600 to 20,000: Moving from a Small University to the CSU

Written by Casey McCullough, CSU STEM VISTA 2016-17 Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority and Underrepresented Student Participation in STEM

Casey robes.jpgI graduated on May 28th, 2016 from Northland College, an environmental liberal arts school in Ashland, Wisconsin, with a BS in Sociology and a BA in Gender and Women’s Studies.  When I decided what I wanted to study in college, many folks asked me, “Well what will you do with those degrees after college?” Evidently the answer is, “WWOOF[1] for 3 weeks in Oregon, then move from Wisconsin to San Luis Obispo (SLO), California to work as an AmeriCorps VISTA dedicated to increasing support for undocumented students at Cal Poly.”

My graduating class at Northland was 132 students; the entire student population was around 600 students. You can imagine the culture shock that I’m still experiencing, as 20,000 students return to Cal Poly SLO for another academic year. Northland might not necessarily reflect academia at large, indeed, especially not the 3rd largest university system in the United States. However, my experiences as an undergraduate at an environmental liberal arts school were vital in defining who I am as a woman, an academic, and a social justice advocate.

I entered Northland 4 years ago with the intention of studying Natural Resources with an emphasis on Wildlife.  After completing my general education courses, which all revolved around Lake Superior, our beautiful neighbor, I began diving deeper into my projected area of study. I had room for one more course during Winter 2013, and thought that “Sociology of Gender” would be a fun one. Little did I know that it would be pivotal for my life. I’d often stay after class drilling my professor and future  advisor, Dr. Angela Stroud, on the benefits of studying sociology, disclosing that I couldn’t help but constantly notice how power and privilege defined every social interaction I had or witnessed.  Throughout the course, my own social privilege and oppression as a white, middle-class, lesbian-identified female became more and more apparent to me. Needless to say, this “fun” class became a fundamental milestone for my studies, my future, and my identity.

Casey Icy.jpgAs I began to delve into the depths of Sociology and Gender and Women’s Studies, I became familiar with various academics and their styles. Inspired by Gloria Anzaldúa, bell hooks, Judith Butler, and Michel Foucault, to name a few, I saw my developing role as an intellect: to identify social structures that impede or advance particular members of a society; to address and challenge the privileges of those around me, myself included; and to re-envision life outside of these toxic social structures laden with injustice. My particular location at a small college in the remote Northwoods of Wisconsin allowed me to view the world from a different and slightly removed perspective. Instead of resigning to the rules of a white hetero-patriarchal society, we were encouraged to challenge and dismantle oppressive structures and to garner solutions for the problems posed by those with power. I learned early on not to settle for mediocracy; my job as a student was to continuously expand my world view and often challenge what privileged me.

Social justice is intricately tied to Northland College, where folks have joined the community and successfully mobilized against the largest proposed open-pit mine in the world, and are currently organizing against a proposed CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) that would be located 7 miles from the school. While my peers studied and protested against environmental degradation, I often studied historical and contemporary social injustices and their subsequent movements. During the Fall of my senior year, I made and distributed a zine called “Environmental Racism and Environmental Justice,” tying together Northland’s passion for environmentalism and my passion for social activism. It was impossible for me to differentiate between what I was studying and the problems that plagued our society; I tried to keep social justice at the core of every movement I made.

Casey Northland.jpgWhile it’s difficult for me to imagine what my education would have looked like from any other college, I’m becoming increasingly aware that life at Northland didn’t fully prepare me for life at a much larger university. As I transition from being a student at a school of 600 to working at a university of 20,000 students, I’m learning how to smoothly navigate campus structures in order to advocate for support for undocumented students. My citizenship status is another privilege I was not always conscious that I had, but my education has prepared me to critically analyze barriers that undocumented students face and to strive for a world where all students, regardless of country of birth, have the opportunity and resources to complete a degree in higher education.

[1] Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF)


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