Students gather in the Redwood Lounge above Quarry Plaza during the first Pilipino Historical Dialogues class. The small, intimate course is taught by three elected student leaders from the Filipino Student Association with the sponsorship of Steve McKay, a faculty member in the sociology department. PHD is among few student-run courses at the university. Photo by Prescott Watson.

As the fight for ethnic studies slowly moves forward, students have turned to each other for an education they believe UC Santa Cruz has failed to provide.

For the last decade, the Filipino Student Association has sponsored the Pilipino Historical Dialogues course (PHD), a student-led seminar focused on Filipino history. It is one of the few options students have to enroll in an ethnic studies course and has been operating for a decade.

“Get to know yourself through a course that really isn’t in the traditional university canon,” said student leader Katrina Bitanga as she addressed the class of approximately 12 students this past Tuesday.

Led by fourth-years Charisse “Chai” Galano, Nicole Canonigo and second-year Bitanga, this year’s course will focus on the construction of Filipino-American identity in relation to Filipino history overall.

“The thing with Filipino history is that a large aspect of Filipino identity has a lot of American influence and other cultures’ histories,” Bitanga said. “It’s not a history that is exclusive to the nation itself. There have been other nations and other histories that have come and shaped who we are now.”

While the course is not well known outside of the Asian-American/Pacific Islander community, the course leaders encourage non-Filipino students to join the class.

“When it comes to courses like these that focus on a very specific history, on a very specific culture, you know a lot of people might not want to jump on the boat for that,” Bitanga said. “But I believe that, like with anything else, there’s always something that you can learn from this course. Part of learning is to be able to speak from your own history in relation to others’ histories.”

While student interest in the class remains steady, last year the course almost did not come to fruition.

Last year’s leaders, third-years Alyssa Suarez and Donna Estipona, took the position of student leaders after they realized very few students were willing to step into the role.

“I wasn’t planning on teaching it my second year because I wasn’t established as a student … but I felt like it’s a hidden history and if no one steps up to teach it, it’s just going to die,” Suarez said. “We’re fighting for ethnic studies, but if we don’t step up and teach our own histories, there’s no point in fighting for it.”

Suarez, who now studies history after her experiences in PHD, said that teaching the course demands a great deal from students and it adds an unreasonable amount of work.

“It’s hard for students to be students and teachers,” Suarez said. “It’s unfair and unpaid. We do this because we want to do it, for the sake of doing it. Students shouldn’t be responsible to teach their peers their own history. There are professors that study in this area … so why should the responsibility to let the students know about their own histories fall on other students and not them?”

Suarez said she loved taking and teaching the class, but that the student-initiated course shouldn’t be the only option students have.

PHD faculty advisor, associate sociology professor Steve McKay, serves on the action committee for ethnic studies. McKay applauds student initiative and believes participants can gain from student-led courses because within them students move away from “a passive kind of course where [they] are sponges.”

Nonetheless, he recognizes a need for further structure for such courses.

“[PHD is] reinvented every time it’s taught, but if it had a home in ethnic studies it wouldn’t have to be reimagined every time,” McKay said. “It would exist and persist, and it could gain recognition in the UCSC community.”

This is where ethnic studies — whether as a program or a department — would come into play.

“There is no other place where this kind of course could be taught,” McKay said. “We have students across all disciplines — sciences, arts and humanities — that are interested in this class, but there is nowhere to host this kind of course. These kind of courses, without an institutional home, would fall through cracks.”

Currently, the faculty action committee on ethnic studies is working in conjunction with student organizations, but McKay could not comment on details surrounding their work.

“There’s been a demand for ethnic studies in Santa Cruz as long as there has been a UC Santa Cruz,” McKay said. “But we’re closer than we’ve been before and people are excited about that.”

As it stands now, there is no substantial ethnic studies program or department — there are no “inner or trans-departmental” critical race and ethnic studies courses on the roster. Along with UC Merced, UCSC is only one of two UCs without an ethnic studies program.

There is, however, PHD and a few other student-initiated courses like it, such as the Asian-American/Pacific Islander Perspectives course (AAPIP), offered through the Asian Pacific Islander Student Alliance (APISA).

Galano and fellow course leader Canonigo said that before they enrolled in PHD their second years they knew very little about Filipino history and culture, but PHD gave them a place to learn about themselves, their histories and things that truly interested them.

“People choose to teach a class and take the time to research more and give students a chance to learn … seeing the small steps, essentially seeing a smaller branch of ethnic studies through this course really shows what students want,” Galano said.

What PHD does and what an ethnic studies program would offer is a place for students to discuss the histories that have shaped — and continue to shape — communities today.

“By implementing any ethnic studies, whether it’s on a micro level like our one class or a macro like having a department like at any other university, it shows that students of color go here and they do have a stake in their education,” Bitanga said. “It’s not every day you get to sign up and take a course on your own history or take a course on someone else’s history that isn’t in the traditional canon of American universities. You can never really learn about Filipino history … in the way you can learn about Plato.”