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Race on Campus

Several students of color candidly discuss the impact of race on their experience at Bowdoin and in Brunswick

Under the tenure of former president Barry Mills, Bowdoin saw a substantial increase in the racial diversity of its student body. For the 2001-2002 school year, just 21 percent of Bowdoin students identified as a race other than white; this year, according to the College’s Common Data Set, that number was 37 percent.

The experiences of students of color at Bowdoin are varied and diverse, and cannot be explained by any statistic. At the same time, many students believe that recent conflicts—the “tequila” and “gangster” parties, Cracksgiving, racially-charged verbal attacks on students in town—highlight the College’s continued struggle to make Bowdoin a welcoming place for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

“When all these things happened and people refused to understand why this hurts a lot, that’s when it got to me,” said Cesar Siguencia ’18, who identifies as Latino. “That’s when I realized my race started to become a problem on this campus.”

Skyler Lewis ’16, who identifies as black, said he is no longer surprised by racial issues on campus.  

“I’ve dealt with a whole bunch of stuff,” he said. “At first it used to really bother me, being called the n-word or someone saying some really stupid racist stuff, and eventually I just got to the point where I’ve come to expect it almost.”

Ryan Strange ’17, who identifies as black and biracial, noted that students of color have been more vocal about racial issues this year than in the past.

“There are a lot more students of color who are speaking out. And I guess that’s uncomfortable for some people,” he said.

But whether students of color speak out or stay quiet, their race nonetheless can impact their experiences throughout their time at Bowdoin.

Many students of color first saw the College through Explore Bowdoin or Bowdoin Experience, admissions programs that encourage low-income and first-generation students to apply and matriculate to Bowdoin. These programs have a greater representation of students of color than the actual student body.  

“The Experience and the Explore programs that I did, which I loved… helped me so much and I’m very appreciative because it got me to where I am now,” said Dylan Goodwill ’17, who identifies as Native American. “[But] it seemed so diverse when I came and then I was very surprised when I came and I was like, ‘It’s not as diverse as I thought.’”

Lewis voiced a similar sentiment.

“Both of the weekends that I came up seem like they’re more for minority students so you walk around campus and there are a whole bunch of minorities, especially during Experience weekend,” he said. “And you leave and you show up [for college] and you’re like, where’d everybody go?”

Victoria Yu

Raquel Santizo '19

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As students of color arrive on a campus that is less racially diverse than they had anticipated, many gravitate towards peers of similar racial and ethnic backgrounds. Affinity groups, such as the Asian Student Association (ASA), the Native American Student Organization (NASA), the Latin American Student Organization (LASO) and the African American Student Organization (Af-Am) provide one mechanism for students to connect with others who feel the same way.

“I think it’s natural to kind of gravitate towards people who are similar to you, especially culturally,” Lewis said. “And that doesn't have to be based on race but often times it is. I live in Coles Tower with three other black males....we have similar cultural backgrounds, we listen to the same stuff, we came from similar areas.”

Michelle Hong ’16, who was born in Texas to Korean parents and identifies as Asian-American, is the current co-president of ASA. She joined the group her sophomore year after realizing that she did not know many Asian students at Bowdoin.

“I joined ASA my sophomore year because I think I started wondering why I didn’t have any Asian-American friends at Bowdoin,” she said. “[I realized] there were parts of my identity that I was missing by doing what the majority of Bowdoin students do.”

Like Hong, many students of color struggled to find and maintain their racial and cultural identities as they adjusted to Bowdoin.

Goodwill, who is Sioux and Navajo, has found it difficult to preserve her cultural practices at the College. She also notices herself adjusting her language and behavior to fit in.

“I always knew I did code switching,” she said. “[But] I now notice it a lot more. I don’t talk in my normal slang or in my normal accent at all.”

Jenny Ibsen

Jeffrey Chung '16

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Jeffrey Chung ’16, who identifies as Chinese-American and is also co-president of ASA, noted that affinity groups can help create community among students with similar racial experiences.

“Michelle and I have been working a lot to change the identity of the club... to reflect more on the community and identity of the students within the club rather than promoting an image of ‘Asian culture’ to the rest of campus,” he said.

While affinity groups are a supportive environment for some students, options are more limited for students whose racial or ethnic identification is not shared by as many Bowdoin students.

Irfan Alam ’18, who identifies as South Asian and Muslim, wants to create a formal group for South Asian students to connect.

“We have a reasonable South Asian student population. I think like probably twenty-five,” he said. “We’re hoping to try to make an organization sort of like LASO, sort of like ASA,  Af-Am, things like that, but for South Asian students,” he said.

NASA currently has six members and no faculty adviser. Goodwill, one of its co-presidents, said such small numbers made it difficult for Native American students to respond to racial incidents on campus.

“Cracksgiving happened my first year here and I was so surprised that nothing was being done about it because I was really offended, but there was only me and two other girls on campus who were Native,” she said. “And they were like, well, this has been happening and like there’s only three of us, what can we do?”

Although some students find kinship befriending others of their same race or ethnicity, many students of color voiced concerns about racial segregation on campus.

“Maybe because it’s such a predominantly white institution, that people of color tend to stay together because they’re a part of the minority,” said Strange. “Maybe it’s on both sides...I guess people of color and also white people need to push ourselves to try to get to know people outside their own comfort zone.”

Dana Williams

Michelle Hong '16

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This division along racial lines has reached most aspects of Bowdoin social life. Several students of color said that race impacted their dating and hookup experiences on campus.

“Gay men of color most of the time are separate from gay white men,” said Strange. “I don’t know why that is.”

Chung, who grew up in New York City, found that the trope of Asian-Americans as perpetual foreigners created separation for him in Bowdoin’s relationship scene.

