Saturday, January 12, 2013

Affirmative Action: A Personal Story

"Things Black Students Say": A video that highlights the struggles African American students face in higher education.

Freshman year, I walked to my first college English class with high hopes of discussing scintillating literature with my fellow English majors. As I walked into the small, stuffy classroom and took a glance at my peers, the excited bubble that I had been carrying inside me popped and I was left feeling inferior, intimidated, and anxious. Growing up in Historic Filipinotown, Los Angeles, I was used to seeing brown faces like mine staring back at me, but almost every single face in the classroom I had entered was white. I automatically felt awkward and displaced; there wasn't a single Pilipina in the room besides me. That moment was the first time I became aware about the marginalized status of Pilipinos in the university.

Don't get me wrong--I have no problem being around white people, but when you're the only Pilipina in your classroom and everyone around you is talking about how they read James Joyce in high school and the summer cruise they went on with their parents, you start becoming aware of how disadvantaged you are compared to the rest of the student body. The only Shakespeare play I read in high school was Hamlet, and there was no way my parents could afford a cruise even if they sold their organs on the black market. While most of my classmates came from white, middle-class, suburban neighborhoods, I came from a low-income household and attended an under resourced high school with a 25% graduation rate.

I came to UC Berkeley thinking that it was a pretty diverse school, especially since the undergraduate student body is almost 40% Asian/Asian American. I thought I would encounter a lot of Pilipinos in my classes but boy was I wrong. I was fortunate to have attended a Pilipino Academic Student Services (PASS) general meeting and learned that even though the university is 40% Asian/Asian American, there are only 2.5% Pilipinos on campus. Pilipinos are the second largest Asian group in the United States, but we are heavily underrepresented in systems of higher education. No wonder I was the only Pilipina English major I knew--there weren't enough of me on campus.

PASS's mission statement is to recruit and retain Pilipinos into higher education. Not only do they strive to increase the number of Pilipinos in the university, but they also provide resources for current Pilipino students. I decided to involve myself heavily with PASS--I became the Advocacy Coordinator for the 2011-2012 school year and worked intensely to advocate for the passage of SB 185, a bill that would have allowed the University of California system and other public institutions to consider race, gender, ethnicity, and other relevant factors in hiring and admissions. The Berkeley College Republicans--a group that likes to pretend they are for racial equality--staged a mock bake sale with specific cupcake prices based on a person's race while the bill was currently in the process of getting approved or vetoed. For instance, a white person would have had to pay $2.00 for a cupcake while an Asian/Asian American would pay a reduced price of $1.50. Not only did they exhibit that Asians/Asian Americans were almost equivalent to whites, but they also offended the student of color community and the struggles we've had to go through to make it into higher education. The student of color community responded by organizing a demonstration known as The Affirmation, where we all dressed in black clothes, held hands, and laid down on Upper Sproul to make our presence known to the larger UC Berkeley community. I'll never forget being a part of that demonstration--it was an extremely empowering moment that motivated me even more to fight for the recruitment and retention of students of color into higher education.

I am currently in the middle of finishing my senior year. I've met six other Pilipino English majors (Yay!) and I still remain active in the Pilipino community at Berkeley. I hope to attend graduate school in the future, and I feel slightly intimidated knowing that there are even less Pilipinos in graduate education. However, I know that being the only Pilipina in my field isn't something to be frightened about. Rather, it's something that I can be proud of--I empower myself knowing that I belong in this educational system regardless of the color of my skin and socioeconomic background. I empower myself by showing younger students of color that yes, we may be underrepresented in higher education but we are are here and deserve to be here. If you still have any doubts or questions, check out this article that discusses 10 Myths About Affirmative Action or leave a comment below.

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