To be a student of color at a historically white college is to question, at one point or another, whether you truly belong there. Far from their neighborhoods and cultural roots, students of color typically build their own affinity communities, such as Vassar’s Black Student Union and the Latinx Student Union. Affinity spaces on college campuses are more than just networks of shared identities and experiences—they are places of refuge.
The ALANA (African American/Black, Latinx, Asian, Asian American and Native American) Center, a place dedicated to serving the interests of students of color on campus, has stood as a hub for ALANA organizations at Vassar. Within its walls is the office of the ALANA Administrative Fellow, who organizes events for students of color. But soon, this important position may disappear.
During Spring 2019, word spread among the center’s frequents that its Administrative Fellow position would no longer be funded by the Engaged Pluralism Initiative (EPI), essentially marking the end of the position.
The goal of the Fellow was originally defined by ALANA student leaders. “It represented an attempt to explore what vision students would have of inclusion and belonging if they were given almost full control and autonomy over how to express their vision on campus,” co-director of EPI and Associate Professor of Anthropology, Candice Lowe Swift, shared in an email statement.
In pursuit of this vision, the Fellow is tasked with the creation and execution of programming that centers around African American/Black, Latinx, Asian, Asian American and Native American communities, on and off campus. Such programming includes the ALANA Festival, First-Year Social and Leadership Retreat.
The Fellow’s day-to-day entails managing the availability of the center’s community and conference rooms for ALANA organizations’ meetings and events. The majority of interactions between the Fellow and ALANA leaders are this room-booking process. “It was very relieving to have a go-to person to ask questions, whether it was about booking rooms or to help facilitate more difficult conversations that were out of my scope as a student leader,” noted the previous president of the Asian Student Alliance and current Senior Class President Heather Nguyen ’20.
Created in collaboration with EPI, the position was founded by and previously funded in part by an $800,000 Mellon Foundation grant. The role is currently filled by Elaina Peterkin ’19 and is now funded by the college under the Administrative Fellows Program, a shift that EPI, the Dean of the College and the President’s Office discussed.
The ALANA Administrative Fellow’s current institutional funding ensures its existence—for now—but its alleged discontinuation raised questions among students about how effective it has been in supporting the cultural life and community-building programming of students of color.
For Nguyen, how to use the Fellow as a resource was once a mystery to her. “It took me a while to understand how to best utilize the role as a resource in my student organization,” she shared. But without the Fellow presence, leaders like Nguyen will lose a vital liaison between their organizations and the center.
The Mellon grant was supposed to sustain EPI for only a nine semester period, beginning Fall 2017. Given their time and funding limitations, the initiative reassessed how resources could be allocated to another project that would better meet its goals of ensuring a feeling of belonging and thriving among all members of the Vassar community. “We never intended to fund a permanent college position; doing so is not even within our scope,” shared Swift. (Vassar Stories, “Fostering an Inclusive and Affirming Community,” 03.30.2017).
This process resulted in the creation of EPI’s Qualitative Research and Curriculum Engagement Fellow, currently filled by Henry Molina ’19. “[Molina] will contribute a lot to EPI’s understanding of what the existing needs are for students of color and other vulnerable students, and how EPI might be more impactful as we move into the final years of the grant,” Swift explained.
“We need to start at the person, not [just] as a student, leader, organization member or someone doing another activity.”
Reflecting on her initial wish to be the new Fellow, Peterkin pointed to her desire to care for and advocate on behalf of students of color as individuals beyond their academic and extracurricular pursuits.
“This campus can cause a lot of harm,” she shared. “To develop a practice of care, we need to start at the person, not [just] as a student, leader, organization member or someone doing another activity.”
Administrative Fellow positions are year-long positions, a time frame Peterkin believes is not enough to build strong ties with students of color. Though she is unsure of her plans beyond the fellowship, she hopes to create meaningful change in students’ lives in the meantime.
“I want to build the center as a resource, not just for events and programming, but for other things beyond that,” she proclaimed. Peterkin is confident in the center’s ability to accomplish these goals. “With changes in leadership, it’s been hard to concretize them.”