CHAS describes their mission statement as: “to promote high achievement, leadership, and personal satisfaction of students on member campuses, with a focus on promoting success of students of color”. CHAS has been in operation since 2000 and is now represented in 26 liberal arts schools around the country including Haverford College, Pomona College and Wellesley College.
The CHAS event, entitled “Sisterhood: Who Am I? Who Are We Together?” took place earlier this year and was hosted at the College of the Holy Cross from Sept. 27 to 30. This was CHAS’s first conference for women of color and six Vassar students attended.
Member institutions share the belief that all students have the capabilities to succeed and it is the role of school administrators to provide aid with the barriers they face on the way to success. Not only do member institutions focus on academic life, but also socio-cultural differences and financial needs. Although their explicit goal is to help students of color pass institutional barriers, the group states that its actions and goals will benefit all students at the institutions. CHAS argues that each individual has a role to play in that they can make others feel empowered and motivated to succeed.
With these aspirations, Vassar welcomed students of CHAS institutions to the semi-annual consortium representative meetings. The conference was a three-day event that included featured speakers, workshops and performances. Among the featured speakers was Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at The City College of New York R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy and Brothers Writing to Live, a group of black cis- and trans-male writers.
Anthony Choquette ’17 praised the topics covered in the conference. “We discussed this concept of ‘stereotype threat’ which occurs especially when Latino, African American, or any other minority student for that matter, is thrown into an environment with predominantly white students, usually upper class,” he explained. “The concept of ‘stereotype threat,’ which is the feeling that the stereotypes are always going to be there, impedes upon your ability to express yourself or feel comfortable or feel like you’re welcome there.”
Lafayette College student Kofi Boateng expressed his amazement at the community that CHAS is able to provide a space for and promote. In an emailed statement, Boateng wrote, “As a student of a predominantly white institution, it was great to be able to see the unity of people of color like myself get together and talk about pressing issues that allow us to advance ourselves and myriad institutions.”
In particular, the conference stressed the need for colleges and universities to recognize how the lack of diversity on campus impacts the learning environment and what sort of measures might be taken to alleviate these negative experiences for students of color. These questions have long troubled Vassar’s campus and were frequently referenced in this week’s town hall meeting with administrators.
“The lack of minorities on campus may result in an exclusion factor within the campuses themselves; clicks and separations may start to form as minorities may try to find others like them that they think will relate to their experiences on an campus that is already lacking in people that look like them,” Boateng continued. “Universities need to actively recruit the groups of people that are lacking on their campus, but should not select students for the sake of adding them to their ‘diversity numbers.’”
One of CHAS’s priorities involves creating an open discourse between students from a wide range of universities.
Choquette said interacting with attendees and speakers only deepened his understanding. He noted, “they have the scholars come in and the scholars talk to us about statistics and how we can progress and how we can’t be held back by all these structural impediments that have been forced upon us but when you hear it from people who had it rough, you know what I mean, real rough, you’re able to make those interpersonal connections and that’s where things are really put into perspective.”
The opportunity to get to know other students is not limited to the workshops and meetings that take place during the conference schedule. At the end of each day, students from participating universities were invited the JunglePussy concert and Dormal Formal.
Choquette said, “It was really cool because it wasn’t very awkward, I thought that going to an event with Vassar kids, we were just going to have to interact when they forced us to do activities, but it wasn’t like that at all. They sent us there and I sat at a table with a bunch of kids from SUNY and Swarthmore. The Swarthmore kids stayed that Saturday night so we took them to see the Vassar party life and it was cool.”
Overall, most people felt positively about their experience at the conference. Nonetheless, Boateng pointed out how the issues that CHAS seeks to address still require more action and attention if they wish to achieve long-term change. He noted, “The goals of this conference was accomplished, but the mission has not. What will determine the impact of the conference will be whether we student leaders that attended are able to translate what we learned. It’s one thing to learn something valuable, but another to turn that valuable experience into something that will have a lasting impact.”