Committed to Diversity
A student-crafted mural adds bold color to the Maher office where USD's Department of Ethnic Studies has recently relocated. The department has come a long way since it was approved by the Board of Trustees in 2003. It currently boasts four full-time faculty, 14 affiliated faculty, one professor with a joint appointment, 16 declared majors and 13 minors. According to Ethnic Studies Director Alberto Pulido, PhD, the mural affirms the stories and contributions of the students who created it.
"Our scholarship and teaching is all about telling the stories of people who have struggled for human dignity, social justice and social change," Pulido said. "The images are symbols that articulate acts of recovery, discovery and affirmation."
For the Ethnic Studies professors—May Fu, PhD; Michelle Jacob, PhD; Jesse Mills, PhD; Alberto Pulido, PhD; and the program's co-founder Gail Perez, PhD, of the English department—commitment to diversity includes dedication to broad, liberal arts instruction. Their program integrates multiple fields of study in the arts, sciences, humanities and social sciences.
In a collaborative statement, the professors said "interdisciplinary scholarship is a way to produce a critical multifaceted lens for interpreting the world by producing new ways of knowing that embrace the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality and national origin as part of the American experience."
That multi-faceted academic focus has paid off for students. Ethnic Studies graduates have found careers in such diverse fields as law, public policy, journalism, health, international relations, urban planning, education and community organizing. In addition to supporting a strong liberal arts curriculum, the department is known for combining classroom discussion with community service learning to create a program where students play a central role in their educational experiences.
Meet the Faculty
In order to foster student engagement with the community, professors must maintain their own connections and commitment to service. According to Mills, that sort of commitment is highly valued in his department.
"Faculty members with sustained, rich community connections create the best possible learning conditions," Mills said. "Classroom knowledge is both theoretical and practical, teaches students about the city they live in, and helps ensure the relevance of course topics."
Mills was recently honored by Somali Family Services for his work with Somali refugees. He said his service has positively shaped his classroom discussion.
"Working with Somalis I have learned about the culture, history and post-Independence struggles in East Africa, as well as how those legacies are alive in San Diego's neighborhoods," Mills said. "This knowledge has enriched my courses with guest speakers and even with a class reading the locally-produced (and only) US novel written by and for Somali youth."
Last semester, Pulido led a group of students in the Chicano Park-University of San Diego Documentation Project. Students worked in collaboration with community activists to record the history of Chicano Park and the individuals who shaped its development. He said the project served to validate and invigorate the local community, and exposed students to "ways of knowing outside of the classroom."
Each semester, Jacob's students participate in a Community Service Learning (CSL) partnership with the American Indian Recruitment Programs by serving as tutors and mentors for local American Indian high school youth.
"My students are able to not only read about educational disparities (the National Indian Education Association reports that less than 50 percent of American Indians graduate from high school in four years), but learn to apply critical ethnic studies theories to actively work towards dismantling such inequalities," Jacob said. "While we, as Ethnic Studies faculty, are always critical of social inequalities, we also believe it is necessary to help students learn about ways they can tackle such inequalities through daily practice."
Fu's research compares the histories of racialized groups, gender studies and the knowledge connections between grassroots activists and academic communities. She is concerned that young people feel "disempowered and trivialized when the pressure to find a high-salaried job is greater than the knowledge they have to identify and heal social problems."
"I ask students to situate themselves in this living narrative and to see themselves as historical actors whose decisions and actions not only matter but also directly affect campus climate, public culture, economic equity and movements for social justice. It requires that they act in ways that reflect critical thinking, courage and great compassion."
Perez was one of the co-founders of the Ethnic studies major. She believes that the goal of a holistic education is to teach the "whole person about the whole population."
"Ethnic Studies is perhaps one of the majors on campus most devoted to the 'compassionate service' in our mission," Perez said. "It has been a founding value of our discipline since the beginning. In addition, we have had over forty years of scholarship and experience in developing ethical models for service that go beyond charity and exemplify the more ambitious goal of service for change."
USD Ethnic Studies: A Strong History, A Promising Future
Pulido said his goal for Ethnic Studies is, "to be recognized as the leading academic department that produces the most innovative and creative applied and experiential knowledge, pedagogy and scholarship."
He also hopes Ethnic Studies will leave a lasting imprint on the character of the campus, as well as on the students and community.
Some would say it already has.
"I am happy to say that while Ethnic Studies was being created, other units on campus were also constructing plans to address the issue of lack of representation and access," Perez said.
Perez, along with former Sociology Professor Eugene Labovitz, PhD, began research for the Ethnic Studies program in 1996. Two years later, a minor was offered. In 2003, USD graduated its first Ethnic Studies majors, but the faculty's hard work was far from over.
"The Department of Ethnic Studies has played a leadership role in addressing and framing the issues of inclusion and diversity for the entire campus, such as the President's Advisory Board on Inclusion and Diversity and the Center for Inclusion and Diversity."
"The Department of Ethnic Studies has played a leadership role in addressing and framing the issues of inclusion and diversity for the entire campus," Pulido said, "such as the President's Advisory Board on Inclusion and Diversity (PABID) and the Center for Inclusion and Diversity (CID)."
According to the CID website, President Mary E. Lyons, PhD, established the center based on the recommendations of PABID. The board asked that a center be created to improve recruitment, integration and retention of underrepresented students, as well as faculty and staff.
According to Perez, there is much to celebrate in the growth of the Ethnic Studies Department, but there is still plenty of work ahead. She would like to see new professors hired in the areas of environmental racism and the significance of race and class in economic development.
"Our greatest future commitment is certainly to keep educating and learning from our amazing students who leave our program with sharp critical thinking skills and a deep sense of social justice," Perez said.
- Anne Malinoski ‘11