‘Transcending Our Wounds of Oppression’

SIO weekend encourages students from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue higher education

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Photo by Casey Amaral
Photo by Casey Amaral

Representation in higher education matters, and Engaging Education (e2) has been working to go beyond simply admitting students from historically underrepresented communities through its Student Initiated Outreach (SIO) weekend — striving to give underrepresented students the resources, visibility and community of support they need to excel since the early 2000s.

SIO and e2 coordinators welcomed 64 admitted high school seniors last Thursday who identify as Filipinx, Afrikan/Black/Caribbean or Latinx/Chicanx. The weekend included three programs — Oportunidades Rumbo A la Educación (ORALE) was organized Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/a de Aztlán (MEChA), A Step Forward (ASF) was organized by the Filipino Student Association (FSA) and Destination Higher Education (DHE) was organized by the Afrikan/Black Student Alliance (A/BSA).

Participants gathered for a three-day, immersive, community-specific campus introduction to UC Santa Cruz to support retention for students within these communities.

“The institutions of higher education aren’t built for us and we wanted to let them know that even though that is real and that the institutions don’t really want us here, that we do belong,” said Brenda Gutierrez Ramirez, a third-year student and coordinator for ORALE. “We do deserve a place here.”

Last year, 16.5 percent of admitted students in the general population accepted their admission to UCSC, compared to the 61 percent yield rate of SIO participants who accepted. SIO programs have consistently supported an average yield rate of over 60 percent for the past five years, three times the university’s five-year average of 19.1 percent.

High school students from all over California arrived by bus on April 13, when they attended a collaborative welcome featuring a different keynote speaker from each of their racial backgrounds. The collaboration is set early on so students will become familiar with the idea of solidarity across racial boundaries.

“This is where it began — knowing about my history, my culture, but at the same time knowing about the history and culture of other folks,” said Ken Songco, director of Federal Student Services Grants for Mission College’s Asian American Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution Programs in his keynote speech.

In the days following the collaborative welcome, each organization took prospective students on social justice tours, gave workshops and introduced them to resources available on campus.

Beginning with brainstorming last summer, student coordinators worked tirelessly to put the retreat together. They were responsible for reviewing program applications from high school students, sending emails, calling prospective participants and chaperoning bus rides from across the state.

Coordinators for each program chose participants from the pool of applicants based on need. Students with low income or from under-resourced schools or communities were given priority, though coordinators said they would have liked to share the programs’ benefits with more students.

While each of the three programs accepted up to 70 participants at one point, this year the programs could only accept 25 participants each because of a decrease in housing availability.

Participants were previously housed in college lounges, but because the majority of lounges have been converted into residential dormitories, there was limited space to house students during the weekend.

Each year, SIO organizers choose a theme in order to give participants within the separate factions a way to connect with one another across racial boundaries. This year’s theme was “transcending our wounds of oppression” — wounds inflicted on students of color.

“Not only do we want to address oppression in the past and the present,” said third-year student and DHE intern DeAnna Miller at the collaborative welcome. “We are acknowledging our respective communities’ resilience and how we as a young generation can also maintain the idea of resilience.”

The outreach program is designed to show prospective students that while they may not see significant representation of their ethnicities in faculty or administration, they will have a strong support system in communities of color on campus.

“There is no other program where intentionally the students of color on campus care about recruiting, retaining and helping to graduate themselves,” said former DHE participant Tiffany Loftin. “But again that shouldn’t have to be our burden, but it is. That shouldn’t have to be our job, we shouldn’t have to worry about that, but we do. Because if we don’t, nobody will.”

Participants in the program gained insight into how race affects their participation in higher education, said Brenda Gutierrez Ramirez, and were encouraged by student volunteers and keynote speakers to come to college in spite of rhetoric discouraging them from doing so.

“We have this program so that we can do the work that we need to do, not only in college but to then change the world,” Loftin said in her keynote speech.

ORALE keynote speaker Leisette Rodriguez answers a student’s question as part of the Q&A at SIO weekend’s Collaborative Welcome. Photo by Casey Amaral
ORALE keynote speaker Leisette Rodriguez answers a student’s question as part of the Q&A at SIO weekend’s Collaborative Welcome. Photo by Casey Amaral

ORALE coordinators focused on strengthening a sense of culture and community surrounding Latinx and Chicanx identity and showing participants they have the power to create change and succeed in higher education.

“Programs like these are very important because students like us, as colored people, [come] from a culture where education is not a priority. We don’t know about these programs,” said ORALE participant Minerva Bailon. “But, if a program within the UC is reaching out to us, then that welcomes us here.”

