Students broaden identity talks

At each event in the “We Got You, Too” discussion series, the student organizers handed out buttons and had attendees write their names on paper hearts. Organizer Tamar Ballard ’19 hopes to eventually display all the hearts. Photo by Laurel Hennen Vigil/The Miscellany News

At Vassar—an institution founded by and for (and in many ways, still dominated by) the wealthy, white, able-bodied and cisgender—students who fall outside these categories often need to make a considerable effort to find others who understand their experiences. To help ease this process, last week dorm house teams continued August’s “We Got You” discussion with “We Got You, Too,” a series of six conversations about aspects of identity such as race, gender, class/socioeconomic status, ability, sexuality and religion. The talks will culminate with a dinner at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 11 in the Aula.

The original “We Got You” event, organized by the Noyes House Team at the start of the semester, was primarily focused on the experiences of students of color on campus. Noyes Student Fellow and host of both events Tamar Ballard ’19 explained the rationale for creating a new series: “Talking to people who have had the same experiences as you and who can relate to you and won’t judge you is really important. So we figured that we would have that same kind of space, but more broad, and have different spaces for different topics, because everybody isn’t just [defined by] race.” She added that the series’ title is a play on words, with the “too” referring to both the expansion of identities discussed as well as the fact that this is the second event of this nature.

Both Ballard and Noyes House President and fellow event organizer Takunda Maisva ’19 said that although all the talks went very well, they felt that the discussions on race and class stood out as the true highlights of the series.

At both events, students admitted that they felt disoriented when they arrived at Vassar because they suddenly felt like they stood out in a way that they hadn’t before. “People in my [hometown] community were pretty rich, but they weren’t Vassar rich,” said one attendee. Added another, “Vassar kids don’t look like us.”

Though 60 percent of current Vassar students receive financial aid, many at the discussion on class felt that it was difficult to find others who understood the experience of growing up in a low-income household. Several had troubles connecting with their fellow group because of the disparity in socioeconomic status, a problem exacerbated by the fact that class is seldom discussed openly at Vassar but is nonetheless made apparent in more insidious ways.

One attendee, for instance, brought up how criticism of the All Campus Dining Center can be covertly classist; students from wealthier families have more dining options, as they can afford to eat more meals at on-campus dining centers, like the Retreat, which don’t accept meal swipes. These students also have the option of frequenting more expensive off-campus restaurants, which often isn’t possible for low-income students.

Many of the students in attendance had participated in Transitions, a pre-Orientation program for low-income, first generation and undocumented students. These students said that they found Transitions extremely valuable in helping them adjust to an environment that is very different from the one in which they grew up. Others who qualified for the program, however, said they could not attend because it was financially unfeasible for them to leave a summer job early, a reality they felt the Vassar administration failed to take into consideration.

In a similar vein, several attendees felt that although Vassar works very hard to be generous with financial aid, the school doesn’t offer many resources for low-income students, such as subsidies for textbooks, once they’re here. A few also remarked on their annoyance at Vassar’s spending on projects that these students consider more aesthetically pleasing than truly necessary, like the recent construction of the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences—part of the $90 million Integrated Science Commons—or the landscaping of the area that formerly housed the Mudd Chemistry Building.

At the discussion on race, students expressed similar feelings about not always fitting in and having to work to find a community that understands the struggles students of color deal with every day. For example, several students connected through their examination of how internalized racism can lead to negative self-image. While some of these students have since come to love their looks—“Color makes the world beautiful,” one attendee declared—others are still in the process of getting to that place of self-acceptance.

The racial identity discussion soon turned to sharing impassioned reactions to the presidential election and especially to Donald Trump’s campaign promise to deport millions of undocumented immigrants. Several students at the event had family members who don’t yet have a green card or who had just gotten their papers in the past few weeks.

Attendee Kenji Nikaido ’20 commented on his experience at the event, saying, “I came on a whim, because my friends were coming, but it ended up being a very emotionally [cathartic] experience, especially the talk about the election…I had a lot of pent-up feelings about that. But here, it felt safe to be true to what you’re feeling.”

The discussion organizers explicitly stated that the events were not affinity spaces, and all students were encouraged to attend. However, the identities of most in attendance generally aligned with the topic being discussed. Attendee Eugene Lopez-Huerta ’20 commented, “The hardest part is that talks like We Got You are voluntary, and you inevitably have people who come to them over and over again. But you don’t see the kinds of people who might benefit the most from being in a space like this, where [aspects of identity different from their own] are being talked about.” He added, “In such a diverse group of people, I think we have an opportunity—maybe of a lifetime—to listen and share our experiences even if [the topic doesn’t] necessarily pertain to your identity or background.”

Maisva noted, “[The expansion of the series to include identities besides race] is really important, because it shows the role that intersectionality plays in the identities of people on this campus.” He added that attending many of the events allowed him to recognize his own privilege. Despite facing the marginalization that comes with being a person of color in our society, for instance, he realized at the discussion on gender that, as a cisgender male, he does benefit from some privileges that others don’t have.

Ballard said that while there are no concrete plans to host another “We Got You” next semester, she would like the tradition to continue next fall and hopes that the events have inspired students to have these kinds of discussions in their everyday lives. She commented, “The inherent problem is that people don’t feel comfortable just being in a space and talking. I think once people start getting more acclimated to having these conversations, they won’t feel so much like they’re going to be judged.” Ballard added that education about issues surrounding identity, even if a particular issue doesn’t personally pertain to a student, goes a long way toward making students more comfortable having these types of conversations.

Another idea for easing students’ nervousness about discussions of identity and exposing them to other viewpoints is to have more events like this during Freshman Orientation. Lopez-Huerta, who recently joined the Orientation Committee, elaborated, “Vassar is a place that boasts [of having a certain kind] of mindset, where you can be out of your comfort zone and be in a group of people that you wouldn’t have been in back home. But I think it’s also very easy to stay in your comfort zone here. I think Orientation is an important period of time for everyone to challenge that and learn to not be so uncomfortable [exploring different ideas].”

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