“It dawned upon me as I approached the hookup culture and as I approached the party scene here that I—however much as I could identify as an American—I still couldn’t completely fit in or I still couldn’t completely be seen as strictly the same,” he said.

Simone Rumph ’19, who primarily identifies as African-American but also Greek and Brazilian, added that Bowdoin’s dating and hookup scene made her worry about being exoticized because of her race.

“You can see it in the way people approach you. They don’t approach you in a way that other girls will be approached,” she said.

Many students notice that the parties hosted by College Houses and by affinity groups—both of which are open to the entire student body—tend to have different attendees.

“Af-Am, whenever they have parties, it’s usually people of color that go,” said Strange.

“I didn’t really process immediately that [when I] went into a College House party as a freshman I might be the only Asian person that I could see,” Chung said.

Racial divides at College Houses and other campus events lead some students of color to question whether Bowdoin’s campus is self-segregated. Strange noticed this phenomenon at some of the Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) hearings following the “tequila” party.

“After the meeting at BSG, I noticed how segregated it was,” he said. “People of color stood on one side and then there were all white people on the outside and it was just so interesting to me. I don’t know how or why that happened. And it happens in the classroom too, I notice. And I don’t know why.”

The impact of race is not limited to social groups or student government meetings. Instead, students of color say that race sometimes influences their academic experiences and their relationships with professors.

Many students expressed that the scarcity of students of color at Bowdoin places a burden on individuals to represent everyone of their racial background.

“Sometimes you feel like the class looks to you to act as a spokesperson for black students,” Lewis said.

Some students also worry that their personal behaviors might unintentionally reinforce or inscribe racial stereotypes at Bowdoin and beyond.

“I find that I do very well at academics here at Bowdoin, which is fine,” Chung said. “But I think that at the same time there’s this sort of lingering thought in my mind: Am I sort of just perpetuating the stereotype of the model minority? Like do my peers only think I’m doing well because I’m Asian or do they actually recognize all the work that I’m putting into academics?”

Darius Riley

Dylan Goodwill '17

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In addition to peer-to-peer interactions, race sometimes informs students’ interactions with faculty. While 37 percent of Bowdoin students identify as minorities, only 14 percent of faculty members do, according to the College’s Common Data Set.

“I try not to put race as a factor… [but] the professor that inspired me the most to date on this campus was a professor who identified herself as Latina,” Siguencia said. “Although she helped me so much in the field of study that I was in the class of, we talked so much about our experiences because it just correlated so much, saying that we understand the struggles that we’re facing because no one else here on this campus does.”

Student experiences with race and faculty are not always positive, however. Goodwill said she has encountered several instances of overt racism from professors.

“It was comments,” she said. “And one of them was last semester but then one of them was my freshman year. And being a freshman in your first-year seminar, and it’s your first time on campus it’s like how do you deal with that?”

Other students expressed that their families’ backgrounds—especially financial ones—have added pressure to succeed academically at Bowdoin. Siguencia said he feels he cannot become too involved in Bowdoin’s party or drinking scene because he fears his academics will suffer.

“What if—worst-case scenario—what if I were to fail? What do I have to fall back on?” he said.

Despite the importance of academics, several students commented that the burden of dealing with racial issues can be overwhelming and distracts them from their studies.

“It’s like you come to a place where you’re supposed to be safe and you’re supposed to be able to focus on your studies and you’re experiencing all of this other stuff as well, all this extra emotional baggage,” Hong said.

For many students, racially-charged campus events only added to this emotional labor. Several students expressed that they wished their professors would give greater acknowledgement to events like the “tequila” and “gangster” parties.

“You know that there are students on this campus who don’t even want to go to class because they’re so hurt by this,” said Hong.

“I am a student in your class [who] is clearly being affected by everything that’s going on,” added Raquel Santizo ’19, who identifies as Latin American, more specifically Peruvian.

While students did not expect their professors to coddle them, several said that they wished their professors would acknowledge the difficulty of the situations or facilitate discussions around them.

“My professors are fully capable of giving us not information, but facilitating thoughtful conversation the way they do in a normal class,” Alam said.

Even with the absence of faculty attention, Alam added that he felt campus discussions about race were worthwhile.

“Although [the “tequila” party] has caused a lot of tension and all these different things,  I do wholeheartedly believe that it created a lot of important dialogue,” he said. “I think that we should be able to do that without having it be prompted by incidents where people become upset or offended. So proactive engagement with these issues is important.”

Hong added that campus conversations make her more aware of racial issues in the outside world.

“I identify being a person of color more than I used to and I used to not group Asian-Americans in with people of color. And so now that I do I think I care more deeply about national issues that are going on, like the Black Lives Matter movement,” she said. “I think it would be easier to ignore if I didn’t identify as a student of color… I’m more present I guess for conversations about race than I was when I first got to Bowdoin.”

Racial issues still exist when students of color leave Bowdoin’s immediate campus. According to 2010 census data, the population of Brunswick is 93 percent white, a fact that can be jarring for students who grew up in racially diverse environments.

Santizo, who grew up in Los Angeles, noticed these demographics as she prepared to move in last fall.

“My mom said: ‘Raquel, I think you’re the only Hispanic girl in this whole state,’” she said.  

Alam noted that, while he had not personally encountered racism off campus, several female Muslim students had.

Off campus interactions serve as a reminder that, while the outside world may not discuss race as often as Bowdoin students do, racial issues nonetheless continue to play a role in the lives of students of color.

“When I graduate, part of it will be easier because I won’t be constantly faced everyday where we are so engaged and I’ll probably be able to just go about my daily life,” Hong said. “But I think once you’re conscious about race and you’re conscious about the implications of race you can’t really ever forget that.”

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