Ozelle Bower, a sophomore at Elon University, is used to the assumption that she is Latina because of her tan appearance.
But that’s far from the truth.
Instead of sulking and complaining, Bower has used her identity to her advantage. As the student coordinator of Asian-American and Pacific Islander Awareness month at Elon, she saw the importance of educating her peers through multiple events and celebrations.
According to Ray Lin, assistant director for the Center for Race, Ethnicity and Diversity Education (CREDE), 2.5 percent of students identify as Asian-American or AAPI at Elon. Bower is one of them.
Of those 2.5 percent, Bower is also one of the less than 1 percent who identify as Pacific Islander.
Now, Bower wants the Elon community to understand the importance of this small group on campus. She says this month is the perfect time to do it
“My freshman year, when AAPI month came around, I didn’t really see that many events happening,” Bower said. “When I had the opportunity through the CREDE to be the director of this month, I thought, ‘Why not make a bigger event out of it and really showcase it?’ This is my culture, come learn about it.”
Driving the educational push
Bower’s efforts have not gone to waste. The events of the month have already begun, with a panel of four AAPI students speaking at the “Race-nicity” series for faculty and staff on April 5. The rest of the month includes trivia nights, lectures and celebrations.
“The goal is to put the spotlight on a population who feel invisible,” Lin said. “It is important not only to celebrate a culture, but also to get people to know what AAPI culture is like. To educate people on the realities of being AAPI and really seeing Asian as a race, and celebrating the various ethnicities within that race.”
The small size of the AAPI community reflects how much attention they get on campus, Lin said.
“The education field in general has a lack of focus on this particular group,” Lin said. “This is a phenomenon that is nationwide, but at Elon it’s accentuated by the fact that we only have 2.5 percent of students who identify as AAPI. A lot of times, their voices are ignored. There is a support that’s needed, and it’s not really paid attention to or talked about.”
Assistant director for the Center for Race, Ethnicity and Diversity Education (CREDE)
“This community is one that will grow if it is supported by everyone on campus, teachers and students alike,” said Molly Herman-Gallow, a sophomore who identifies as Asian-American.
Cherrel Miller-Dyce, faculty fellow for the CREDE, said AAPI heritage month at Elon is a way for students to become involved and educated on topics of culture and inclusivity.
Bower said one of the most powerful parts of AAPI month is the PhotoVoice Project. Created by Bower in the beginning of the Fall 2016 semester, PhotoVoice is a gallery of photos that reflect AAPI students’ group discussions and research questions.
“I recruited eight students who identify as Asian-American, and we’ve been meeting once every two weeks,” Bower said. “Students have expressed their need for spaces like this where they can talk about their experiences. PhotoVoice has become a space where students can talk, and it’s extremely important.”
“Photovoice was the first real experience I had being surrounded by other members of the AAPI community,” Herman-Gallow said.Lin said because of the project, students have a chance to see extensive research in this field — something they may not have been exposed to otherwise.
“It is a qualitative research method, the meat of which is group discussions,” Lin said. “The group decides what they want to explore. They take a picture of their response to a question and we choose one that is the starting point of a discussion.”
Miller-Dyce agreed and said it is important students have an outlet to express their feelings while also educating those who need it.
“It is a way for us who are not part of that community to truly hear the voices of these students,” Miller-Dyce said. “That authentic voice cannot be replaced.”
Race and ethnicity
Miller-Dyce said it is important to recognize each individual ethnicity and not mash them together in assumptions. They, too, need an authentic voice.
Ethnic differences are due to cultural, linguistic or traditional ties and are usually tied to a geographic region, but race is assigning power and privilege to certain racial subgroups according to Lin.
Because the AAPI group is encompassed together, some people may neglect the different characteristics that make each ethnicity unique. She said race and ethnicity are often confused or even used interchangeably.
“The intersection of race and ethnicity is crucial,” Miller-Dyce said. “We can’t talk about one without talking about the other.”
Lin agreed and said “people must step outside of their comfort zone to not compartmentalize people in generalizations.”
“Ethnic differences are really due to more cultural linguistic or traditional ties, usually tied to a geographic region of some sort,” Lin said. “Race is assigning power and privilege to certain racial subgroups in differing ways. And it is all a way to emit a social control. Race is a political category.”
Continuing the conversation
Bower said the conversation must continue in order for AAPI students to feel more at home at Elon, and this month is the perfect time to do it.
“We’re just like you,” Bower said. “We’re not all that different. We all go to Elon, we’re all selected here for some reason, and why not get to know your classmates? We want to talk about our culture, we want to share these experiences.”
Lin believes that true diversity is not meant to have any ulterior motives and should not be limited to heritage months.
“There needs to be more explicit inclusion of AAPI students — not just when you need an AAPI person to make a panel look more diverse or just because it’s Asian-American Pacific Islander heritage month,” Lin said.
“AAPI heritage month shouldn’t be only for a month, it should be everyday. There are still so many stories we have to tell,” Herman-Gallow said.
AAPI students and faculty, want to discuss and share heritage, they just need to be given the space and opportunities to do so, they said.
“We want people to see that we are not all the same,” Lin said. Don’t put us in a box. We want to talk about it, we just don’t have the space to do so. Instead of brushing race under the rug, we want people to see it, and we want people to see us.”