Addressing Race in First Year Seminars

By Kayleigh Aquino ’24, Julissa Ramirez ’23

Photo Editor, Staff Writer

March 7, 2021


For decades, liberal arts schools have implemented special courses for first-year students to help them adjust to their environment and develop a more holistic understanding of their own education. FSEMs at HWS aim to provide an introduction to college learning for students, with topics ranging from pop music to issues surrounding race and social justice. Recently, in response to the Rising Panthers’ demands, there has been a push within the institution to require all FSEMs to explicitly address race.

The idea of an integrated curriculum is not new, remarks Rising Panthers leader Mercy Sherman ‘22. She rejects the idea that these discussions can only occur in specific classes. “Black history is world history,” says Sherman, “and these conversations need to be included within all classes.” This is especially because many white students at HWS have not had to think about race, Sherman says. Although it is “not their fault,” Sherman notes that many of her white peers are “absolutely not” as informed about race and racism as they should be.

Incorporating discussions of race into FSEMs will “build a foundation” for future classes and the rest of students’ time at HWS, Sherman says. If students are not introduced to race in their first year, those living in a “bubble of comfort” will continue doing so without any push for change. Discussing race in FSEMs, however, will allow students to have more empathy for their peers. 

Sherman’s entire course load this semester is filled with classes on race, and she can tie this work back to her own FSEM, Metacognition and Social Justice with Professor Susan Pliner. The material from this course, especially work on intersectionality, has stayed with her throughout her years at the Colleges, Sherman says. Unfortunately, that is unique to this specific course.

Litzy Bautista ‘23, who also took Susan Pliner’s FSEM, has similar thoughts. By learning about intersectionality in this class, she learned that she can be both privileged and oppressed, something that she had previously not understood. Bautista and Sherman both believe if these discussions were implemented in all FSEMs, students would be more aware of the ways in which they may contribute to oppression without even realizing it.

Bautista went on to become a Writing Colleague for the same FSEM last semester. She agrees that students are generally not as informed as they should be on these topics. In part, Bautista believes, this is because different groups of people address these issues differently, and because “the people we surround ourselves with” determine the topic of conversation.

This makes exposing first-year students to these topics all the more important. Bautista believes that “everyone can learn” about these ideas when they are put in classes that will engage them. Before arriving at the Colleges, she thought she knew what she needed to about the subject of race. Looking back, though, she learned much more in her FSEM than she ever could have predicted, and she carried this with her throughout her following semesters.

If all students engaged in these conversations their first year on campus, she says, “everyone [could] learn” and become so much more involved. She adds that if a student is “not taking social sciences, [they] don’t learn” these important and essential ideas. Those on a STEM track, and even many who do take humanities classes, are able to “get around” certain goals by filling their schedule with classes that may not actually address the objectives of critically understanding social inequalities and cultural differences.

The general student body’s lack of awareness about these issues negatively impacts the experiences of students of color on campus. Zaheer Bowen ’23 shares that the small number of students of color on campus makes being at HWS “lonely and stressful.” This is only exacerbated by a curriculum that does not adequately address racism and Black history.

With regard to changes in the curriculum, Bowen says he “hopes to see more of the modern history of racism, because usually [in classes] it ends with the Civil Rights Movement, and then everyone thinks that everything is fine.” When most students are not informed about racism and Black history, class discussions become frustrating. Bowen shares that one student in one of his classes “didn’t know who Malcolm X was,” and that most students had not learned about Black history before coming to HWS.

Mary Coffey, Provost and Dean of Faculty, says that “higher education is at an inflection point surrounding race.” It’s not easy work, she confesses, and it “raises questions of responsibility.” As conversations move forward, though, there is a “desire for fast change,” which means that “students and faculty need to be transparent.”

Coffey recognizes that specific changes need to be made to the FSEM program, and she agrees with Sherman and Bautista that race should be discussed across all subject areas. Knowing “where we want to be” is just the beginning, she says; figuring out the “best way to get there” is the real challenge. Coffey gets the sense that “faculty and students want to learn more,” but are intimidated by the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. She believes that with training, they would be more inclined to engage in important discussions.

Coffey also admits that there is always personal work to be done on the topic of race. She herself attempts to keep up with current race literature, such as Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, which is one of the required reading materials for Pliner’s FSEM. If books like these were incorporated into every FSEM, she says, first-year students would be “provided [with] the framework” necessary to start having important conversations about race.

Educating our student population on Black history is essential. Before coming to HWS, many students have only learned white history. They have been able to opt out of learning about racism and having conversations about race, which continues a cycle of unawareness that cannot be broken until students are educated about these topics. By implementing discussions on race in all FSEMs, HWS can signal that these issues are of the utmost importance at our institution and take the first step toward breaking this cycle.

Featured image by Ani Freedman.

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