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Generations of Barnard alumnae discuss experiences with race, ethnicity, and safe spaces at the college

Generations of Barnard alumnae and current students came together to discuss their personal experiences with race, ethnicity, and safe spaces on campus at a town hall Tuesday night.

The event, which was hosted by the Student Government Association, featured a panel with Barnard board of trustees member and Founder of Barnard Organization of Soul Sisters Frances Sadler, BC ’72, Dean for the Sophomore Class Christina Kuan Tsu, BC ’83, General Counsel and Chief of Staff to President Debora Spar Jomysha Stephen, BC ’96, and Senior Adviser of Mujeres of Barnard Vivianne Reynoso, BC ’17.

SGA Vice President for Communications Margot Langstaff, BC ’17, said that the panel was meant to expose individual experiences with race and ethnicity on campus.

“While the administrative records often tell the categorical and quantitative history, those numbers do not always reflect the individual experience,” Langstaff said. “We will explore the history beyond the numbers, begin to fill in the gaps in admissions reports and statistics.”  

When the alumnae were asked if they felt that Barnard was a safe space for them, all agreed that exploration of identity was not fostered through current “safe space” definitions.

“Safe space wasn’t even a terminology that was used when I was here as a student,” Kuan Tsu said. “I didn’t think of coming to college for a safe space. I came for an education.”

Sadler agreed that safe spaces were not a part of campus dialogue for minority students during her time at Barnard.

“I didn’t come to Barnard to be safe,” Sadler said. “This whole idea of a safe space for me is a foreign concept that college students make. It is not supposed to be—it is supposed to make your life different.”

But alumnae said a lack of safe spaces was not necessarily negative.

“When I say this [Barnard] wasn’t a safe space, I am not at all saying that this was a bad one,” Stephen said. “It was the most amazing experience.”

However, the panelists recognized that it was often difficult to be a minority student on campus.

Barnard admitted its first student of color in 1925. When Sadler came to Barnard in 1968, there were still very few African-American students on campus—something that she said often fueled a sense of detachment among students.

“I came to Barnard knowing that there were very few African-American women at Barnard, and I didn't anticipate the level of hostility that I experienced,” Sadler said. “I had nothing in common with basically the rest of the student population. I was isolated except for my small crew.”

But Reynoso said she still sees social segregation as a problem on Barnard’s campus, even in the “supposedly post-racial society” that is often touted today.  

The solution to this issue, according to Sadler, is to actually talk about student diversity as a way to recognize and understand other students’ experiences.

“Do you really believe in inclusion? Do you really think her opinion matters to you? That is the conversation that is difficult to have,” Sadler said. “People are going to react, and everyone takes things personally. But, that's the hard conversation.”

Stephen, who arrived at Barnard in 1992, said she decided to take action and get involved with SGA in order to create her place at Barnard.

“I didn’t just want to be defined as that Puerto Rican girl, of which there were only a few of us here,” Stephen said. “I felt like I was constantly fighting to be known for more than that.”

For Kuan Tsu, who said she came from a large public high school where most of her friends were of Greek, Italian, Irish, Puerto Rican, or Dominican heritage, coming to Barnard was an opportunity for her to find herself and meet people who had shared similar experiences.

“It was the first time that I counted a critical mass of Asian-American students,” Kuan Tsu said. “I connected with them because at this time, I didn't feel Asian—I didn't feel totally American, but it was this bifurcated identity, and I came to explore it during my time here as a student.”

Nearly 35 years later, Reynoso discussed a similar experience with Kuan Tsu involving empowerment.

“Barnard, for me, was the first time ever that I got to see more people of color who were proud of themselves,” Reynoso said.  

For Stephen, proving that she was more than a minority student on campus was important.

“My ethnicity has always played a role in what I wanted to show. I didn't succeed despite my ethnicity or my history or where I came from, I succeeded because I'm kind of awesome,” Stephen said. “I was given a lot of opportunity, and I took them.” | @ColumbiaSpec


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