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NewsAug 16, 2017

Understanding and overcoming oppression

Transition Weekend equips diverse students for campus life

Senior Chord Shariffe speaks with freshmen at Student Transition Weekend.

First generation students and students of color have heard these words on their journey to college:

“You can’t do it.”

“Don’t get your hopes up.”

“There are plenty of people smarter than you are.”

At the inaugural Student Transition Weekend, however, more than 20 students were encouraged to “get woke” to the overt and covert systematic oppression they’ve experienced and to assert their own value as new members of our community.

Organized by the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Student Inclusion (MASI), the two-day program was open to incoming first year students who are people of color, first-generation college students, from low-income backgrounds and commuters ­— all slices of the university population that have felt underrepresented on campus.

“One of our goals is to do what we can to help students stay in college, and when we think about the people who do stay … What is their experience like?” said Amarildo “Lilu” Barbosa, MASI director. “There are people on track to finish, but their experience isn’t necessarily what they would have wanted.”

Identifying oppression

The Summer Transition Weekend, held August 11 and 12, directly addressed many of the challenges students have faced in the past and could experience on campus — from Euro-centric curriculum to a lack of community for students of color.

“There’s a lot of research that shows that as people develop a greater sense of critical consciousness — as they can understand their socialization, understand how oppression impacts them — they’ll be more motivated to work towards completion or graduation,” Barbosa explained.

During one session, Barbosa and Jennifer Castro of the Urban Scholars Initiative helped students to recognize negative messaging and to reframe some of those negatives into positives.

“Understanding what systematic oppression is is the first step” to conquering it, said Castro.

For example, when Castro’s brother came to America from Puerto Rico, his school “taught the Spanish out of him,” instead of encouraging him to embrace his upbringing and highlighting the positives of being bilingual. According to Castro and Tara Yosso’s Community Cultural Wealth model, studies have shown that bilingual people have an increased attention span. Growing up as a translator for family members also increases their ability to teach others and communicate ideas.

Students were invited to share examples of systematic oppression from their own pasts and the negative assumptions they’ve internalized from society, such as hearing they weren’t college material because their parents did not go to college or because of their race, even from people within their own communities. During the session, students wrote those experiences on sticky notes and placed them on a board. Later, they removed the papers one by one as they each affirmed something positive about themselves.

“I am capable.”

“I am resilient.”

“I am ambitious.”

“It was very emotional,” said Destiny Medina, an 18-year-old Puerto Rican-American from Lawrence. “Having people be so honest about their stories, it’s freeing.”

A female student reads notes written by her peers.
A student reads notes written by her peers.

Becoming change agents

Another session brought together a diverse panel of students who spoke about their lives at Lesley, from the challenges of commuting and holding a job as a full-time student to handling discrimination.

Chord Sheriffe, a senior who has three jobs in addition to classes, emphasized that students are responsible for ending systematic oppression and establishing themselves on campus.

“I had to create space,” said Sheriffe, a peer leader for the summer program, who also identifies as a black, queer male. “If you’re in a situation where there is no group you feel a connection to, your ultimatum is to make space, to find people with the same aspirations that you do. Hold yourself accountable. Hold others accountable.”

The leadership also shared ways students can find support and connection points on campus, something that helped put Medina’s mind at ease.

After attending majority Latinx schools, the transition to a new demographic was scary.

“It’s going to be a big adjustment, but there are a lot of resources,” Medina said. 

MASI will continue to work with the summer program students as well through follow-up sessions in the coming year.

“We’re being really intentional about the space that we create – not just about getting people together,” says Barbosa. “We’re always trying to assess and improve and enhance their experience.”