Some at Cal Poly think the addition of an ethnic studies major means more than another Bachelor of Arts degree in the catalog. They believe the new major may help deal with many underlying issues on campus concerning race and diversity.
“The purpose (in 1992, when the program was introduced) was to help with the diversity challenges we have on this campus, make us all more aware to the issues related to American minority groups and provide a home for students who are interested in studying that,” College of Liberal Arts Dean Linda Halisky said.
Over a decade later, the program has finally evolved into a major and many Cal Poly students and faculty are eager to see what change the new major will bring to campus.
Adam Serafin, a business senior who minors in ethnic studies, was with a group of 50 to 60 students and faculty at the Academic Senate meeting on May 5 when the major was approved.
“We were all pretty excited for what it means for the students of Cal Poly,” Serafin said. He added that the group began cheering once the proposal for the new major passed.
ASI President Tylor Middlestadt thinks the most important thing Cal Poly students have to gain from this major is, “a great opportunity for students who are primarily focused in technical fields – engineering, architecture and design – to get a global perspective on culture and other issues relating to what others refer to as the globalized society.”
Serafin added that engineering and architecture students are not required to have a breadth of knowledge concerning different cultures and backgrounds.
“Something like this is a huge step for Cal Poly because it is showing their support for these individual differences and promoting different backgrounds,” he said.
Some students, such as social science senior Erin Lutsko, think one possible outcome of the new major will be an increased minority presence at Cal Poly.
“Perhaps having a major in comparative ethnic studies at Cal Poly would hopefully make the institution more attractive to potential students, regardless of race,” she said. “But particularly students of color who would be interested in attending Cal Poly, but may be a little wary considering the homogenous environment both on campus and in the community.”
One of the major’s aims, Halisky said, is to help increase diversity at Cal Poly.
Although the Academic Senate overwhelmingly passed the new major, one member of the Senate was opposed to the major for monetary reasons.
“I personally think that an ethnic studies degree only prepares you to teach ethnic studies. It doesn’t really prepare you for a job,” mechanical engineering professor James Locascio said.
Locascio said he thinks resources would be spent better if minorities were recruited in to engineering, which would prepare them to earn more money.
“If we’re going to spend money from the state, I think the money is better spent on some kind of degree program that leads to a good-paying job with upward mobility,” he added.
According to several students, there are many benefits besides money for students who enroll in the new ethnic studies major.
“In terms of working in the corporate world, it’s getting more diverse and also working internationally with other companies where you’ll have to interface with different cultures. I think having some knowledge or base of knowledge in respecting someone else’s culture and mannerisms is important,” said industrial engineering senior Fanny Chavez, who minors in ethnic studies and volunteers at Cal Poly’s multicultural center.
Serafin said this major will help people break down stereotypes and understand others, in addition to giving students a better background of where other students come from.
“It’s almost like tools equipping (students) to have a successful future, because these are people they’re going to be dealing with throughout their life,” Serafin said.
Although some would assume minorities would take the most out of ethnic studies courses, white students, who make up 64 percent of Cal Poly’s population, would potentially receive benefits too.
“The studies of people of color should not just be of interest to people of color,” Cheney said. “White students should also benefit from understanding and having knowledge of the cultures and experiences of people of color in the United States.”
Middlestadt also said white students who have not had exposure to other races and cultures will benefit greatly from an ethnic studies major.
“I think this is a landmark event for this campus, specifically because of our demographics,” he said. “Some people say, ‘There’s no point in having an ethnic studies major when most of your students are white, or when you have so few students of color,’ but the point is the students who need that education the most are those who have never been exposed to (diversity).”
According to Halisky and ethnic studies department Chair Charise Cheney, the addition of this major sends the message that diversity is important to Cal Poly in terms of student relations and academic pursuits.
“It’s small, and it’s not going to solve all our problems with diversity by having this major, but it’s a nod in a direction of understanding this is important for our students to be exposed to,” Halisky said.
Middlestadt said he sees the addition of an ethnic studies major as part of, what Cheney calls, a “historical moment,” of an ongoing movement of enhancing diversity at Cal Poly.
“Since I’ve been here, there’s been a wind of change that’s started to occur on campus and there’s a lot of different things that have attributed to it,” he said.
“The Change the Status Quo conference that began about four years ago served as an eye opener for a lot of people on campus who had never been exposed to those issues,” he said. “The establishment of ‘Another Type of Groove’ has built a huge community around cultural issues and issues of identity, all of the things that get intertwined in a cultural environment. Last year, some people speculate this was the feather that broke the camel’s back to get the major.”
Kelsie Milligan is a theater sophomore who said she thinks an ethnic studies major is crucial to Cal Poly because of the racial injustices that still occur.
“If we are going to really learn from what happened (in the past), and prevent tragedies and atrocities from repeating again, it’s important to keep those issues relevant – The ‘black only’ and ‘white only’ signs have been taken down, but invisible ones still exist,” she said.
Milligan said she believes change will occur at Cal Poly with the addition of the new major.
“By having this ethnic studies program on campus I think there’s definitely going to be an increased dialogue, awareness and appreciation to all things that are different,” she said.