Written By: Noya Kansky, CSU STEM VISTA 2014-15
I work for the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority and Underrepresented Student Participation (LSAMP) in STEM. It is an NSF-funded equity program designed to support students who have faced social, educational, and/or economic barriers to pursuing their careers in the STEM fields. We encourage our students to pursue graduate studies and undergraduate research opportunities, provide specialized academic advising, plan professional development workshops and other events, and we try to foster a sense of community between our 150 STEM students. And we encourage our students to challenge and change the status quo. The Cal Poly LSAMP Program not only exists to support a more diverse and inclusive body of STEM professionals, but we also encourage our students to become academics and activists in their own right. Barriers we break, and rooms we shake (metaphorically, of course).
Although I enjoy working towards building the infrastructure that will hopefully link more students with on-campus paid undergraduate research experiences, I cannot discuss my work without discussing the fantastic students that we serve. The VISTA mission, understandably, places less emphasis on direct service, but some of the most noteworthy moments of this year have occurred during my interactions with Cal Poly SLO students.
Last September, one of our students – a female Kinesiology student from a traditionally underrepresented group – approached us with a proposition:
“I want to learn how to create non-oppressive group formations in the classroom.”
We immediately got to brainstorming. This student’s zeal for equity in the classroom turned into an event, as part of our LSAMP STEM Students for Social Change series. She encouraged a discussion that allowed us to talk about how the accepted social, political, and cultural values of our world affect our understanding of whose voice is valued in the classroom. In the near future, this student hopes to start disseminating discussion takeaways to faculty members.
In January, LSAMP students attended a STEM Students for Social Change event focused on the issues around immigration. We invited UCSB PhD candidate Marla Ramírez to discuss her dissertation research on the Mexican Repatriation Program during the Great Depression, how it affects today’s issues of immigration, and the importance of student agency in supporting immigrant rights. Following her presentation, we held a panel discussion about how to better support the graduate school pursuits of students who are undocumented.
A number of our LSAMP students are additionally interested in the fields of Ethnic Studies and Women & Gender studies, are highly involved with our Cross Cultural Centers and Office of University Diversity and Inclusivity, and are interested in how they can meld their STEM knowledge/practices with activist work. In fact, one of our LSAMP students AND an allied club (RISE – Rising Immigrant Scholars through Education) were awarded the President’s Diversity Award.
Why am I writing about all of this?? What does it have to do with STEM? Or our VISTA program?? IT HAS EVERYTHING TO DO WITH THE CSU STEM VISTA INITIATIVE. Fighting poverty is political and must be an operation of community, as there are a myriad of intersecting political systems that allow for poverty to continue. This can best be summed up by black feminist and author Bell Hooks who states “If we want a beloved community, we must stand for justice, have recognition for difference without attaching difference to privilege.”
I learn so much from my supervisors, colleagues, and friends, but nothing challenges the admiration that I have for the students in our LSAMP Program, who engage in visionary thinking and new ways of knowing. They are academic activists thinking critically, challenging the common narrative, and decolonizing their mind of these oppressive political structures – questioning the textbooks of today, and writing the textbooks of tomorrow. I do not see their academic and activist lives as mutually exclusive – they are using skills and mindsets conducive to changing the world, in their academic discipline and beyond. They will encourage their future students and admirers to erase and re-draw boundaries.
In peace and solidarity, keep fighting the good fight.