Reflecting on 50 years of ethnic studies at where it all started

Over the course of five months, from November 1968 to March 1969, protesters from the Black Student Union and the Third World Liberation Front chanted, “On strike, shut it down!” The protesters wanted to expose the autocracy and issues of racism found on the university campus.

They also wanted a more inclusive environment for people of color. Little did they know, the five-month protest would help implement the first ethnic studies program in the country at San Francisco State University, leading to the change of university curriculum across the country forever.

Fast forward to today, as the university celebrated the 50th anniversary of its College of Ethnic Studies by having a week dedicated to the college called “Practicing Ethnic Studies: Past, Present, and Future” Oct. 7, 10, 11 and 12.” Events included discussions with ex-strikers on their poetry and books, a discussion led by College of Ethnic Studies Dean Amy Sueyoshi, a California State University Council meeting on Ethnic Studies on Oct. 11 and the 50th anniversary gala on Oct. 12.

Reflecting on the remarks Sueyoshi shared on Oct. 10, she talked about the positives of ethnic studies and the future of the field as a whole.

“Even if you’re not a major in the College of Ethnic Studies, you have a higher graduation rate if you take one to three classes,” Sueyoshi said, reflected on the comments she shared during the conference. The data was pulled from institutional research, which she is still compiling. “We’re thinking about pathways for students to complete their baccalaureate degree through an online program,” she said about the future of the subject.

Ben Kobashigawa, a retired Asian American studies professor at San Francisco State provided historical background on the subject. He was the middle generation of ethnic studies workers, between the pioneering group of the 1960s and the third generation of young instructors teaching the subject today. The interest and interactions between academia and community are much different now than it was with the older generation, he said.

“I think with the newer generation, the faculty that I’ve seen, at least with San Francisco State, there’s a re-engagement with the community and the political activism,” Kobashigawa noted.

Historically, Kobashigawa says the expansion of ethnic studies subject groups from the three original subjects of Africana Studies, Latino/Latina Studies and American Indian Studies helped create more growth for new departments, such as more Asian American Studies subjects.

Other current professors and lecturers from the Asian American Studies Department commented and reflected on the current field of ethnic studies, the political aspect of the subject and how the future of ethnic studies would shape up to be. Ethnic studies is not just Asian American studies, but studies of other ethnicities of color who are marginalized and oppressed.

Francis Wong, a lecturer in Asian American studies at San Francisco State discussed some positives and negatives about ethnic studies that benefit the students taking courses in the field.

“It’s shown to have important positives of people getting through school, graduating and bringing that experience into the workforce,” Wong stated.

Wong also noted, however, that there is a lack of recognition of ethnic studies as a discipline, which will impact the amount of resources to hire new faculty and other staff.

Influencing more colleges and universities to have more programs and colleges of ethnic studies is vital for students’ success in the classroom and entering the workforce.

Wesley Ueunten, an associate professor in Asian American studies discussed how it’s important for scholars and instructors to advocate for ethnic studies courses and programs, but it’s ultimately up to the students to direct change.

“I think it comes down to students asking for it and my role as an educator to empower students to teach them about the history of ethnic studies,” Ueunten said.

Sueyoshi added some thoughts about influencing more universities to have more colleges and programs of ethnic studies.

“I think first and foremost, universities really need to think seriously about the value of ethnic studies curriculum in terms of the demographics of the nation as well as the kind of curriculum and pedagogy that ethnic studies brings,” she added.

The current political climate has provided ethnic studies with more importance to the state of the field, what it means to take ethnic studies classes and be more socially and politically aware of issues, such as race and gender. Ethnic Studies also provides students with the necessary tools and educational insight to make informed political decisions.

Sueyoshi thinks that a college education helps open up people’s minds, making them think more critically and compassionately about the world.

The future of ethnic studies appears bright, one that would have the subject be taught at all levels. Wong thinks that it would be beneficial if ethnic studies was taught at all grade levels.

“The result would be students who are aware of the history of this country, aware of the issues that gender and race politics play, aware of the solutions that we could be carrying out in making our society better,” Wong said.

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