UCSC is deemed a Hispanic Serving Institution because, with about 30 percent of its students identifying as Latinx/Chicanx, it surpasses the 25 percent threshold necessary for membership. Yet statistically, this is still not reflective of the state since California is about 40 percent Latinx/Chicanx.

“We wanted to be truthful to them and let them know that there are struggles that we go through here,” Ramirez said. “It’s not just all sunshine and rainbows. There are problems as Chicanx and Latinx students here on campus.”

Because all coordinators and volunteers for SIO weekend were students, they were able to give participants advice based on their own experiences and plan workshops that would empower participants most. This year ORALE focused on teaching students about what higher education is like as a member of the Latinx community in a predominantly white university.

ORALE participant Stephanie Monzon said learning about the underrepresentation of Latinx students and people of color in higher education influenced her to choose UCSC.

“I always thought I was the majority and right here I feel like I am,” Monzon said. “But I also feel like a minority and it’s time to represent my community and my race and where I’m from and have a huge impact and change the world.”

UCSC alumni keynote speakers stressed the importance of community and solidarity with the goal of empowering students who identify as Filipinx, Afrikan/Black/Caribbean or Latinx/Chicanx to come to college. Photo by Casey Amaral
UCSC alumni keynote speakers stressed the importance of community and solidarity with the goal of empowering students who identify as Filipinx, Afrikan/Black/Caribbean or Latinx/Chicanx to come to college. Photo by Casey Amaral

ASF focused on encouraging its participants to continue in higher education as Filipinxs are the largest Asian group in California, with 1.5 million people, but are highly underrepresented in the state’s universities.

“UCSC is historically white,” said ASF coordinator and third-year student Alecxis Delos Santos.

“You don’t really hear about Filipinos in higher education most of the time so I think it’s really important for this program to exist here.”

Program volunteers and coordinators encouraged participants to continue in higher education by emphasizing how their Filipinx culture and community can help them through college.

“For specifically Filipinx students, it’s important for them to have a peer-to-peer experience because traditionally with Filipino families, you’re taught to follow this direct path of having the right major and choosing the right career,” said Abigail Bernardino, another ASF coordinator and third-year student. “But from our community we try to emphasize that you can choose a major like art or psych and be incredibly successful.”

Coordinators incorporated these and other aspects of Filipinx culture that can make college difficult for Filipinx students.

“Filipinos have a history of a lot of anti-blackness [and] colorism and so we do tend to lean on the ‘model minority’ myth and we try to be as close to whiteness as possible because we do have colonial mentalities,” Delos Santos said. “There’s a lot of thinking of like, ‘Oh we have to be as white as possible to be successful.’”

ASF aimed to combat the model minority myth and anti-blackness in the Filipinx community by teaching participants about Filipinx culture and representing their community at UCSC.

“Coming into this community, I didn’t know a lot about being Filipinx until I learned about it as a participant myself, and so just coming to this university you’re […] trying to follow this proper path to success, but along the way you’re not finding your identity […] and that just makes things harder,” Bernardino said.

ASF and SIO as a whole have created a legacy of community through these outreach programs and have been successful in encouraging students to be involved at UCSC, Delos Santos said. Students who come to UCSC after SIO weekend often return to SIO as volunteers and coordinators.

“Students who come up on the program tend to step up in the community and take on leadership positions,” Bernardino said. “And that’s something that keeps the program going basically because students are empowered and they feel motivated to do more than just being a student.”

DHE introduces admitted students to experience the UCSC campus as Black students through personal, social and academic workshops. With Black-identifying students composing only 2 percent of the total campus population as of 2016, A/BSA and other on-campus Black organizations make it their mission to establish communal bonds to retain as many students of color as possible.

“A lot of the Black community comes from cities where at least a few teachers and peers look like them; here it is virtually none,” DeAnna Miller said in an email. “This campus is very alienating for Black people, but we show up for one another and every year we are able to add a few more people into our community because of programs like these.”

The program acknowledges the barriers Black youth face in terms of reaching higher education and continuing on to graduation.

Students who are intent on graduating from college are often subjected to being the sole representation of their race in lectures, faculty, administration, clubs, teams, etc. For this reason, there is often an overwhelming pressure for Black students to excel.

“We do have to show up super to campus, we do have to show up super to higher education because they’re trying to make college and higher education a privilege,” said Tiffany Loftin, UCSC alumna and former DHE participant. “College and higher education is not a privilege, it’s a right.”

DHE works to alleviate some of this pressure by introducing prospective students to supportive organizations on campus to show them they are not fighting the fight alone.

“This thing that they’re doing, it should keep going. I don’t think it should ever stop,” said DHE participant Taaj Saalim. “It’s a very good thing for people, people of different backgrounds and ethnic groups that aren’t really told to go to college — the ones that are told to stay where you are.”